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Re-Learning my ABC's

Katie Zhou

When I was five years old, during a swimming lesson, my classmate and I were chatting about our backgrounds and families. “I’m half-Chinese and half-American”, she said. 


I thought to myself: I was born in America to Chinese parents, an ABC: American-Born Chinese. So, that makes me half- and half- too, right? 


When my dad picked me up that day, I was excited to share. “Daddy! My friend and I are both half-Chinese and half-American!” 


My dad looked me in the eyes and said, very seriously, “Katie, she meant that she was half-white, and you are not. I have to keep that in mind too: no matter how much I work on my English, people will never truly see me as American, because I look Chinese. You are Chinese and you always will be, so don’t forget that.”

I know now that my dad ends up being right about almost everything, and as with all of his other advice, I should have listened to those words instead of learning the hard way. I’d never consciously thought the words “I wish I were white”, but when I was younger and I fantasized about a world where I got everything I’d ever wanted, my character always had light hair and light eyes. For most of my life, I’ve tried to forget my Asian identity, perhaps consciously, perhaps unconsciously; but no matter how hard I have tried, people haven’t let me.


The next-door neighbor who yelled across the backyard to ask me if I spoke English, after he’d seen and heard my sister and me talking in English before, didn’t let me forget. Neither did the people at school who jeeringly questioned if I “see in wide-screen”. Neither did the man who pestered me with “Where are you from? No, where were you from before that?” until I finally said “I was born here and I’ve lived in five states. Maybe that makes me more American than you.” That was at ten years old. 


That ten-year old girl just wanted to be accepted, to be ‘like everyone else’. That was hard enough to do as someone whose family moved around frequently, but it was even more difficult if the neighborhood I was moving to was more predominantly white.


The last time my family moved to a new state, my mom called the local middle school to get an idea of the racial demographics:

“How much of the school’s community is Asian-American? I want to make sure my kids will feel comfortable,” she explained on the phone. 

The principal replied, “Seven”. 

“Oh, seven percent? That’s pretty good - ”

“No, ma’am, seven students in the middle school are Asian.”


What is a new kid to do when she’ll stick out no matter what, but all she wants is to fit in? 


As I began to realize that I couldn’t take away my Asian identity entirely, I tried to distance myself from it. I thought that if I could purposely reject the Asianness that everyone else saw when they looked at me, they would see me as more like them, more acceptable. 

Maybe poking fun at my race, like white people did to me, could help me do that. 


In high school, I heard one of my white male friends doing an exaggerated imitation of an Asian accent, and instead of verbally taking offense, I started doing it too to get a few laughs. I did it in front of my mom when I had friends over, and she would try to laugh with us with a strange look in her eyes that I now recognize as pain. 


At work a couple of years ago, a white male supervisor jokingly called me ‘scary' for being a ‘small Chinese girl’, and I played along, doing my best The Grudge impression despite standing tall at 5’9” and The Grudge being Japanese. I laughed, and so did the three other white people listening. 


I thought that because people were laughing, they thought I was funny; really, they were laughing at my race, flattened and reduced to a caricature.


Last summer, in the occurrence and aftermath of the protests supporting the Black Lives Matter movement, I couldn’t help but notice that many people in Asian communities, still harboring anti-Black sentiments and a desire not to ruffle any White feathers, stayed quiet on issues of police brutality and other injustices against Black people. But in being critical of their inaction, I realized that my own actions in the past weren’t far off: I had let offensive jokes slide and laughed along, and I hadn’t stood up for myself, let alone others. I’m ashamed to admit that it took the loss of multiple lives for me to understand why, as a person of color, my attempts to downplay race and privilege in the past were harmful. Coming to that realization, however, has given me the opportunity to reflect more candidly on what being Asian in America means to me.


Many people, Asian and non-Asian, are misled to believe that the ‘model minority’ myth makes Asianness closer to whiteness, ignoring the harmful reality that such a monolithic classification ironically always paints Asian people as an ‘other’ while also pitting them against other minority groups. It hasn’t even been 100 years since the forced relocation of Japanese-Americans to internment camps, but there still exists a belief, an Asian-American dream, that if Asian people work hard enough, make enough money, make enough connections, say enough of the right things, we will have “made it”. We will be enough. 


It has taken me my whole life to grasp that as long as I insist on minimizing the importance of my race and ethnicity in my personal identity, and as long as I strive to be “treated like a white person”, I will never be enough. On the contrary, my sense of self-love and awareness of my racial identity have been inextricably linked, especially as I have read and watched and listened to other AAPI stories and connected them to my own.


Being an ABC, or, for that matter, any Asian in America, is a complex and deeply personal identity, but we will always find common ground in shared experiences, stories, and emotions. Some tidbits are lighthearted, like receiving a red envelope every Lunar New Year. Others celebrate major milestones of Asian media representation: ecstatic to finally see a down-to-earth rom-com protagonist who looked like me, I was one of many Asian-American girls who watched “To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before” more times than they care to admit.  


But other articles, like those about Atlanta shooting victim Yong Ae Yue, a selfless mother who, like my mom, loved cooking for anyone who showed up, who frequented the same Asian grocery chain that my mom goes to, bring me to tears. It’s difficult to watch and read about the increasing violence against AAPI people, and my first instinct is sometimes to stew in my own pain, fear, rage, bitterness. But then I remind myself that I don’t face this alone. When I think of the millions of Asian people in this country that I can look to for strength and resilience, people who have always understood the importance of community, the sadness swells into a powerful feeling of belonging, pride, and love for myself and my ancestors. 

I’ve learned more about myself and my Chinese-American identity in the last year than I had in the twenty years before that, and yet I am still learning. The term ‘ABC’ implies something that exists in its entirety already, a set of simple, basic principles, but this ABC identity is a part of me that is continuing to mature and develop every day.


My parents came to the United States for a better future for themselves, my sister, and me, so that we could be who we were meant to be. So when I first heard my dad say that he would always be seen differently by the people in this country, I was confused, hurt, even angry. But as I get older, as I learn more about myself and the world, I’m beginning to understand what he meant. 


Remembering - no, embracing - who I am and where I came from has helped me discover and begin to develop my greatest strengths. When I drift into daydreams of my perfect world nowadays, my character has the same straight black hair and crescent-moon-shaped eyes that I see in the mirror. She’s driven but no dragon lady, on the quiet side but not a China doll. She was born and raised in America, but she’s also proudly Chinese. 

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