Growing up, I was an awkward, studious, and soft-spoken girl. I was the epitome of a stereotypical Asian-American.
From my kindergarten to middle school years, I grew up in a predominantly white town in northern New Jersey. Looking back, my elementary and middle school self never felt ostracized from my community for being Asian, because I tried my best to act white.
I never realized there was anything wrong with my third-grade classmates performing hand clapping games. They would pull their eyes up, down, and stretch them to the side while saying “Chinese, Japanese, Indian.” I laughed with them, because what is the harm in a hand game? The teacher didn’t stop it, my friends thought it was funny, and I didn’t realize the fault in laughing about the stereotypical facial features of certain ethnic groups.
But now, as a wiser 16-year-old, I find it hard to ignore what happened in the past. What I once laughed about is something that I realize is the foundation of the prejudice that Asian-Americans experience today.
For the last three years, I have lived in Falmouth, and attended Falmouth High School. Living in this quaint, but homogeneous town, I have noticed the unintentional ignorance that can arise from those who are simply not exposed to other cultures.
In school, we cling onto the idea that racism is literally and figuratively black and white, but what about everything else? We are taught within the framework of two races, rather than white and other, or majority and minority. With an idea as complex as racism, schools only scratch the surface of the most simplistic points.
Maybe you will hear about Japanese internment camps during a lecture on World War II, or learn about 19th century Chinese labor in a paragraph of your textbook, but that’s it. The discrimination that Asians faced and continue to face has never ended; it is only ignored.
I would overhear kids impersonating the Asian language by saying “ching chang chong,” despite it being nowhere similar to the language. When my classmate looked at me and said I had small eyes and laughed, I laughed with them. Then I would go home and take a long look in the mirror and flush in embarrassment for looking Asian.
Because of this, growing up as an Asian-American is hard, sometimes embarrassing; the ability to embrace your race is hindered by the disdain it is looked at from others.
I had two choices growing up: either embrace the fact that I am an Asian-American, or try my best to act white. I chose the latter.
My friends would “compliment” me and say, “Don’t worry, Hanna, you’re not a stereotypical Asian. You act white.”
I acted white, I fit in, it was what I have been trying to make myself out to be. But now, I realize there is nothing wrong with being Asian. I embrace the fact that I am not the majority, take pride in my Korean culture, and would not want to be anything else.
Asian-Americans are known as the model minority: hard-working, successful, and obedient. But do not call us the model minority because we have achieved a greater degree of socio-economic success.
Gaining a foothold in middle class society has been a struggle for past immigrants including Germans, Irish, and Italians, but because Asians are not “white passing” we continue to be at a disadvantage. Do not call us the model minority because we seldom challenge white superiority as much as other minorities. Do not acknowledge our presence in industry as an example for other minorities when we still face discrimination throughout the workplace. Stop impersonating Asian accents for comedic ends; just because a name, sign, or phrase “sounds” Asian does not give permission to ridicule it.
In light of the recent presidential election and social debates, issues regarding racism are at a forefront. I have experienced what it is like to live in areas of diversity and areas where the number of minorities in my graduating class can be counted on one hand. But I have found that the root of racism in all people comes from ignorance and the failure to educate themselves. The inability to open one’s mind and embrace differences, rather than ignore them, is a foundation for racism.
The time for us to come together and address the profound discrimination Asians and other minorities experience in America is now. It is 2017. Let us no longer be ignored.
Hanna Chea, 16, is a Falmouth resident.