Disclaimer: This opinion piece features strong language to emphasize the intended message. The strong language is not used with a meaning to offend.
“Go back to your country!”
I think I was maybe six or seven the first time I heard someone scream those words at my mother and me. We were in the parking lot of a Rhode Island strip mall that was home to a Shaw’s supermarket, a JCPenney’s, and the now-defunct Strawberries music store where I bought my first Jonas Brothers CD.
The man who yelled at us, as we were walking back to our car, was wearing a hat emblazoned with the words, “VIETNAM WAR VETERAN”.
As I grew older, I developed some kind of fight or flight (mostly flight) response every time I saw one of those hats. Even if their wearers weren’t calling me a gook under their breath, their eyes communicated a loathing so grotesque that it was enough to strike a terrible fear into my elementary school-aged heart.
It’s that look that says you don’t belong here; you are not wanted. You cannot explain that look to someone who has never received it. You can only know what it is if you have felt it in the pit of your stomach.
Your chest will tighten so much you think you cannot breathe. You will feel so full that you could vomit, yet somehow in your heart, you will feel so unbelievably empty. You will feel the greatest shame you have ever felt in your life about something that is impossible for you to change.
And you will catch your reflection and immediately look away.
I am an American. I was born at Yale New Haven Hospital, and I’ve lived in Connecticut for my whole life.
I am an American. I grew up watching Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, I drink from red solo cups at parties, and I make a damn good pumpkin pie.
I am an American.
So why is it, that for my entire life, I have been made to feel like I am not?
To much of the United States, Asians still have the face of the foreign Other. The term “Asian American” wasn’t coined until the 1960s, even though I’ll bet on my life that Asian Americans existed years before that.
Many people would still rather call us different things. Oriental. Coolie. Mongoloid. Yellow. Jap. Chink. Chinaman. Gook. I can personally attest to being called four things on this list, but that number is limited only to what I have been told to my face.
I was probably a sophomore in college by the time I realized that these are the words used to scare us into rejecting who we are. These are the words used to construct an Us vs. Them narrative that tricks us into believing that one day we can be seen as American if we behave, and if we are not too Asian.
Racial slurs are words used to conflate Americanness with whiteness.
Nowadays, I think most of my friends couldn’t imagine a time where I wasn’t spouting off a story about my family’s history (my grandfather snuck into the U.S. to avoid the racial quota!), reminding people about the Chinese Exclusion Act (it wasn’t repealed until 1943!), or crying about Mitski and Japanese Breakfast (because we love Asian American lady indie musicians!).
The walls of my bedroom in my apartment are plastered with pictures of four generations of my Chinese family. My bookshelves are filled with books about Asian American history and stories written by Amy Tan, Celeste Ng, and Aimee Phan. A profile of me is featured prominently on the website of the UConn Asian American Studies Institute.
But before all of that, there was a time when my mother came into my Kindergarten classroom to give a lesson on Lunar New Year, and I begged her to never come back again. There was a time when I was too eager to thank my classmates for telling me that I had “big eyes for an Asian”.
It was a short three years ago when I let the people I called my “friends” make jokes about me using an abacus in Calculus class instead of a calculator. They’d openly joke about me being their token minority, yet I still attached myself to them, because I was convinced that if I outlasted these trials, then I would finally be accepted. It never happened, but I learned a valuable lesson from it.
Never let anyone make you believe that you have to earn the right to be seen as an equal.
There is nothing in the fine print of the United States Constitution that says you have to be white to be American, yet it seems like along the way, it was just assumed. This concept was forced on minority groups through systematic assimilation and acculturation, imprisonment, and outright denial of citizenship based solely on race.
But I’ll let you in on this country’s best-kept secret: your identity as an American is how you define it to be.
It has nothing to do with race or ethnicity.
It has nothing to do with how many pizza Lunchables you’ve eaten or how many generations of your family have lived in the United States.
It has nothing to do with English being your first language or how close your life is to a Norman Rockwell painting.
If you let somebody else tell you who you’re supposed to be, then you will be sacrificing yourself piece by piece until there is nothing left. You should never have to work to please those who are too ignorant to view or treat you as an outright equal.
I’ve been there. It’s not worth it.
So, if you are someone who has ever, ever been made to question your place in this country, the next time you look in the mirror I want you to see what I see in you: someone who belongs.