Memory #1: Playground Woes
We were playing a game of tag on the playground at the YMCA during my brother’s baseball practice. My sister and I joined the other players’ younger siblings to swing, show off our monkey bar skills, and finally play tag. It was all fun and games until one of the little boys asked what my ethnicity was.
“I’m Chinese American,” small, elementary-aged me replied proudly.
“Oh! China!” came the quick response.
Before I knew what was happening, this little boy egged on every child on the playground to chant with him: “Chi-na! Chi-na! Chi-na!” (And not in a kind, we’re-cheering-you-on way.)
Unfortunately, I happened to be “it” at the time, so I tried extra hard to tag another person and get rid of this unnecessary attention. Confused and upset, I just couldn’t catch them, and all of a sudden, as kids do, this little boy changed the rules of the game.
“You can’t climb on the playground when you’re ‘it,’” he announced. “Only the other kids can climb.”
The rule change was accepted without second thought.
Thus began the real frustration. Somehow my younger sister also ended up being “it” (another unfair rule change in the middle of our game?), so the two of us ran in circles on the ground while the other boys and girls stood on the structure, taunting us by hanging off platforms until we got close, and then scurrying back into the middle of the play structure, out of reach.
Over and over it happened. The little ringleader boy would stick his foot out. We’d see it and feverishly lunge toward it to tag him, and he’d pull back just in time and retreat to safety to laugh at us. All the while, the chanting continued.
“Chi-na! Chi-na! Chi-na!”
Suddenly, baseball practice was over. Parents came to pick up their children, and everyone dispersed. Practice ended, the game of tag ended, and so did my innocent pride for my heritage. I was humiliated.
I held my dad’s hand as we walked across the grass toward the parking lot.
“What country were they shouting?” he asked gently.
“China,” I mumbled, and then all was quiet.
Up until now, that’s the last time I spoke of this event to anyone, ever. Shame has that effect. As a child, I learned many things that day, but most of all, I learned to be ashamed my heritage was different.
Memory #2: The Eyes
This isn’t necessarily a single memory as it is a collection of them. It happened so many times I can’t even count or recount them all. But basically each time was the same:
Chinese anything came up in conversation—Chinese culture, Chinese names, Chinese food—and one of my little Caucasian friends would impulsively put their fingers to their eyes and squint to make it look like they had “China eyes.” Sometimes gibberish would come out of their mouths as they spoke “Chinese.”
Occasionally moms and dads would scold their children, but most of the time parents weren’t present. To say it was awkward is an understatement. Sometimes the kids didn’t even know I was Chinese, and after a few initial times of telling them to “please stop because I am Chinese and it isn’t nice to make fun of people,” my spunk shrunk and I shut up.
Now, much later in life, every once in a while close friends and I will joke about my eyes, but there’s a definite line between mutual joking with a friend and mocking someone’s (or a whole people group’s) appearance.
It took me a lot longer than the playground incident to learn this lesson as a child, but learn it I did: it’s not cool to look different from other people. I learned to be ashamed of my appearance because I wasn’t white.
Here and Now
Were those children trying to make me ashamed of who I was? No, I don’t believe so. Children do and say inappropriate things all the time. That’s how they learn. I’m sure I said and did plenty of offensive things too when I was young. There is grace for all.
Why then am I even bringing this up? Because although there is indeed grace, there’s also a very real impact these events had on my perception of self. Today, I am so grateful for the diversity of my upbringing. I’m proud of the fact I grew up in a Chinese American family, and I’m proud of my heritage. Yet it’s taken some time to regain this pride.
I know now the “yellow on the outside” isn’t something to be ashamed of; it’s something to be treasured. I am not less beautiful because I am Asian, and the unique heritage I carry is a gift and an honor.
In a time when there is a huge push for “tolerance” and “acceptance,” perhaps it’s wise to remember the actions which seem most insignificant often have the deepest and most long-lasting impact on those around us.
Thanks for reading! There are many issues I didn’t address in this post, and I would love to hear your thoughts on them:
- Is there an imbalance between the passion around ballot issues for equality and the willingness to identify & adjust our personal, everyday biases and shaming practices?
- If so, how do we address everyday shame-creating actions/conversations?
- How do we help young people process these shameful moments/interactions?
- What are ways childhood experiences shaped how you view(ed) yourself (race-related or not)?
- How did you process these experiences?
Leave a comment, send an email, or come share a cup of coffee with me and tell me what you think in person!