Growing up Asian American
"China doll." "Oriental slut." "Chink."
Fortunately, I can say that as an Asian American growing up in cosmopolitan San Francisco, I've never been taunted with demeaning names and insults such as these. No blond-haired, blue-eyed boy in my kindergarten class had ever pulled his eyes at the corners, making them sharp and pointed to ridicule me. At the schools I've attended, which have all been a part of the public school system, at least 70 percent of the students were Asian American, making Asian Americans much more of a majority than a "minority." Extreme racial slurs and blatant prejudice towards the Asian community have been as foreign to me as soy sauce on gelato.
Earlier this year, as I was speaking with my high school counselor about the colleges where I plan to apply, I told her that Pomona College in Claremont was one of my top choices because of its strong English program. She looked across her desk at me, and I could see that the creases around her eyes were deepening with her skeptical expression. She gently reminded me that I had told her diversity was one of the major factors in my college choice, and that Pomona wasn't known for being a "diverse campus."
"Sure, they'll say in their brochures that they're a 'diverse' campus," she said. "But 'diverse' to them means about 25 percent 'minorities' and 75 percent non-Hispanic whites. Is that the kind of 'diverse' you want?"
Since I've been raised in San Francisco for the past 17 years of my life, I've never had the experience of living in an area where Asian Americans were a minority. My experience with prejudice has been indirect if at all.
But at the beginning of this summer I began reading "Yell-Oh Girls!," an anthology edited by Vickie Nam, of poignant raw personal writings by young Asian American girls and their experiences growing up in a white-dominated America. I read about feelings of pain, isolation, and disenchantment to which I could have never related. For instance, in "Funny Girl," 19-year-old Diya Gullapalli of Virginia writes of the ignorant jokes that her white high school friends often made, and the one comment from her boyfriend that forced her to take a closer look at their relationship: "'Let us to be going to the Kwikie Mart, little Indian girl,' my white boyfriend declared . . . using his best taxi driver accent. 'I will like to be taking you to this place of beef jerky obtainment and perhaps to be procuring a Slurpee as well.'"
In another excerpt, "Best Friends," 21-year-old Jennifer Li of Maryland writes of her best friend from high school who just didn't know when to stop when it came to using racial slurs. Li writes: "Everyone at school used to call us twins because we had short hair, glasses, and we dressed alike. One day, while we were going to class, [my best friend] blurt out, 'Maybe if I painted my skin yellow, dyed my hair black, and had slanty eyes, we could be twins.' I stared at her in shock, not believing the words had come out of her mouth. This, I thought, from a girl who supposedly understood me the best."
Although I knew that racism against Asian Americans was far from extinct in America, I never realized exactly how much it permeated our society until I perused the pages of this book. Coincidentally, after reading half of the anthology, I also skimmed an Asian American studies text I picked up at my school, "The New Faces of Asian Pacific America: Numbers, Diversity, and Change in the 21st Century," which divulged that out of about 420 million citizens in the United States, only 12.5 million are of Asian descent -- if I were to tell that to any Asian American living in San Francisco, there would be at least a 50 percent chance that he or she would be flabbergasted. That's less than 3 percent of the U.S. population! Dating all the way back to 1882 when former President Chester Arthur signed the Chinese Exclusion Act, much hostility has always surrounded Asians and their customs, creating an oppressive cultural clash between what is Asian and what is American. "Yell-Oh Girls!" unclouded my eyes, further revealing to me the harsh truth of American society: Prejudice continues, and the fight for equality is far from over. The anthology helped stir up in my memory experiences that happened to me years ago, but I still unknowingly carry with me.
The one memory that remains most vivid occurred about eight years ago. In my neighborhood, which has a fairly even mix of different ethnicities, my house is notorious for calling meter maids to ticket vehicles that park even two inches into our driveway. Not surprisingly, it was one of those days again when someone made the mistake of parking into our driveway, and my father grew livid because he couldn't back out the car. The next thing I knew, a traffic ticket was on the windshield of that car, and the blond-haired woman who owned the car came out a few hours later to see it. The doorbell rang, and my brother opened the door. Furiously waving the ticket in her hand, the woman scowled at him. "Chinaman," she uttered, walking away from our house and driving off.
After being called something as degrading as that, who would feel happy to be living as an Asian American in American society? Though I can't fully relate to Gullapalli or Li in their familiarities with feeling singled out or excluded in their schools, I'm still upset by the stereotypes that people harbor in their minds and the prejudice, though subtle, that is infused throughout San Francisco, and is even more blatant in other parts of the United States.
Though I've never lived in an environment where Asian Americans were the minority, if Pomona accepts me and I do decide to go there for college, I'll obtain a new learning experience. I'll better understand and perhaps even relate to the stories that young Asian-American women share in "Yell-Oh Girls!" While on my first day I may see at my new college campus exactly how racially mixed the school is, I'll have the opportunity to bring diversity to the campus, educating others around me, through organizations and personal conversation, of the truths of who Asian Americans are -- that slanted eyes, Kung Pao chicken (it's not authentic), and passivity don't define us.
Yvonne Wong is a 17-year old editor and reporter for The Lowell at Lowell High School and a WireTap intern.