I was born in Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love. My parents, poor graduate students who had come to this country from Taiwan, created a happy childhood out of rice, wooden boards on empty milk crates, clothes for 25 cents from the Salvation Army, and a lot of love.
During my preschool years we moved into a middle class suburb that was perhaps 1% Asian. It was here that I learned about being different. Before I understood what ignorance was, I had heard the term chink thrown at me, as if it should hurt. But why? I didn’t do anything to you.
And so it went on, teasing here or there. Comments that crawled under the skin and stayed there for a spell. Occasional slurs that took swings at things I could not change. During the intercritical moments, life was happy and full. I had good friends. Laughter. Good times. But it was those mouth-drying punctuations that shot out of nowhere and left me temporarily spinning. What just happened? Recollect. Move on.
In middle school, I remember getting hit with a snowball as I was boarding my public school bus. Older bullies at the back of the bus. Nameless and faceless cowards. Maybe it had nothing to do with the color of my skin, but at the time, I was convinced. I felt ill. Forsaken. A pit of misery.
Needless to say, I felt ugly. I wish I didn’t look like me.
In high school, I was with some friends at the shore and while walking on the boardwalk, two men, probably in their 30s, made a racial joke as I walked by. Two grown adults. Stupid words from stupid people. But, it didn’t make it hurt less. How can you hate when you don’t even know? How can I adapt when I can’t change?
It took a long time to feel like a beautiful person, inside and out. To embrace my heritage and not be ashamed of it. It helped to go to a college where diversity was celebrated. Where I met people like me, but empowered.
I believe racism in this country endures. That it sends a deep undercurrent of anger, aggression and dysphoria. And it’s not only the flagrant punches of true ignorance. It’s also the more subtle pinches: the childhood teasing, the silent assumptions, the behind-the-back conspirings. These dark whispers that taint self-image and self-acceptance and occasionally crush the human spirit.
I look at my daughter and pray that she is spared the struggle. That her community is nurturing and tolerant. To go to school with children of all colors and socioeconomic backgrounds, to know the richness of humanity and that we are all the same.
I want her to never stop feeling beautiful. I believe every child deserves this.
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