by Britney Chong
When I was in preschool, I knew I wasn’t like all the other kids. I went to a Catholic school in Long Island, where everyone was Irish and went to church every Sunday. I’m not Irish and I don’t go to church every Sunday. I didn’t fit the demographic of the school, but frankly I can’t imagine where I would’ve fit in. I can easily say that I was the only pre-schooler who went to Okinawan karate on weekdays and art class on weekend.
One day, I was sitting in the back seat of my mom’s car looking out the window on my way to karate. I thought about the other kids’ blank stares when I said I did karate. I thought about how all the kids in my class looked different than me. And then I asked, “Mom, why aren’t I normal?” To my surprise, she was shocked.
She looked at me and said, “What do you mean, you’re not normal?”
“I want to be like everyone else,” I said. “I don’t want to do karate. I want a dog and a big house and Barbies like everyone else.”
When it came time for kindergarten, I transferred to a public school. There were still white teachers, and the white kids were all friends with each other like in my old school. They would ask questions and be loud, things that Asians were told were not okay. Something still felt wrong in my little elementary school brain.
Since my elementary and middle schools were majority white, I assumed that that was the norm.. But when I got into Hunter College High School in 7th grade, I started making connections about race. I realized why I wasn’t “normal” going to a Irish- and Italian-dominated Catholic school: I was Asian. Before Hunter, all I knew was that I didn’t look like anyone in my class, I couldn’t relate to any Disney stars, and I didn’t have the same sense of connection to my school because I wasn’t white.
How could I fail to know I was Asian? I had seen plenty of Asian people by the time I was five, but white was the norm, and white was what I wanted to be. The obsession with whiteness was something I couldn’t shake. I wanted to tell the Asian kids I saw in elementary school to stop talking in their native language. When I saw Asian kids with ugly clothing I felt embarrassed. I wanted nothing to do with the “bad parts” of being Asian, and I thought being white would solve everything.
I understand why I felt I wasn’t normal, but who made up the standard that being Asian wasn’t normal? Why do we glorify being white and not being any other race, and why do we say a group is diverse if there is one minority? The white-driven culture in our society pulls me both ways. It wants me to feel like I am included as a person of color, but also doesn’t want me to steal the spotlight. It wants me to feel comfortable with who I am, but it also says, “you need to change, you aren’t what we want.” It tells me that it isn’t okay to make racist remarks, even if it’s against my race, and then I see yellowface the next day. It claims to be curious about my race, and then appropriates my culture by labeling it “exotic” and putting it up for sale. I couldn’t be angry at American society as a five year old, but I can now. It feels good to recognize that I am Asian, and if that’s not normal, then I don’t want to be normal.