Growing up an Asian female in Spartanburg, South Carolina is to be a part of a sliver on a pie chart of diversity.
As a child, I knew I was different. I looked different from the other children with my dark hair, golden skin tone, and slanted eyes. My lunchbox was packed with California rolls and light pink chopsticks, while my classmates ate PB&Js on “Wonderbread.” I knew I was different, but in second grade, I began to be treated differently.
I was picked on by other children simply for being Asian. The taunts that brought a little girl to tears, sometimes still echo in my mind as a 20-year-old young woman.
“Chinese Japanese weirdo!”
“Go make me egg rolls!”
“Open your eyes!”
“You want some fried rice?!”
The taunts sometimes turned into the belittling of my academic achievements.
“You only make good grades because you’re Chinese.”
“It doesn’t count because you’re Asian.”
“You’re Asian so you don’t have to work hard for your grades, you’re supposed to be smart.”
“It’s because your mom is a dragon mom.”
To some, comments such as those are harmless, perhaps humorous. However, they made a little girl look in the mirror and pull at her eyes in attempt to make them less slanted, beg her mom to pack her “normal” food for lunch, and make an effort to not make perfect scores on tests.
The little Asian girl who was taught that she was abnormal eventually became a middle school Asian teenager who begged God at night to wake her the next morning as a white teenager or black teenager or anything but an Asian teenager.
It wasn’t until my freshman year in college that I began to embrace my Asian roots and who I am because of it. I started to see my ethnicity as a uniqueness, not an alienation. I no longer wished to be a part of the majority. I became proud to be part of a minority.
I am proud to be a Korean-Vietnamese, young woman. Although the bullying of my race is in the past, I am writing this article today because my past was brought back to my attention yesterday.
I stood in a Panera Bread in Easley, South Carolina ordering a “pick two” meal with my closest friend, Kaitlyn. As I paid for my meal, the young woman behind the cash register (to be unnamed), asked me if I graduated from Dorman High School in 2015, and if I remembered her. I responded yes, I graduated from Dorman in 2015, but I did not remember her, and apologized for my lack of recollection.
The young woman proceeded to refresh my memory. She told me she was a part of a group of students that once, “made fun of you for being Asian in high school and you cry.”
I was taken aback by her brusqueness, but acted as if I did not know what she was talking about. As I walked away from the register, with an increasing heart rate, the memory of the cashier and her comrades, flooded back into my mind.
After Kaitlyn and I sat down with our meal, I contemplated telling her the story the cashier reminded me of. I didn’t want her to pity me or think I was a “loser” in high school, but all I could think of was one of the foulest days of my adolescence. So, I told her.
I was a junior at Dorman High School at the time. A valued member of the varsity swim team, a worship leader for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and an active member of three service organizations. At the surface, I thought I had all the qualities of a redeemable young woman, but on the inside, I wrestled with deep insecurity. It had been quite some time since I had been tormented for my race, but I lived in the fear that my peers would “notice” I was Asian.
Those fears became a reality one afternoon as I left lunch and walked to AP Statistics. I was walking alone to class, but I didn’t mind. I strutted down the hallway with my head held high, a new outfit on, and a cheerful smile on my face. That smile soon quivered when a group of students walking behind me, began to shout,
“Go back to China!”
“Shouldn’t you be making fried rice?”
“Who let you out of the nail salon?”
“She probably can’t even understand what we’re saying!”
“Asian people are so ugly!”
I put my head down, started to walk more briskly, and tried my best to ignore their slurs; while biting my lip to hold back tears. I knew better than to look back and give my harassers the satisfaction that they had torn open old wounds. However, the group followed me, sneering at me; down the hallway, up the stairs, and all the way to my classroom, where I rushed inside and shut the door quickly.
I was baffled, shocked, and confused. I did not know anyone in the group. I had never spoken to them. I did not provoke them to make them ridicule me as they did. Tears started to stream down my cheeks. I left the classroom to retreat to the bathroom where my sadness turned into anger.
I thought logically about the situation and realized I could not do anything about it. I did not know their names or even what they looked like. I did the only thing I could think of and went to Vice Principal Rice’s office. She saw my flushed face and swollen eyes and asked me what was wrong. I sat in her office and debated if I would choose to be a “tattle-tell” or endure the bullying silently, the way I always had.
However, I’ll never forget Principal Rice looking at me with kind eyes and telling me she had never seen me upset or without a confident smile, and that I needed to tell her what happened. I proceeded to explain exactly what happened. Principal Rice pulled up the video surveillance footage from the hallways and just as I had told her, the footage showed: three young ladies, two African American, and one Hispanic, following me from the cafeteria to my classroom, harassing and taunting me. She apologized on their behalf, promised me she would take care of it, and told me to not let their unjustified teasing affect me. I thanked her, went to the bathroom to clean up, returned to class, and began the process of forcing the memory out of my mind.
When I finished telling Kaitlyn the story, she sat across from me frozen with disbelief. As I thought about it more, the more absurd I realized what happened to me was. Three high school girls, minorities themselves, ridiculed a peer because she was a different minority.
Kaitlyn and I were preparing to leave the restaurant when the cashier approached our booth. She handed me a Panera Bread gift card, sincerely apologized for her actions in high school, and said she had grown over the years and had always regretted never apologizing.
With a warm heart, I forgave her, told her so and wished her the best.
My encounter with the young woman and her apology has been pressing on my mind since that night in Panera Bread, and I have come to the conclusion that racism is not only fueled by politics, policemen, or the nightly news. Racism is a fire that is kindled by society and has catalyzed to many images throughout time. I grew up in a culture in which it was acceptable to torment the “ugly”, “too smart”, Asian girl.
However, the changed-hearted, bully, who extended an extinguisher with a gift card, is a drop of water in the culture of society. That drop of water is enough to hold on to the hope that a rainstorm will one day extinguish the intolerable fire of racism.
Join me in support if you concur. Analyze and adjust if necessary, your posture towards all races. Be the change in your conversations, community, and culture. I promise there’s a little Asian girl with pigtails, in a Hello Kitty t-shirt, smiling at you somewhere.