What do I want to be when I grow up? The age-old question that we all ask ourselves. John Lennon once said that when he was five years old and went to school,
“They asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wrote down, ‘happy.’ They told me I didn’t understand the assignment, and I told them they didn’t understand life.”
Personally, I think that story is total bullshit. I just cannot wrap my mind around a kindergartener being that existential and condescending. But that’s beside the point. We all grow up with unique ambitions but for one simple goal in mind, to be happy. Some people, wanted to be doctors, nurses, firefighters, athletes, etc. As a kid, I wanted to be many things, but more than anything else, I wanted to be white.
I understood that it was impossible for me to turn white. I knew life wasn’t that simple and I couldn’t just send in an application to depart from my East Asian heritage to become white. But still, I grew up with white envy and a deep resentment towards my own skin color.
After leaving Montreal when I was eight years old, my family moved to Farmington, CT, which is 91.4% white, 4.5% Asian. I was the East Asian elephant in the room. I felt so uncomfortable at school, not because there were so many white people, but because I was Asian and visibly did not fit in. TV and movies have taught me that white men are heroes, brave, funny in a charming way, and most importantly, worthy of love. TV and movies also taught me that Asian men are funny to laugh at, perverted, nerdy, creepy, deviant, and of course, not worthy of love. I desperately wanted to prove to my white peers that I was one of them, and not the kind of Asian that you see in the movies. I grew up watching the same shows and movies, listening to the same music, eating the same food, wearing the same clothes, playing the same sports, and speaking the same language with the same accent. I had nothing to assimilate to because I was already born and raised into North American culture. So why did I feel the need to prove that I belonged?
My resentment towards my Asian heritage drove me to keep a distance from Asian students. I became outspoken about how I didn’t like Asian people, and if someone called me a Twinkie, I took it as a compliment. Sometimes I would purposely fail math tests just to show how unAsian I was. Anytime people made comments that reduced me to my race or was implicitly racist, I didn’t think, “Fuck you, that’s racist.” I just sighed and thought,
“If only I was white.”
I learned to blame my issues on my skin color rather than blame actual racism.
I never had a real relationship in high school and I couldn’t help but blame my own skin color. Of course everyone is entitled to their own opinions of who they find attractive, but let’s be real, white people often find Asian men less attractive. When a white person finds me attractive, I think, “You could date anyone that’s white, but you chose me?!” I never dated someone with the intent of escalating my social status, but it was closest I felt to being one of “them.”
In high school, my friends and I played a game called, “Get the Charlie.” To explain, during the Vietnam War, “Viet Cong” was often shortened to VC, and in the NATO phonetic alphabet, the letters V and C were pronounced, “Victor-Charlie,” eventually giving members of the Viet Cong the nickname, Charlie. The premise of the game was that at any random time when hanging out with my friends, someone would yell, “Get the Charlie!” and would either fire a ball at me, throw me in a pool, or at one point ambushed me with rope and tied me up. That was a time before I could really comprehend and articulate why this was incredibly offensive. This game wasn’t just offensive to me, but to all Vietnamese people, especially those who were affected by the war, even more specifically to my family who escaped the communists and my grandfather who fought against the communists and was imprisoned for nine years. I’m sure nobody in my family would be happy to hear that my friends were laughing while calling me a member of the extremist group that devastated their livelihood and country. As silent as I was, it cut deep.
To be clear, white people weren’t explicitly telling me that I was lesser for being Asian, or verbally attacking me for my skin color. I didn’t exactly face any kind of overt aggression for my skin color. I made plenty of white friends who treated me with warmth and kindness. Nevertheless, there were always moments where people subtly reduced me to my race. Of course there are the questions that every person of color has had to answer multiple times- “What are you?” “Where are you from?” Both very appropriate questions for extraterrestrials, but not so much for human beings. The motive for asking is innocent. People ask because they are curious. However, asking “what” I am suggests that I’m anything but human, and asking “where” I’m from suggests that I am most definitely an outsider. Why do people of color get asked that questions overwhelmingly more than white people? Because whiteness is viewed as a default, as a neutral skin color that does not attribute to who they are. Whereas being a person of color means my culture, my country of origin, and everything else about me is different. I am an ‘other’ because I am not white. As much as I tried to prove that I belong, people kept suggesting that I did not. Now, one might respond to this asking, “So what, if I want to know someone’s ethnicity, I should just shut up?” Yes. Moving on…
As an Asian American I was asked, if I spoke Chinese (the answer is no, also I’m not Chinese…), do I know any form of martial arts, and what is my Asian name? For the record, I don’t know any form of martial arts, and I guess you can say my “Asian name” is Jimmy, which is also my Canadian and American name. I’ve been and still am the victim of horribly awkward and inappropriate jokes about small penises and math.
Learning to accept my race and culture took longer than it should have. Nobody should have to learn to embrace themselves, it should be inherited the same way their skin color is. However, I have found that the resentment and insecurity that I felt about my skin color is actually very common amongst fellow Asian Americans. I have found it to be true for Asian friends that I made in college, close relatives, and students in my Asian American Studies class. I would urge anyone reading this to also read this amazing piece where Sharline Chiang opens up about her experience growing up Chinese American and her efforts to appear white.