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'You don't look Chinese': How bullying shaped a student's identity

'You don't look Chinese': How bullying shaped a student's identity
?You're Korean, right? I mean, you don't look Chinese. By the way, is that a compliment? my classmate said with a chuckle, nudging her friend. I had recently transferred to a new, mostly white high school. Photo: Manuel Ortiz P360

By Jeannine Chiang. Ethnic Media Services.

?You're Korean, right? I mean, you don't look very Chinese. By the way, is that a compliment? my classmate said with a chuckle, nudging her friend. I had recently transferred to a new, mostly white high school.

I soon realized that this was not going to be an easy transition.

I remember the intense sidelong glances when the children around me turned their heads and looked down at the jade pendant my grandmother gave me for good luck. 

This was shortly after schools reopened following the pandemic shutdown, and terms like ?kung flu? They still circulated through the school hallways. It seemed to me that even here in the Bay Area, where Asians make up a large percentage of the population, being Chinese, or even just looking Chinese, was like having a target on your back.

Growing up in Millbrae, a small, majority-Asian suburb just south of San Francisco, I never felt out of place. There were a few times when a classmate insisted that ?this is America?? and that I had to speak English, but those experiences were few and far between.

It was when my family moved south and I enrolled in a new, majority-white high school that I first began to understand that, to fit in among my new peers, I would have to ?Americanize? my identity.

The challenges began in the cafeteria. I would listen to my classmates comment on my lunch box, which often contained homemade dumplings and stir-fried noodles. Each day's lunch ritual was a reminder that I was different, like an outsider wearing a distinctive cultural insignia.

I felt self-conscious and finally asked my mom to make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. The sugary and fruity snack finally became my new normal.

Constantly negotiating my identity was a manifestation of my struggle to fit in and be accepted. I realized I was trying to cover up the parts of my culture that might seem “too different.” My native language became a clandestine code that I whispered quietly to avoid further alienation.

I hid my ancestry for fear that its vivid hues would contrast with the dull tone of my surroundings. And I wasn't the only one. A study last year found that 1 in 5 Asians tries to hide parts of his identity to adapt to it.

For me, that struggle became a mental war that I waged in silence, dealing ?like most teenagers? wanting to fit in and at the same time trying to hold on to my cultural roots.

My mother was born in Hangzhou, China, and immigrated to California to attend college. And although my brother and I were born in San Francisco, we spoke mostly Mandarin at home. As I grew older, I began to understand what my mother gave up by coming to America: her friends, her family, her culture. And now, here I was, trying to hide that culture from the other students around me at school.

I felt embarrassed. But I still tried to fit in. I had the impression that I was a chameleon, always changing to fit the expectations of everyone around me, whether at home or at school.

I'm in high school now and when I talk to my international friends from China here, they share similar stories, about how other students address them because of their origins or accent, something they can't understand. just hide in a lunch box. Instead of celebrating the richness of culture and experience they bring to students, they focus on those same traits.

Bullying is on the rise in the US: 20 percent of students in kindergarten through 12th grade say they have been bullied at least once. Identity is often a contributing factor, as students are selected based on their nationality, ethnicity, or gender.

In a diverse community like the Bay Area, it is crucial that schools promote understanding and appreciation of different cultures, fostering an environment where everyone feels accepted and valued regardless of their accent or cultural background.

My experience reminds me that there is still work to do in the fight against racism. It takes a group effort to eliminate prejudices, confront preconceived ideas, and create an atmosphere where each person can flourish into their true self.

But it also taught me to see my differences as a unique strength and not a weakness. By challenging dominant narratives, I found allies who supported me and ended the taboo surrounding the experiences of people who feel excluded.

By working together, we have created a school community that embraces diversity and promotes a more welcoming atmosphere for all. Instead of being a victim of prejudice, I am an example of the strength that comes from embracing one's own individuality.

Jeannine Chiang is a high school student. She wrote this story for a special series examining the intersection of harassment and race in California led by EMS in partnership with California Ethnic Media, part of EMS' Stop the Hate initiative, made possible by funding from the State Library of California. California in association with the California State Library. Asian and Pacific Islands American Affairs Commission. The opinions expressed on this website and other materials produced by EMS do not necessarily reflect the official policies of CSL, CAPIAA, or the California government.

This publication was supported in whole or part by funding provided by the State of California, administered by the CaliFornia State Library. 

You may be interested in: The number of complaints about attacks on the Muslim community in the US grows by 178%.

Peninsula 360 Press
Peninsula 360 Presshttps://peninsula360press.com
Study of cross-cultural digital communication

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