It’s not a surprise that I’ve attended almost all white schools my entire life all located in Barrington. Barrington, Rhode Island with its 96.7% white majority and .07% of others (no pun intended) aside from Asian, African American, or Hispanic descent. If this town could be described with any adjective, it would be anything but diverse. Maybe it’s because of the 1960 period of conformity, when people fled to the suburbs to live the life of an ideal nuclear, American family and that just happened to be Barrington. Or maybe it’s because the median income of the average household in Barrington is $112,000. Anyhow, the bottom line is, Barrington is a town that’s so “white” that up until 5th grade I absolutely had no idea that I was different. I had no idea that other people classified me as “Asian.” I only knew that I spoke a different language in addition to English, and that impressed the other kids at recess. It only meant for my flustered second grade teacher to whisper that on the NECAP, I was required to bubble in “Asian” under the race category.
I figured then, that she was flustered because there were so many tests to hand out- not because our Barrington elementary school teachers generally lack the skills to deal with the topic of race as I have discovered while serving on the Barrington Public Schools Committee of Diversity and Inclusivity. Upon my graduation at Hampden Meadows Elementary School, my family decided to transfer me to Saint Philomena School, a gorgeous, small, private Catholic school overlooking the waters of Portsmouth, featuring only around 50 graduating 8th graders each year. The only other person of color at that school being my brother. Somewhere along the lines, the category of race blurred altogether disappeared. I simply just forgot about race being relevant. I forgot I was Asian, because at this point, all my friends were white, and all I saw were white people.
There were two lives I was leading- being Taiwanese and speaking Chinese at home, and being white at school like everyone else. Saint Philomena was like a nurturing bubble, a perfect world I was living in. I felt accepted, and I felt unique. People genuinely wanted to learn about my culture because lack of diversity was so prevalent, and I wanted to share with everyone else. Each summer was the true pivoting point. Summer always meant Taiwan for my brother and I. Every summer for around 6 weeks, we would return to strengthen our culture and our sense of language. Looking back, I see the extreme foresight of my mother, who knew that this lack of diversity in Barrington was not a true representation of the real world. She took on the duty of educating both me and my brother on our culture, and showing us how that applied to daily life in Taiwan. We would go back during Chinese New Year to see the streets lined with red and people celebrating by handing out enveloped full of money. We witnessed the lunar moon festival, the celebration of Qu Yuan, one of the most prominent historians in Taiwanese culture, and we were enrolled in all these different camps to further strengthen our roots and interact with kids our age who were native to Taiwan. In one part of Taiwan, my grandpa is kind of famous, and each year we return, he introduces me as “my granddaughter from America who can speak both English, Chinese, and Taiwanese all fluently!” I would speak a few lines, everyone would be shocked and surprise that my accent was so genuine, and my only job was just to be unique, just like in America. For those 6 weeks, I was an outsider who had seen the world of America, lived in America, spoke the language, and even dress like an American.
However, there is this one incident at camp that I will never forget. I can still see the scene crystal clear in my mind today of me sitting at a desk in one of the several camps waiting for class to begin. I was around 10 at the time, and since our Summer Vacation ended later than the children in Taiwan, I would always come into class being the “new girl,” all the friend groups having been established on day 1. The regular routine starts where the teacher comes in introduces me as Kelly from America, the other students twist around in their seats oohing and aahing, and then the teacher starts class. During break, I’m sitting in this chair, and the little Taiwanese queen bee walks in with her little entourage of friends (yes, this happens in other countries as well). She purposefully makes eye contact with me, reaches into her bag and pulls out these ice breaker cube pieces of gum with like the Chinese writing all over it because it’s also sold in Taiwan. Taking one at a time she deliberately drops it into the hands of her friends and when all of them have a piece, she carefully drops the gum back into her bag, making sure to let me know I was not offered one. Dropping it into her mouth, she chews slowly, savoring the flavors of peppermint ice breakers gum. She then says something that has stuck with me till this day,“hmmm this gum has an American flavor to it.”
I was still an outsider, but for the first time, being unique left a bad taste in my mouth. It was no longer something to brag about and show off. Rather, it was something to hide away. Was this her intent? Luck and fate are what separated my life from hers, and that made her resent me.
Being an outsider in my parents’ home country only strengthened my excitement to return to my home, where this outsider persona was nonexistent- or so I thought. As I grow older, I realize that this outsider persona follows me back from Taiwan more and more each year. I couldn’t escape the impact of the girl’s words, not matter how hard I tried. With my transition back to Barrington High School, my freshman year I couldn’t get through one day without a teacher or student calling me by the name of another Asian girl. I couldn’t escape the stereotype that I took algebra 2 honors in freshman year because I was simply “smart.” Crossing the street with my babysitting child, the pedestrian guard smirks at me and mockingly says “ni hao.”
Being an American Born Chinese is hard because you don’t really have someplace to call home. You don’t speak as fluently as them. You don’t dress like them. You look like them, but you don’t feel like them. The struggle to balance these two personas is ever present, and sometimes you don’t know your own identity. However, the power to intertwine these two backgrounds is the gift diversity brings to me. I have two backgrounds to reference, two cultures to live, and one being to communicate these lessons to the rest of the world. Just the other day, my babysitting kid who is half white and half African American puts his arm up to mine to compare our skin tones. He asks me, “are you Asian?” I hesitantly reply with yes, not really sure in what direction the conversation is steering. He then follows up with “Well, what am I then?”
In that instant, I realized that this cycle is never ending. There are moments where he will feel like an outsider. There are moments he will feel that he doesn’t belong, especially in Barrington, especially in this age of sensitivity. The road to finding his own identity will be difficult. However, overcoming this difficulty is what will make him stronger. Instead of choosing to suppress this outsider persona, we must gauge our limitations, then proceed to step out of our comfort zones- only then can we discover our true, authentic selves.
Was there an instance when you were an outsider, but you never noticed?
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