Dear Asian Youth,
I remember the day my language was stripped away from me. I remember the day my words were choked, frozen, and brutally processed through the cruel system of casual racism. Ching chong. I remember the day I realized that my small eyes, yellow skin, and black hair made me different from all my peers. Ching chong. I remember feeling so alone because of my identity. Ching chong.
I’m stuck in my middle school cafeteria, mindlessly tossing out the contents of my lunch. My spoon, a mint, a box of apple juice, a thermos of fried rice, and a bag of grapes. The mint, given to me earlier by a friend, flew onto the table, inconsequential for the time being. My peers chatted around me—it was a day like any other. The dingy, puke yellow walls of my school’s cafeteria didn’t bother me; I’d gotten used to them over the last two years and calmly continued to set up my lunch. I didn’t feel the urge to participate in the conversations around me; I had just gone through a long math class and couldn’t muster the energy to converse. Instead, I chose to listen contently as I slowly picked through my lunch. That was the last time I was unaware of my Asian-American body. Ching chong.
“Hey, can we have that mint?”
I turned around in surprise to see two girls staring at me. I didn’t even realize they had noticed my sweets. To me, it really was just a minuscule candy. I was almost tempted to give it to them just to save myself some trouble. Honestly, I always liked sharing my food with others. Ching chong.
“Sorry, it’s mine. Maybe another time?”
Agency, control, independence. Normally, those would be admirable qualities in a fledgling woman. No, you cannot have this candy. Yes, it’s mine to consume. Ching chong. Feeling proud that I had so calmly refused them, I turned around to face my friends again. I was known for being shy and cautious, your classic worrywart. However, having claimed that mint, thus successfully controlling that small aspect of my life, I felt at ease. The deed was done. And, for a while, nothing did happen. It was still a day like any other.
“Ching chong.” “Ching ching chong.”
I paused in confusion, maybe I misheard something. The cafeteria, after all, was notoriously loud. A hundred or so students, maybe more, all laughing, talking, screaming at once. Yes, I misheard, I must have.
“Ching chong.” Quick giggling. “Ching chong, ching chong, ching chong.”
And very suddenly, that day became a new kind of horror. I was stuck in my seat, too afraid to turn around and face those shocking remarks. My mind paused itself and blanked out while the cafeteria faded into grey noise. My heart chilled, dropped into the Arctic Ocean, and trekked across a frozen wasteland. But worst of all, my body refused to move. I found myself drowning in that moment of dread forever. And it happened all because of a mint. Ching chong.
I always knew that people saw me differently. The places I grew up in all had a good share of diversity—my best friends were from Mexico, Korea, and Russia. But I always knew that I was Chinese, and most of my friends were not. In the depths of my mind, I knew that. Even though I was born in America, I would always be seen as small eyes, yellow skin, and black hair rather than American. My body, which was also composed of the foods that I ate and the language that came out of my mouth, inevitably separated me from my peers, despite the fact that, like them, I identified as an American. But I had never been confronted with these facts. I knew them all to be true, but I lived my life embracing my differences and my rich culture. I never knew that my differences could be used against me.
For the first time, I knew that some people would choose to hate my differences rather than celebrate them. I couldn’t comprehend how anybody could crudely simplify and mock my language just because I refused to give them candy. Maybe they didn’t know it would hurt me so much. Maybe they didn’t know the extent in which their insults affected me, that I would clearly remember them years later. Maybe it wasn’t such a big deal. And maybe I should just forget about it. Since that day, I have tried to erase my pain in a million different ways, but my memory remains intact.
I’ve tried to relearn Mandarin to reclaim my pride. I’ve tried to abandon Mandarin entirely, switch to English, and was so overwhelmed by the guilt of renouncing my heritage, that I didn’t. I’ve tried to erase that incident from my memory. I’ve tried to confront it in various essays and poems as a type of therapy to process the event. It’s an entirely new kind of fight, trying to embrace the differences between you and others. It makes you deeply examine yourself and the people around you. It makes you dive deep into history and realize that “Ching chong” is hardly a new insult. It has existed since the 19th century, and it rose out of playground taunts like “Ching, Chong, Chineeman, Clear right out of here,” so eerily similar to the situation I faced in the 21st century. And it makes you think about what the future should be—a future where acts of discrimination cease to exist, where children learn to love the differences between them, and where people can coexist in peace while rightfully celebrating their identities. It makes you think about a future of hope, a future that you can help create. Though I’d like to say I’m winning this fight against internalized racism, I know that it isn’t over yet. Especially while writing this story, the dreaded phrase “Ching chong” floats behind my eyes with every sentence I type. Ching chong. Ching chong. Ching chong.
I don’t speak the language of pots and pans. My language is more beautiful than you can imagine. It is centuries old, the medium of poets and writers, and my connection to my family. It’s different, but it’s also magnificent. Its dissimilarities from English only serve to highlight its beauty, each language complimenting the other. The foods that I eat, the holidays I celebrate, the body that I inhabit, all exist in the same constellation, but each is its own planet or star. Just because I am composed of a certain solar system, does not mean I can’t admire the many systems surrounding myself. So, the takeaway from this story shouldn’t be that the world is an unfixable or a terribly divided place, but that the differences between people can actually create a better and more diverse world.
Now, I prefer to think about how I reclaimed my language. It’s happening right now, this very second, with you reading my story. It’s happening right now, as more and more Asian youth stand up for their rights. It’s happening right now, as I’m surrounding myself with people who love and encourage each other, who fiercely protect and celebrate differences in gender, race, sexuality, and more. It’s happening right now, when you leave these words on your screen and go into the real world to affect change. It’s happening right now, when I say 我爱你, I love you. It’s happening right now, when you say I love you back, in whatever manner you choose to do so, and when you say it to your loved ones. It happens now.
- Kaitlyn Fa