I wish I weren’t Asian. I wish that my ethnicity didn’t evoke images of identical looking, small eyed, flat faced, yellow skinned mathematicians who can’t drive. They say the key to happiness is to be yourself, but how can that be true if my identity is to blame for leaving me with nothing but insecurity and self-doubt?
“Chink,” my classmate haughtily mocks, a faint smile playing on his lips. Unfazed, I offer a light-hearted giggle and a gentle push on his shoulder.
“Ching-Chong,” I chant along with my American friends, laughing at their attempts to mimic the accent of an Asian foreigner.
“I can’t see, I’m Asian,” I joke, successfully eliciting a few chuckles from my peers as I dramatically squint to read the words on the whiteboard.
While my seeming liveliness and light-hearted self-mockery likely radiates confidence and self-assurance, it’s all a disguise: a mere mask to conceal the vulnerable girl who hides underneath, desperately holding to what’s left of her morale.
Never would I have thought on that bleak January morning when my English teacher, accompanied with the usual chorus of groans and complaints, distributed copies of the new assigned reading, that it would so profoundly alter my entire perspective. Yet Inside Out and Back Again, a verse novel written as the diary of Ha, a ten-year-old Vietnamese girl who escapes to find refuge in America, became for me a torch in the darkness of self-doubt.
. . . [my teacher] shows photographs
. . . of Vietnam,
of green mountains and long beaches, of a statue of the Buddha reclining. She asks me,
‘Would you like to say anything?’
‘I know Buddha’
I hear laughter
and a murmur building: Boo-Da, Boo-da” (Lai 205).
My eyes absorbed the black print and my mind lurched back to my third grade art class. Worse than any stumble on the concrete playground or any prick of the finger on my mother’s sewing needle, scorching humiliation inflamed my entire body as my American classmates mocked me: “Boo-Dist, What a weird name!” Their childish laughter set fire to my cheeks while their smiles were daggers in my young and fragile self- esteem. Between absentmindedly painting geometric shapes on white construction paper, religion had arisen as the topic of conversation and I had excitedly rushed to tell them my family practiced Buddhism. As one of four Asians in my elementary school, I suddenly felt myself shriveling among my classmates who so very conspicuously had no idea what being a “Buddhist” signified.
Just a few days later, still raw from art class, I encountered that same burn of embarrassment. The sensation struck upon watching the cartoon, The Magic School Bus, and I sunk into my seat as the heat creeped its way from the center of my face to the tips of my ears. In the dark classroom the only light came from the television, illuminating the faces of my classmates with an eerie blue; my face must have emitted another color just as bright. Previously, I had loved the treat of watching The Magic School Bus, but this time was different. Sitting there in that classroom felt more like a punishment. I was embarrassed. Embarrassed whenever Wanda, the Asian cartoon character, appeared on screen. Embarrassed by her flat nose, upturned eyes, and nasally voice. Was that what people thought of me? My newfound insecurity had taken the best of me and in that moment, it felt as if everyone was staring. I wished nothing more than to bury myself into the desk and disappear.
“By the end of school
he yells an answer:
‘She should be a pancake.
She has a pancake face’.
It doesn’t make sense
until/it does” (Lai 196).
Once again, the words on the page propel my mind to the past. This time, I’m back a few days after the start of eighth grade. Exchanging whispered jokes throughout class, I had befriended the pale, freckled boy that sat beside me in Earth Science. With his witty humor, he managed to make the tedious periods somewhat bearable. That’s not what I remember him for, however. I remember him for his mortifying words.
“If I were to rate you, you would be a nine out of ten, but you’re Asian so you subtract two. So, you’re a seven out of ten.” Although a lame attempt at a joke, it was certainly not funny to me. The words became a broken record, repeating themselves over and over, eating me alive and slowly depleting me of all remaining self-esteem. I realized that as long as I was Asian, I would never meet the standards of ideal Western beauty defined by long-legged girls with big eyes, cascading blonde hair, and thin noses. I would never be conventionally pretty, and that was that. I never wanted to talk to the freckled boy again.
I wish that after being taunted for my religion in art class, I didn’t feel the need to bear a cross on my neck until seventh grade to pretend I was Christian.
But I did.
I wish that after the comment from the freckled boy, I didn’t feel the need to spend months afterwards waking up extra early to coat my face with my mother’s makeup.
But I did.
I wish that I didn’t feel the need to go home and cry after being called a chink by the boy that I liked.
But I did.
I wish I didn’t feel the need to lie for years saying that I was Hawaiian in an attempt to hide my Asian origins.
But I did.
“No one would believe me
but at times
I would choose
wartime in Saigon
Alabama” (Lai 195).
Upon reading these lines, I couldn’t help but compare myself to Ha. Admitting that for her, peacetime in Alabama, which essentially entailed discrimination from her peers, was at times worse than the horrors of war, validated my own feelings in a way. For me too, it seems as if the smallest, most outwardly insignificant details are the ones that I hold on to. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help but think to myself, does it ever get better?
The ending answered my question:
“Not the same,
but not bad
at all” (Lai 234)
Despite the relentless mocking, little Ha eventually achieves tranquility within her new life. Inside Out and Back Again manifests the light at the end of the tunnel—that confidence is possible to regain. There is undoubtedly a sort of silent acceptance that young Asian Americans are denied a place in Western popular culture, making it so easy to feel like the only Asian in this world facing discrimination. But this novel gave me first hand evidence of other soldiers in this battle. That knowledge, and especially knowing that many have overcome these same struggles, brings comfort.
I now understand that changing how people think or what they say is not my responsibility, let alone within my power. Instead, it’s up to me to recognize my own self-worth. In the end, only I can develop or diminish my sense of self. I must learn to stand unaffected by external judgments. It will take time, but I have hope—hope that I only began to see upon reading this novel. Maybe I don’t actually wish that I wasn’t Asian. Instead, may I wish for the strength, the courage, and the will to accept myself over time and to one day, to claim victory over my demons of insecurity.
Tiffany Liu is a high school senior from Long Island, New York looking to pursue marketing. She is the winner of the Superior Writing Award for the 2019 NCTE Writing Competition. If she’s not reading or writing, she can be found rowing for her school team, jamming out to classic rock, or traveling to a faraway place on the other side of the world.