Dear Asian Youth,
It’s a compliment, I tell myself as I plaster on a thin smile in place of the small frown that twisted my lips moments before the sound of, “Of course you got a good grade, you’re Asian.”
“Of course,” my classmate tells me, spoken as if achieving good grades is expected of me, and that should be a compliment, right? Expectations are nothing new to me, and I should feel happy, even proud, to fulfill them. Yet when the word “Asian” tumbles off his tongue, it feels like a brand; it’s hot and scorching as it sears itself onto my forehead, etching itself into the soft golds and beiges of my skin. For all that it’s supposedly a compliment or a joke, it doesn’t feel quite right. It feels wrong in a way that makes my skin itch and causes my small 13-year-old fingers to grip the smooth white paper of my test hard enough to leave creases on the previously unblemished sheet.
“Duh,” I casually respond, as if my pretense at acting unbothered doesn’t dig a salt-covered palm into the burned skin of my forehead, “Asian,” no doubt still emblazoned above my narrow brows. I even laugh lightly for good measure, unknowingly leaving behind slightly larger, sharper creases into the edges of my test paper with each strained chuckle.
I am not able to put my feelings into words at the time. My brain is still too naïve, too young to understand the turmoil of emotions flitting about me. I can’t understand my hesitance at accepting the joke; after all, this too is nothing new to me. Jokes about my inherent ability to excel in math or achieve straight A’s because I’m Asian are common. What is there to be hesitant about when I fit into the Asian stereotype perfectly? I get straight A’s, I like Algebra, I cut my nails on the weekends for orchestra, and I attend bi-weekly Math Olympiad meetings. As if I’m that cheap red clay we use in art class, each passing day, I continue to mold myself to fit into their standards and image of a typical Asian.
I don’t like it.
I don’t like it because who is my classmate to decide my potential? Who is he to tell me what is expected of me?
With a shaky sigh, I glance back down at my paper. The fat red “A+” and smiley face stare back at me as if mocking the invisible word “Asian” engraved on my head.
Settling into myself takes time, and throughout this process, I am forced to endure the seemingly insignificant ways that my peers taunt me with my identity.
It seems that this smile will have to be a trademark of mine. There’s a thin smile stretched across my face reminiscent of the last time my classmates sought to remind me of my race. I listen to my white classmate explain to me the idea of Asian privilege—to walk into a room full of Asians and assume that they are all smart, nerdy, and successful— and what can I say? In some twisted way, it makes sense (a lie my mind hisses), and the young, insecure 13-year-old that I am merely nods, never breaking my facade of blending in.
Despite this, images of late nights spent tiredly sprawled over the dinner table, ingraining numbers and numerical equations into my head, flash before my eyes. Baba is at my side explaining the theory behind some formula, an undercurrent of amusement seeping into his eyes each time he catches my poor attempts at hiding a yawn.
“I don’t get it,” I tell him, bitter at my inability to fully comprehend the problem before me. I cower slightly under his huff, a mixture of impatience and exasperation bleeding into his tired countenance.
“What don’t you understand,” he grits out with a mildly forced calm, and I shrink back from the displeasure lacing his words.
I wonder if he thinks I’m stupid, incompetent perhaps, but when the clock ticks 11:42 pm and I’m hit with a sudden sense of understanding, he murmurs, “See, you’re smart. It only took you so long because you’re not paying enough attention.” The whispers of an “I’m sorry for being upset, it’s late, and I’m tired” are almost tangible in his words.
I can’t help but bite down a pleased smile. I work hard, but through it all, Baba is always by my side, grumpy attitude or not.
A moment of dissociation, and then I bring my focus back to the present just as the harsh chime of the lunch bell rings. The boy sitting to the right of me is already walking out the door, his own white privilege trailing at his heels.
I carry expectations for myself, and so does Baba. He has seen what I can do, been at the forefront of each discovery I made of myself and my limits, and set his expectations for me with that knowledge in mind.
I frown. Is it truly a privilege for people to assume that I am smart or an overachiever simply because of my identity? Are they not overlooking my efforts in the face of the unfounded biases that mark my race? I make my way to the door, questions, and a myriad of conflicting emotions trailing at my heels for the rest of the day.
“It wouldn’t make sense for you to be bad at math. You’re Asian.” Again and again and again. Perhaps it is the lilt of their voice or the way they enunciate my identity so confidently, but it makes my skin itch and my teeth ache from the force of my tensed jaw. “You’re Asian,” and they say it so offhandedly, so casually, as if we’re discussing the sky. It’s not incorrect, per se, but there is an unbidden weight to the term “Asian” that they’ve plastered on me. (A weight that I did not ask for, but one that I must accept is inevitable.)
I blink up at them, ebony eyes searching theirs, listening to the muted chatter of the class reverberate throughout the room as the dim school lights cast a yellow glow across the tanned skin of my classmates. Shifting my eyes, I flick my gaze across the faces of my classmates like a broken lamplight in the middle of the street, and as if illuminated by its short spasms of light, my thoughts are slowly unveiled. The gears in my head shift into their proper positions, and my obsidian orbs return to the bright 97% inked onto the top of my unit test.
No, I think. It wouldn’t make sense for me to be bad at math after all the work I put into it. It wouldn’t make sense for me to be bad at math considering all the time, late nights, and studying I dedicate to it. I’m not good at something because I’m Asian. I’m good at it because I work for it, and it is simultaneously infuriating and insulting to have my achievements be undermined for the sake of perpetuating a racially insensitive stereotype.
I can feel the subtle burn of the “Asian” on my forehead steadily fade into something warmer, softer, as I revel in the newfound clarity of my emotions.
Settling into myself takes time, but I settle.
No, I think, firmer, more assured in myself this time. I will no longer let their idea of Asian define me. I will define myself. I gently place my test in my backpack with a slight smile tugging at the corners of my mouth.
Baba will be pleased.
– Feileen Li