Although childhood is a unique experience for every individual, some memories are universal: the crunch of buttered popcorn from the movie theater; the cold, wet splash of a water balloon on a hot summer day; Play-Doh and its musky vanilla scent as it clings to your fingertips. As a kid, I was well-acquainted with this last sensation. I often spent my younger days sculpting Play-Doh, shaping the colored substance into any design I wanted. The possibilities were endless. Although each yellow plastic container was a point of contention for my mother—who would inevitably spend the next hour furiously scrubbing the hardened remnants off of our carpet—I welcomed Play-Doh into my life with open arms. I was the potter, and the clay was at my disposal.
The practice of ceramics is thought to have originated around the year 14,000 B.C.E. in East Asia (present-day China and Japan). Pottery has a long-rooted history, spanning thousands and thousands of years. This history manifests in each pot, fork, and spoon; a handmade bowl is far more than a vessel for food and drink. Pottery is the toil and labor that went into creating something so simple yet so essential—each indentation, fingerprint, and slight imperfection all amount to something that is so much more than a simple dish. A bowl is just an object until you give it meaning. Clay is just material until you give up a part of yourself.
When I was younger, my mind was young and impressionable—fresh, like a mound of malleable clay waiting to be molded into something of value. The person I am today has been fashioned by both my inherent nature and nurture. Countless hands have formed my mind, their lives impacting my own in some shape or form. Dearest family, closest friends, and strangers I haven’t even met yet—endless fingers have molded me as an individual, leaving imprints without an outward mark. Clay eventually hardens, carrying the permanence of touch on its surface. Its future is set in stone. But clay is also fragile. It can crack under external pressure. It can break if it’s not handled with care. Could the same go for me?
I’ve lived in central Florida my whole life. When I was younger, most—if not all—of my closest friends had hair that was lighter, skin that was paler, and eyes that were wider than mine. Even so, I never felt any different. My parents, family friends, and grandparents were the first potters to shape me, and I was proud of my history. Being Filipina was always a source of pride—which is why the memory of the first time someone made me feel ashamed of my heritage remains ingrained in my mind.
When I was ten years old, my peers and I were scouring the World Wide Web, researching our family histories and the cultures we came from. I happened to pull up a picture of sinigang, a sour soup that’s widely beloved in the Philippines—and my favorite dish of all time. I remember showing the girl next to me. To this day, her response leaves a bitter taste in my mouth.
“That looks disgusting.”
This girl, with her blonde hair and blue eyes, likely doesn’t even remember she said it. Why would she? But her words will stick with me forever. It had been years since I had last used Play-Doh, but it was at this moment that the blissful innocence of my childhood came to an end. Whether she meant to or not, she was another person who left a deep imprint upon my character—but her hands tried to tear me apart instead of building me up.
She hasn’t been the only one. Over the years, countless people have tried to shape me to fit their standards. Usually, their hands barely leave a mark: the subtle digs at my eyes, the attribution of my accomplishments to my heritage, and the offhand remarks about my food were simply normal. After all, how can I realize something is wrong if it’s the only thing I’ve ever known? However, amidst the pandemic, the hands have been especially rough and unwieldy. On the outside, I may be physically unaffected, but not everyone has been so lucky.
My mother found out she was pregnant with twins in 2002; one boy, one girl. My father named my brother, and my mother named me. Justine. “Just.” “Righteous.” “Fair.” For the longest time, I was uncomfortable with my name. I didn’t fit the mold. After all, for the entirety of my life, other hands had shaped me, molding me to their expectations. I had to be quiet. I had to be passive. I had to play it safe. Thus, while I had grown up knowing the difference between right and wrong, I had always prioritized the preservation of my reputation over the call to justice. I didn’t live up to my name. But this past year, as racism against Asians has been amplified to a disturbing degree, I realized that if I wanted something to change, I would have to do my part. I would have to take back control.
Is it “just” that there has been a more than 800 percent increase in racist incidents against Asians in the last few years, making me terrified to walk down the street? Is it “righteous” that my success in school is attributed solely to my race? Is it “fair” that people poke fun at my outward appearance, mocking the features I cannot control? This year, I realized that I’ve never truly been safe, and I won’t ever be unless I advocate for myself.
In the year 2021, as racism against Asians runs rampant, it’s important now more than ever to honor my heritage. May is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. It’s a month of making my voice heard and paying homage to the lives of those who came before me. It’s a month of being loud and proud and celebrating my culture, despite all of the hands that try to deface, demean, and diminish it. It’s a month of growing into myself and finally living up to my name. While racism fosters division, pain, and hate, speaking out against it facilitates unity, healing, and love. I am not soft. Unlike clay, no amount of molding and sculpting can change who I am. Unlike clay, I will not break.
Cover Photo Source: The Collector