A different face in a uniform crowd

Learning to love who you are for your differences

I grew up in two different places after moving from Ann Arbor, Mich. when I was two-years-old — Winston-Salem, N.C. and Blacksburg, Va. Living in these two places meant a lot of things, like I learned to like country music pretty early on, my kindergarten teacher said things like “y’all” and our neighbors baked us pies when we moved in. It also meant I was different from most other people around me.

My best friend in Winston-Salem was what you would expect a girl from North Carolina to look like. She was blonde, blue-eyed and wore bows in her hair on every occasion. For fun, we would dress like princesses and play with Barbie dolls that were also, of course, blonde and blue-eyed. Even by this point in my childhood, I found myself wondering what I would look like with beautiful long blonde hair and piercing blue eyes, as opposed to the black-haired bowl cut my father made me sport and my murky brown eyes that were not at all very interesting. 

Even more, my busy parents had little time after their work schedules to sit down and teach my older brother and me about our ancestors’ culture. More importantly, they did not have the chance to explain why we looked different from other kids here and why that was okay. Instead, they sent us to Chinese school every Sunday after church so we could hold onto a glimpse of their culture which we knew nothing about.

The summer before third grade, we relocated to Blacksburg, which is where I lived with my family up until college. Upon moving, my insecurities — or maybe just my ignorance — about my family’s culture heightened when I was again thrown into a predominantly white and somewhat southern environment. 

I ended up associating with pretty much only white friends, and most of them are still my good friends today. Racial slurs or insults directed towards me were few and far between, but that’s definitely not to say I never heard a bad thing about someone because of the color of their skin. Instead, people would assure me that I wasn’t like “other Asians,” a comment that, to be embarrassingly honest, I appreciated at the time. 

Way worse than how anyone else perceived my background was how I perceived myself. Because I was one Asian face in a sea of white friends, acquaintances and teachers, I grew to reject my parents’ culture and myself rather than embrace it. Upon reflection, the most regret and shame I have is hurting my family as a result of this rejection.

Around my senior year of high school, or early first-year of college, I slowly began to appreciate what I was born with and the ways that I was different. The perspective I gained from being at college allowed me to realize people of color should celebrate their differences, not mute them. This is not to say I think the University is where it should be in terms of diversity and inclusion, but I do think it has made me see the beauty in loving oneself for one’s race and cultural background, not regardless of it.

My one allocated “fun” class this semester — though organic chemistry is riveting and all — is Introduction to Asian American Studies (AMST 3180), and it is absolutely the most interesting and informative class I’ve taken at this University so far. I’ve learned so much about Asian American history in general, and not just my own. 

Professor Chong teaches us about the many obstacles Asian Americans faced coming to the United States that I would otherwise not know about, but she also discusses more applicable things I’ve never thought of, like how it is potentially racist to claim that someone who is not white should “seek their roots.” Directly after this class on Wednesdays, I go to VISAS volunteering where I get to hang out with two international Chinese students in an ESL classroom — for me, it’s one of the most meaningful volunteer activities I’ve participated in.

Three or four years ago, I would not have even entertained the idea of taking a class on Asian American studies or helping international students with their English. I’d find different fun classes to take or other ways to get involved. But although I grew up in environments that constantly reminded me I was different and that looking different was not necessarily a good thing, my time at the University has led me to the conclusion that these very differences are actually what I love most about myself and my family.  

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