Unlike other Asians, I was not bullied for being too smart, but rather too dumb. I did not live up to the expectations that the color of my skin had set for me.
As an Asian American in America, I believe the education system has failed us. While I studied the ABC’s as a 3 year old, I was never taught what it meant to actually be an ABC: an American Born Chinese. I was ill-prepared to face the injustices and confrontations that the color of my skin would bring. I was raised in a predominantly white neighborhood, educated by predominantly white teachers, and surrounded by predominantly white peers.
However, I never understood how homogenous my upbringing was until middle school. Being Asian was never at the forefront of my mind before. Yes, I did play the piano, and, yes, I excelled in math, and, yes, I attended spelling bees, and, yes, I barely passed gym class every year, but my friends in elementary school never really saw color: they just saw me as a friend. I guess you could argue that we were too young, and to a degree, I would agree with you. In elementary school, I was never judged for the way I dressed or the way I looked, and my strengths and weaknesses were just part of who I was.
There are a lot of different times in people’s lives that they would personally describe as “life changing” or a “turning point.” For me, high school and college are the two biggest ones. However, middle school was the wake-up call to the realities of race. Imagine being coddled your entire life, told that your grades always exceeded expectations, and that your performance in the arts was spectacular, only for you to suddenly be told that nothing you do will ever be enough. That soul-crushing, ego-killing, depression-causing reality is what I faced. I was academically gifted as a child, and school and grades came to me like birds to seeds. It was effortless, and I never had to study for anything.
Come middle school, and suddenly there were things I could not understand and subjects that felt too complicated to learn. On top of the frustration of not knowing how to be a student, imagine the teachers themselves being surprised at your failure. My fifth grade year, I was a B student, a.k.a. considerably average, and this was the beginning of a roller coaster that only went downhill. Unlike other Asians, I was not bullied for being too smart, but rather too dumb. I did not live up to the expectations that the color of my skin had set for me.
I think the phrase “learn through trying” was the most unrealistic and scarring thing I could have been told in middle school. Yes, I did learn, and yes, I did try, but what I “learned” was that trying was futile. Being an Asian American who was “not Asian enough” meant that I met no one’s stereotype of me, and that hurt. While, yes, stereotypes are unnecessary categories that society puts on people for the sake of understanding, they also play a large role in present-day interactions. While I do not have to be taught to keep my hands on the steering wheel when pulled over and move extremely slowly like a black child my age would, or not to run when the police come like a Latinx child, I still wish I could learn how to be a “good” Asian.
My first year of high school, I was involved in several fights. I had been complacent about being called a “c*ink” or a “g*ok” or watching ignorant white peers pull their eyes to the side for years throughout middle school, but I finally decided to do something about it in high school. There was no spur of courage or a sudden spike of self-confidence, I just got fed up. I think that says a lot about teenage boys and their inability to unpack emotions, but that is another essay for another time. In that one year, I broke a total of three noses, one jaw, four fingers, and one rib, and not all of them were mine. I would go home and put on a nasty attitude to my unwitting parents who were just asking me how my day was so I could take care of bruises and injuries.
I thought of myself as a sort of one man anti-racist vigilante, as if me taking out my anger on others was getting justice. For me, it felt liberating and like I was taking my life back. But in reality I was not– I was fighting others because I hated myself. My insecurities made me dangerous, violent, and unempathetic. My lack of character stood in the way of me growing to be an upstanding human being, capable of offering anything to society.
What made it even worse was that I was an Asian fighting against white kids, kids whose dads were lawyers or dentists, and raised with a sense of superiority. So they kept coming with the slurs, the punches, the shoves, and I continued to lash out violently and fruitlessly.
But that was years ago, right? I must have changed. There must have been some sort of turning point between now and then. So who am I today? Have I really changed? Evolved? Am I a better person today than I was what seemed like a lifetime ago? Can the character of a person truly be rehabilitated? Does time have the power to heal?
Perhaps the formerly overly-confident young man who used to take such frequent pernicious action, who is writing this today, has truly become a different person. Or, perhaps I am feigning an understanding of my emotions in order to appear more complex and mature. But then again, maybe with the friends I have made and the relationships I have built, I have learned and grown. Perhaps race and the stereotypes that come with it can be overcome, and what I have achieved today was achievable despite the color of my skin. Or, perhaps, I am convincing myself that the racist remarks and the bruises I have nursed were just part of a 21st century education. Maybe I was wrong, maybe my school education has not failed me, and the pain I endured was something I had to go through.
Going into the “real world” is a scary experience and I am only headed to the next stepping stone of college. I wish I had the answers in understanding myself now and I wish that growing older really meant becoming wiser. I do not know if school should have been so mentally taxing. On one hand, I am glad that I learned how to stand up for myself, but on the other, I wish I did not have to. But one thing I know is that I want to change how minorities are educated in America.
What do we really learn about race in school? Our education limits our minds by only teaching certain things. African American students learn in class that their ancestors were all slaves, fighting for their lives under an oppressive government designed to dehumanize them. White students now learn that their ancestors were slave owners and barbarians coming to a New World, terrorizing a continent and committing heinous genocide. Chinese kids learn about Mao Zedong and Tiananmen Square, and how the oppressive government of the country from which they are descended massacred millions of its own people. What students are taught can create a negative bond between people and their history. Stereotypes are not just a societal standard, they are a standard created by the very education America promotes.
I write to raise awareness of the shortcomings in present-day education, and how it fails students of all colors. From kindergarten to high school, I was given two paths for an education: reformation or conformity. To either fight the entirety of the American education system, or to change my personal values to align with what a school book taught. As an Asian American, I believe education must evolve to meet the needs and demands of today’s youth.
Copyright Ethan Huang 2020