The Spectrum: Moving from shame to empowerment as a Chinese American

Bethany Ao, Contributor

Shame found me when I was just four years old. I had been sitting at the end of the table during lunch with my preschool classmates when I took out my lunchbox. My mom had packed me a steamed bun (mantou)  filled with pork floss. I unpacked my food and began to eat.

“Ew, why are you eating hair?”

“What is that?”

“Look, she’s eating hair!”

Shouts and laughter erupted around me as my classmates noticed what I was eating. My teacher was flustered and confused as she tried to shush the other children, but the damage was already done. For some reason, I wanted to run into the bathroom and cry. At the time, I didn’t know what that reason was, but I certainly knew that I was never going to bring pork floss to school ever again, even though it was one of my favorite snacks.

Throughout elementary school, I made sure my Chinese culture never again made it into the classroom or onto the playground with me. I only allowed my mom to pack me the sandwiches, juice boxes and prepackaged snacks the other kids were eating. In sixth grade, I stopped letting her braid my hair into two long pigtails and instead started wearing it in a ponytail, just like the other girls in my class. By eighth grade, I was only shopping at Abercrombie, American Eagle and Aeropostale.

Outside of school, I attended Chinese classes on the weekends. My favorite foods were all Chinese dishes. I loved watching Chinese TV dramas with my mom whenever I had free time. I even learned how to make wontons from my grandma when she came to cook for us.

Between my junior and senior years of high school, I participated in a volunteer trip to Beijing with a group of white students who were about my age. Because I was one of the two students on the trip who could speak Chinese fluently, the other students resented me and refused to include me in their activities. They thought I was “showing off.” For the second half of the trip, I pretended not to understand Chinese whenever we went out as a group in order to gain their acceptance. I couldn’t even be proud of my Chinese heritage in China because I was so worried about disturbing the racial equilibrium.

One of the biggest things that drew me to Northwestern when I was applying to colleges as a high school senior was the diverse student body. Now that I am here, it is true that the campus is diverse and there are students of every color, every belief and every kind of identity here. But that diversity is not always discussed in a productive manner.

In fact, sometimes I only feel comfortable discussing the issues I face as an Asian-American female student with my Asian-American friends who I know have struggled with the same things or in a classroom where I know my professor will provide a buffer between my voice and the ones trying to drown me out.

Why is it that oftentimes I can’t bring myself to speak up about racial issues on this campus, which is supposed to be an accepting and safe space for all voices? It is because I am afraid talking about the Chinese half of my identity will invalidate me as an American in the eyes of my white peers.

It has taken me 15 years to realize that I have been trying to validate myself as an equal through the standards of “whiteness,” 15 years to realize that the more I separate the Chinese part of my identity from the American part, the less power I have against injustices dealt against me, 15 years to realize that I have been letting the shame that comes with being Asian-American in a society that is not ready to accept us with open arms control me, 15 years to even begin to stop resenting the fact that I am an Asian-American woman.

I am proud of my Chinese-American identity and I am never again going to let someone strip away that pride and replace it with shame. I don’t have to pretend to be more “white” than I am to be an equal. Being American does not mean I have to be white, and the American half of my identity can coexist peacefully with the Chinese half.

I am proud of my Chinese-American identity because both China and America are majestic countries with rich cultures and I am allowed be a part of both. I love being able to melt marshmallows over a bonfire to make s’mores and light sparklers with my friends on the Fourth of July. I love being able to help my mom make dumplings for our Chinese New Year dinner and traveling the breathtakingly beautiful mountains of Tibet with my dad.

I am proud of my Chinese-American identity because I have finally stopped feeling a need to see myself through the lenses of people who will never understand what is like to be discriminated against because of the color of their skin.

After 15 years, I am finally on my way to beating shame.

Bethany Ao is a Medill freshman. She can be reached at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].

This essay is part of The Spectrum a weekly series in our Opinion section on topics of marginalization and privilege. To submit a piece for The Spectrum, please email [email protected] with your idea for a piece no longer than 700 words that you hope to have published as part of the conversation