BY JESSICA WANG
My childhood was spent in a predominantly white neighborhood on the edge of Long Island, small plain houses sandwiched between girl scout groups and pastel ice cream stores that closed at 6:00 PM sharp. I remember that the kids in my school used to sing a particular song during recess, slanting their eyes as their voices joined together yelling chinese, japanese, indian, freeze while swing sets creaked back and forth and light up sneakers screeched on plastic slides. I used to sing that song, too, scrunching my eyes as I jumped rope with my best friend, Ulysses. I remember I liked that song. It was catchy and fun and rhymed. I didn’t know what it meant because I was young and when you are a child, racism doesn’t exist, only ignorance.
As I grew older, I started to realize the differences between me and my friends. They spent their Sundays playing soccer while I spent my Sundays at Chinese school. Their favorite fruits were apples and oranges while my favorite fruits were lychee and white peaches. They had yellow hair; I had black hair. They were white; I wasn’t.
My classmates weren’t necessarily mean to me, but all of them knew I was different. I knew I was different. Because no one had a last name the teacher couldn’t correctly pronounce, no one else was asked questions like do you eat dogs? or were you born in China? and had people stare at their mother because of the slight accent when she speaks.
I was different, and I hated being different. It was unfair to me. I didn’t understand why I had to suffer this way, why the world chose me to suffer by giving me black hair and brown eyes. I remember always feeling angry and frustrated, longing to dig in and peel back my ethnicity in layers, discarding and shedding my skin like orange peels. I channeled this frustration and anger through creams and makeup three shades lighter than my skin, through wigs and tiny blue booklets advertising colored contact lenses. I quit Chinese school and started playing soccer with all the other kids. I wore floppy bucket hats and stood three feet apart from my family because I was ashamed to be seen with them. If I wasn’t born white, I could at least try to be white.
I attempted to drown my ethnicity on a Friday night while other kids hung out and did skateboard tricks outside and talked about teachers and homework. I remember the smell of bleach and lemonade perfuming the air as I dumped the sweet syrupy mixture of yellow Kool-Aid and household cleaner over my head, the liquid saturating my hair and sticking and seeping into my skin. I remember falling onto my knees in the shower, hands clasped together and praying to a God I didn’t believe in, begging for all this yellowness to turn me white, to cut off my roots and rebirth me as a purer, more beautiful being.
But God didn’t answer me and when I looked in my bedroom mirror that night I still saw me, sticky and yellow. I saw myself in the mirror and felt sad, a hollow feeling filling my stomach and tightening my throat. I was sad, not because God didn’t make me white but because I had to go through all this just to realize the weight of my actions. That for a moment in my life, I actually thought I could be white, believed that ethnicities could be swapped and picked like shiny Pokemon cards.
Somebody once told me that you are the product of your own environment. I don’t remember if it was a teacher or a Ted Talk on Youtube, but that phrase has always stuck with me. I was the product of a white environment, an example of the need to belong, to blend in with a white community, and I had been desperate enough to lose my entire identity trying to.
Rehabilitation took time. I was addicted to misery, to creams and dyes and colored contact lenses. And behind the addiction and the pain was the ingrained idea that I was ugly and unworthy because of something that I couldn’t control. But slowly through bites of hot red bean buns, games of Mahjong, and squiggly calligraphy letters, I came to terms with myself, with my community and my culture. I learned that love was 爱 in Chinese and saw pictures of my grandma’s apartment in Beijing and made deformed cabbage dumplings with my family. I picked up the broken pieces of my culture, the parts and memories that I had cast aside, and slowly used them to piece together my ethnicity. I learned that my environment doesn’t have to be my community because blood is thicker than the neighborhood you grew up in, and my community smells like red peppers and tastes like mother’s cabbage dumplings and just feels right. I learned that my culture, my identity, my community, is something that I cannot cover but something that I must embrace.
And one night as the same kids outside did skateboard ollies and drank glacier blue slushies until their heads throbbed, I looked in my bedroom mirror and felt happy, genuine happiness. I liked my black hair and my skin and my dark eyes, and I wouldn’t have traded that for all the yellow Kool-Aid and shiny Pokemon cards in the world.