For many Americans living in a country that actively others those who aren’t white, straddling the hyphen of an ethnic compound can complicate a sense of self and belonging. For Shining Li, growing up as a Chinese-born American incited a “painful desire to be normal, to be completely accepted as American.” In a piece with Interrupt Magazine, Li recalls:
When I was in second grade, a girl pushed me off the monkey bars at recess. I’ve never seen her before but she didn’t want to be my friend. She said, “Why is your face so flat? Go away Chinese girl”. I don’t remember much about grade school, but I’ve always remembered that.
Aware that her younger brother can only be going through more of the same, Li decided to conduct a brief interview with eleven-year-old Joseph to hear his thoughts on his own cultural identity. The result is this amazing audio interview about race in America.
In the recording, Li explains that her brother is the only member of her family to both be born in America and have an American name, which she personally chose to protect him from the same teasing she endured in school. During a recent trip to visit relatives in China, Li sat down with Joseph to find that his relationship with his heritage is somewhat disheartening, just as hers was growing up.
The conversation starts off with Joseph’s vocal distaste for China, exasperated with not being able to understand the language as well as the “stinky” and “polluted” environment. Li sympathizes.
I didn’t want to go to China either when I was his age. I thought I was american. And just the mention of China, let alone going to China, was a reminder that I didn’t completely belong. I had this constant identity crisis. No matter how American I felt, I couldn’t escape being an immigrant. I had a friend in third grade with big blue eyes and a family golden retriever. Her parents spoke perfect, unaccented English. I wanted so badly to be her sister. At school, I hated it whenever anyone commented on my race.
Shining: How do you feel different from other people at school?
Joseph: Well, of course, there is the thing teasing about like “oh your hair looks weird” or something. And they tease me about how my hair is little bit brownish color compared to other Chinese people. Because obviously Chinese people should have solid black hair.
S: You feel like people don’t respect you because you are Chinese?
J: Some people, like the people who don’t respect me the most are people who is one person. He kept randomly walking up to me just to say “hi Chinese person, do you want some more tofu and baked beans and would you like sudoku book with that? Have fun being fat and wrestling sumo player”.
S: So he tells you that every single day?
J: Well, like probably like two or three times a week.
Throughout the interview, Joseph recalls his peers’ racism with matter-of-factness. “I’m used to it,” he tells Shining, “because a lot of people say that.” He insists that no one means any harm by these comments, but admits that their words do make him feel different—and it hurts.
Go read the whole interview over at Interrupt.
Photo: Shining Li and her little brother.