Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
In 7th grade, a classmate told the table that all East Asians were either really hot or really ugly. It won a few agreements, but I sat stunned. “What am I?” I demanded. His face scrunched up a little. At the time, I was 12-years-old, and I was plain. He, however, had summed up people who share my basic facial features as either the supermodels he saw in advertisements or the nameless mass of pinch-faced Chinese mobsters in movies. Eventually, he called me ugly. Between “ugly,” “hot,” and “what I said was stupid, sorry,” insulting me was the least embarrassing response for him.
In 9th grade, some boys on my bus asked me if I could see well. I replied that I was slightly near-sighted, but one of them corrected me, “No, I mean how wide do your eyes open?” I opened my eyes wide. They laughed and asked, “That’s it?”
In 11th grade, we learned about the violence inflicted by the Japanese during World War II. A girl in my grade joked, “I guess you have the killing blood, then.” I wondered if she ever told our German friend that she had the killing blood, too.
To put things in context, my school, le Lycée Rochambeau, an 11-acre chunk of land just outside Washington, D.C., teaches the national French curriculum in its original French. Thus, most students are from countries with cultural and historical ties to France, making it a mix of students of European, Arab, and African descent, an assorted fusion of international francophonie.
In 2009, when I arrived at the Lycée from my San Franciscan home situated thirty minutes away from North America's largest Chinatown, I was the only Asian American on campus.
I was shocked. My classmates were shocked. Everyone was very confused at seeing me. I was an outsider even in diversity.
I’ve been asked every conceivable race-related question, often with good intentions, but negative implications. For lack of exposure to Asian Americans, my classmates sometimes just don't know better. As I befriended them, I learned to correct them, pleasantly but firmly. In the end, though, their words did affect me. I grew up justifying my ethnicity. I grew up convincing people my grades weren't a product of some intellect-enhancing gene or of Tiger Mom-induced overachievement, but of a neat trick called studying like everyone else. I grew up explaining that I was in a French school because my family and I value humanities and languages, not just math and sciences. I grew up consulted as the representative of all things East Asian, even though I’m just one person, born and raised in the U.S.
At first, my gut reaction to being different was to deny it. I didn’t actually tell people, “I’m not Asian,” but I did the subconscious equivalent and alienated myself from my ethnic identity. I played along with the stereotypes and told the jokes I knew kids would laugh at, about my high marks, my subpar P.E. scores, my “weird” food. I realize now how counterproductive it was, but at the time I believed I would be accepted, that I would be that “cool Asian” who wasn’t like the others, who could take a joke!
Ethnicity goes beyond being a joke. Racial stereotypes box us in. We only know what we see and hear. Asian Americans are told they’re good at math and science, don’t see many Asian CEOs, hardly ever see Asian actors, never study Asian authors: a vicious cycle of monkey-doesn’t-see-monkey-doesn’t-do.
Only recently have I even thought to distinguish my real passions from my socialized ones. I know now that, even if ethnicity is a meaningful part of me, how other people see it does not define me. My interest in art, languages, history, and geography is no less real than my interest in math because of the shape of my eyes or the tint of my skin.
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