As a naive 8-year-old sitting in a classroom full of non-Asian faces on my first day of school in America, I failed to see myself as different. When my family announced our decision to leave our home in South Korea for a small town in California, adults and children alike filled my head with high hopes of making friends with “foreigners” and living my best 8-year-old life. At such a young age, I couldn’t have foreseen the racism and bullying that I would be exposed to for the very first time.
Most Asian Americans have experienced this rude awakening at some point in their lives, when they realized they were different and this difference could make them targets. Bias-based bullying at a young age can have harmful effects even into adulthood – a study on the effect of bullying on adolescence found that race-related bullying is strongly associated with negative emotional and even physical health effects. And a large-scale survey found that among American students in grades 8 through 12, Asian-Americans had the lowest self-esteem.
To make matters worse, Hollywood’s racist tropes of the de-sexualized, weak Asian male and the submissive Asian female only exacerbate the situation and create an environment where Asian children do not feel like they can vocalize their discomfort. When Asian men and women repeatedly become the comic relief in a popular sitcom or blockbuster film, and are treated poorly on screen, it normalizes this behavior. In many ways, these negative Asian stereotypes trivialize bullying and racism against Asians.
As an Asian American immigrant, I was not always aware of these stereotypes or the fact that so many Westerners held such animosity towards people of color. But it didn’t take me long, even as a child, to realize that the color of my skin and the shape of eyes would be enough to make some people hate me immediately.
When I first moved to America I could barely speak English; my ability to communicate with my classmates relied almost solely on picking up on their body language and trying to act out what I wanted to say, like a game of charades. During my first few days of school I saw kids pointing and laughing at me or whispering in the hallways — I didn’t need to understand exactly what they were saying to know that it was something negative about me, I already knew. One day, a group of non-Asian kids approached me on the playground and began stretching out the outer corners of their eyes while squinting to mimic the shape of my Asian eyes. The kids then broke out into laughter and stuck their tongues out, “we’re not your friends, go away,” they shouted. I was so shocked that I didn’t even cry, I didn’t know how I should react. Growing up in Asia, we all had the same eye shape and as silly as it sounds now, I had never realized before then, that my eyes were small or squinty. Even though I could understand what the other children had said and done, the language barriers limited my ability to defend myself so I immediately turned to my teacher for help. However, all she could say back to me was, “So?” as she rolled her eyes and went back to her papers.
I convinced myself that the problem was not bullying or racism or even the other kids — I told myself the problem was me and my inability to speak English. From that point on, I attended ESL classes and I tried everything I could to assimilate into my new surroundings and in less than a year, I was fluent enough to be able to communicate comfortably with my classmates. I had tricked myself into believing that if I showed up to school with my Lunchables, dressed like the other kids and spoke like the other kids, all of my problems would vanish, but instead, new ones emerged.
During one of the recesses, the girls in my class wanted to play “house” — as many little girls do — and proceeded to hand out roles: the mom, the daughter, the baby, etc. I was assigned the rather exciting role of “chair.” Obviously unhappy with the casting, I tried to speak up but was quickly silenced by four to five girls physically crushing me with their weight as they sat down on me. It wasn’t until I screamed “I can’t breathe” that they finally let me go. As days went on, things got more physical as my teachers continued to turn a blind eye. I left birthday parties with bruises from being pushed over, I cried as girls pulled on my hair and called me an ugly Chinese girl and eventually, I gave up on all of my teachers.
As I moved on to high school and college, I realized my experiences were nowhere near unique. In college, I met male Asian students who had been bullied and physically attacked by strangers on the streets for being a “chink” and I met female Asian students who were too afraid to attend classes alone after being verbally threatened by their classmates in person and online for their race. With years of constant abuse and marginalization, it came as no surprise that all of these young adults had resented their Asian heritage at some point in their lives. As I spoke with more East, South and West Asian students around me, we realized after 20-something years of hating our racial identities, we were all suddenly in a rush to play catch up in exploring our roots. Despite coming from different areas of Asia, I discovered we shared similar adolescent traumas and we all desperately wished we hadn’t wasted so many years mistakenly thinking we had to sacrifice our Asian cultures to be American.
We all spoke about our childhoods, how far we’ve come since then and ultimately, how we found closure. Most of these Asian young adults I spoke to still experienced bullying in their twenties. When we’re young, bullying is simplified; they tease us, call us names and push us, all while there are witnesses. As adults, bullying occurs in more subtle ways: “They know now that as long as they don’t leave any physical scars or call us ‘chinks’ we can’t do anything to report them, it’s sinister,” my friend would tell me.
One of the harshest realities I’ve had to confront as an adult was the fact that these issues don’t go away — if anything they only become more complex as we mature. Just because acts of bullying become less physical and more psychological, doesn’t mean the situation becomes any more bearable. And as hard as it may be, there’s a good chance you may have to watch the people who tormented you for years go out into the real world and live happy, successful lives with zero consequences.
“It gets better,” everyone used to tell me, “bullies don’t win.” Adults like to comfort children suffering from bullying with promises of a perfect future and karma but fail to offer any coping techniques that could help them in the present. I wish more adults had sat down with me even for a brief moment to talk about the nature of bullying and race. All Asian children living in western countries will eventually experience racism in their lives, so it helps to have productive discussions about it from a young age.
From elementary school to middle school, then high school and college, I always hoped that things would magically get better and my bullies will be held accountable. But ironically, I only started to make peace with my past and move forward after I admitted to myself that these expectations weren’t realistic. Now, when I look back on my childhood, I’m so proud of my younger self for coming this far. I went from an 8-year-old child speaking broken English and struggling to fit in, to a young adult who left this small town bubble and has finally discovered a group of people with similar experiences. We can talk openly about mental health, racism and childhood bullies and despite the challenges we still face as adults, we have finally embraced our racial identities and we are happy.
To every Asian child who has ever been bullied, you are not alone. For now, you might hate yourself for being Asian, you might be feeling trapped, but I’m willing to bet that almost every Asian adult has once been where you are now. After time, you’ll realize that these experiences are not points of weaknesses, but rather, learning experiences that make you so much stronger than your peers. No Asian child should be mocked for their brown or yellow skin or the shape of their eyes, but racism is too deeply ingrained in western society for this issue to be eradicated any time soon. Things may not get better tomorrow or even a year from now, but one day, you will be able to find a group of people who understand you and your struggles and then you can finally work your way towards finding closure.