The First Time I Realized I Wasn’t White

photo courtesy of Jasmine Chan

On the first day of third grade, our first assignment was to decorate and fill out a ‘get to know you’ form to be hung up around the classroom. It had questions like, ‘What’s your name? Favorite color? Do you have any pets?’ It was simple enough until I got to the question: What’s your favorite food? It was an easy decision — definitely my favorite homemade dish, Sinigang, a tangy beef soup served over rice — but the hard part was the spelling. I asked my teacher for help, but the best answer she could give me was to sound it out. Another classmate was waiting behind me, and you can bet he got the spelling for macaroni & cheese. So that was what I wrote for my answer too. I always knew I looked different, but this was the first instance where I realized it was easier to conform to the culture my society catered to than to push to be myself.

Adolescence is a confusing time for everyone, but it was even more difficult for me as a first-generation American born to two immigrants from the Philippines. I didn’t understand why I was the only brown girl in my grade at the elementary school in a town that might as well have been a loaf of white bread. I didn’t like the way the other kids asked “what are you?”. I didn’t understand why none of my barbies looked like me, or why I had never heard of a Filipina princess.

As I got older and entered the dreadfully awkward years of middle school, I began to push further and further away from my ethnic roots, to reject a relationship with my parents and their culture. I became increasingly insecure of my appearance — I wanted to look like the blonde, pointy-nosed white girls that all the boys had crushes on. I was embarrassed by my parents’ accents when we ordered food at a restaurant and the waiter couldn’t understand them. I didn’t bother to learn their native language. I tried to assimilate as much as I could into the white, American culture that surrounded me.

I resented the fact that my white friends had best friend relationships with their moms, and although I was supported on a financial level, there wasn’t really a place for emotional support in my house. That was just the Filipino way.  I was constantly reminded of my privilege compared to my mother — who grew up in a one room house as the oldest of ten and sent herself through high school and nursing school — and my father, who worked odd jobs to pay for medical school and still works two jobs with long hours to raise his family in the US. Going through high school, there was no tolerance for complaining about stress, as I was being given these opportunities that my parents never had. They didn’t understand the importance of prom, going to football games on a Friday night, or why I wanted to go to the mall with friends as an American teenager does, because they never had these wants. Even if they did, they weren’t going to get them. They never attended parent-teacher conferences, knew when I had a test, or helped me on a school project. It was made clear that being a successful student was not only my responsibility, but a privilege.

The college application process was the most frustrating for me. I was on my own, with only my older siblings’ paths to guide me. My parents didn’t go to college in America and had little knowledge about any schools. All they had to do was drive me to the tours and interviews and

photo courtesy of Jasmine Chan

photo courtesy of Jasmine Chan

pay the application fees. I didn’t have a legacy to help me in admissions, and my parents didn’t even look at my essay until after I was already receiving my decision letters.

It wasn’t until I got older and started traveling more that I started to understand my identity on a global scale, that there was a whole lot more out there for me outside of fitting into Norwell, Massachusetts. When I spent my first semester of college abroad in Sydney, I was grateful for food being such an important part of Filipino culture and the hours my mom forced me to help her make dinner every night. I noticed the little things that I was forced to learn how to do myself, like schedule doctor appointments and create a budget. With every challenge I was faced with, I knew I would be able to figure it out — as I did with everything growing up. I had no sense of entitlement and only held myself responsible for my own needs. I was lucky enough to be going to college, let alone have the opportunity to travel the world and have parents who prepared me for it.

When I returned home after four months, I had a newfound understanding for my parents and was ready to develop a relationship with them. They had overcome incredible odds, and they only wanted me to learn how to do that with my smaller ones as well. I understood that although the Filipino way may have felt marginalizing and oppressive growing up compared to the American way, it has made me the independent and strong person I am today. The way they pushed me growing up has translated to me always pushing myself to fill the potential they blessed me with, and I have created for myself.  

Although it is 2017 and I am lucky enough to attend a university that not only accepts but celebrates diversity, the subtle tensions brought on by my ethnicity are still apparent in my daily life. From being fetishized by men for being exotic, to trying to find a foundation shade dark enough with a yellow undertone to suit my skin, to ignoring when someone tries to greet me with “ni hao” — these are the little things that people don’t think about being a privilege in a society that caters to their norms.

Last semester, I heard that a white boy had referred to me as “Ling Ling” in a derogatory way behind my back. If this were even a year ago I would have been hurt by this, but I decided to laugh it off and started referring to myself as “Ling Ling” instead. If I could reclaim the term as my own, it couldn’t hurt me. I refuse to let my ethnicity be used against me, as I’ve come to the realization that my dark skin and flat nose are something to wear proudly. I carry my Filipino roots and my parents’ struggle everywhere I go. I’ve learned to have a sense of humor about the way my family can be so stereotypically foreign sometimes. Being an Asian-American, I realized that I don’t have to pick one. Being a mix of cultures is what makes me unique, adaptable to new environments, and sensitive to others that are different from me. I stand in unity with other women of all colors and first-generation Americans who have pasts and futures to be incredibly proud of.