Seared into my memory is the first time I fought with my friends.
We were in ninth-grade world history when my friend offhandedly joked, “Yeah, but Rona’s Asian and has a big house, so she wouldn’t get what we’re going through.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. My friend is a person of color, too. Why would she assume that I had never struggled? My heart pounded, and my vision zeroed in on her.
“Even though I have a big house, you have no idea what my family has been through or is currently experiencing.”
Although I had spoken quietly enough, the silence in the room was brittle. My friend hastily apologized while I sank back into my chair, fighting back tears.
I knew I was lucky to have a nice home. But when I lost my temper, I thought only of the furniture that actually populated my big house — mismatched things scavenged from the sidewalks outside my parents’ student apartments — the guilt-tripping and high-strung squabbles that escalated when my older sister started at a private university. I thought about how, despite all of the stereotypes about Chinese food being cheap and Chinese goods cheaply made, people would still presume I was wealthy. They pulled their eyes shut to mock mine, just as their eyes were closed to learning about my actual circumstances.
When I sat back down, I felt guilty and ashamed about how many of my friends witnessed my anger. My parents taught me to never fight my peers. They told me that in Chinese culture, if someone says something that bothers you, you’re responsible for graciously turning a blind eye. At best, you turn it into a humorous jab at the other person. Your “face,” or reputation in the community, is more important than your personal feelings toward the matter. How anyone would know in a value system that simultaneously discourages gossiping is a mystery I will never solve.
I remember that fight because it was also the first time I had ever stood up for myself. I am soft-spoken, have always been well-behaved. I don’t try to change others, and I don’t challenge authority. I have discounted so many other microaggressive interactions because I was encouraged to be passive and because I felt like I wasn’t suffering enough to warrant the battle.
But the American in me knows when rebelling is right. My mother grew up during the Cultural Revolution, learning the Chinese texts and customs that the government strove to destroy in the name of social equality from books hidden illegally under my grandparents’ bed. She once told me to only create that which I would be proud to be remembered by, for my work will always outlast me.
I hoped that education could be the great equalizer, with the power to bring people up from any socioeconomic rung, to implement policies that help people around the world, to trade bigotry and intercultural hatred for joy at our similarities and respect for our differences — which is why my friend’s words and the countless assumptions people make about my background confuse me if we all ended up at the same school. I’ve already suppressed my pride in my culture for years to be more “American.” I never expected so much barefaced opposition at university because I am East Asian.
Perhaps I’m not at fault for the way people read my face. Because my family brushed off the insults we received, we only allowed oppression against us to persist and be inherited by the next generation. Perhaps it’s time to break from this tradition of silence to write down how I feel and what I endure.
I attend university to learn, but education has come from more than my classes. It comes from all the friends I made and the mistakes from which I eventually recovered. It blossomed from a reckless curiosity about the peoples and the institutions around me. It certainly does not come from tearing me down so that you can stand taller.
I am no less deserving of understanding and empathy. My parents didn’t subsist off of busboy paychecks before their careers began just so I could be labeled “not unfortunate enough” or so my twin could be dismissed as “not POC enough” on campuses they could have walked in another life. No, I am not a member of an underrepresented group. I am not a first-generation college student. I am not here to be your poster child for the American dream or the model minority or some “exotic” import from a faraway land of dragons. I am here because education brought my family from rural villages to cities to my birthplace the United States, and I am here to honor their sacrifices and make a home of this soil.
Rona Wang is a junior studying public health at UC Berkeley and is a resident assistant at the International House at UC Berkeley.