The main character is white: A personal essay

Photo of Mara Wilson in Matilda
TriStar Pictures/Courtesy

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In seventh grade, we wrote poems in Language Arts class titled “About Me.” We followed a simple formula of one-line declarations, and my final product was as earnest as I could contrive it to be. Next to my “About Me” poem, I included a graphic drawn with my mouse — a messy portrait of a white girl, with pale skin and red hair, her eyes two light green blots of digital paint.

Only half a decade later, when I dug up my spiral-bound portfolio, did I question why I’d drawn someone who looked nothing like myself next to my honest attempt at self-representation. She wore cyan from head to toe and a close-mouthed smile — maybe that felt like me. And maybe, as far as I know, her hair and skin felt like me, too.

At that time, being Chinese was just a part of who I was, a culture and language I was proud of. As one of the only Asian kids in my grade, I knew most kids at school didn’t bring sticky rice wrapped in bamboo leaves for lunch or recite Li Bai’s poems at Saturday school. 

But I didn’t think much about how being Chinese made my experience different from the other kids’ on a more profound level. I also didn’t think about looking Chinese. There were moments when kids pulled their eyes back at me and said “konichiwa,” and once when a kid whipped out his phone to blast the classic “Oriental riff” as I walked past him on the basketball court. Another time, a little kid ran away from me on the slide because I was “a China.” He was a stranger who was a head shorter than me, so I glared silently and slid somewhere else, surprised at being singled out in that very specific way.

But at the time, I didn’t ponder for too long on these incidents after they happened. Though they were bothersome, they were nothing like the terrible stories of schoolyard bullying which I’d gawked at in books and PSAs. If I felt I were different from the other kids, it wasn’t on account of my race. Frankly, it wasn’t until many years later when I realized my best friend and I were among about three Asian kids in our third grade class.

Perhaps these incidents should have been my moments of sudden enlightenment, when it all was supposed to click in my pre-adolescent brain: Oh my god, I’m Chinese and I’m in North America, and people are racist. But only later would “Chinese American” become an identity I actually identified with, when I’d analyze it in an application essay and write research papers about it as something that specifically set my experience apart and made me part of a Chinese American community. Back then, though, despite these moments, being a Chinese kid in America seemed as simple to me as being another kid, just with different holidays and another language. 

Similarly, the characters and stories I liked were simply what I liked. Who I was and what I liked lay comfortably next to each other, like in this list from a short autobiography assignment I wrote in fifth grade: 

“I like novels, about normal people. Sometimes I like some un-normal stuff. I am Chinese.”

———

I would usually laugh along if an acquaintance told me I reminded them of the one East Asian girl in a popular movie; but it was annoying, because I didn’t relate to those characters at all. 

Like my peers, I related to the protagonists.

In elementary school, I dreamt that I was Matilda, discovering that I could move paperclips with my mind and being sorely disappointed upon awakening that there were no powers (and no Miss Honey). When I was awake, I curled up next to a bookshelf imagining I was her, cradling a classic from the English canon and envisioning a huge bow on my head. I went over to my friend’s house once to throw on an oversized skirt and become Mary Poppins. On some days, I wanted Mary Poppins to be my nanny, but that day, I simply wanted to be her. I whispered to my friend to ask her mom if we could use a swipe of her red lipstick. When I was seven, I wanted to have red hair and freckles like Anne of Green Gables, or to be like her friend Diana Barry. I supposed I was more similar to Diana, because she had black hair, too, and was a bit quieter, but she still didn’t look like me or anyone in my family. She had gently wavy hair, while mine lay flat and wouldn’t stay in a bun like Mary Poppins’ without fifteen bobby pins. Oh well.

I imagined these characters hanging out with me in my living room through an elaborate system of magical dimension-hopping. These people, who filled the bookshelves of the school library and the TV screen on class movie days, were shy or hot-headed, awkward or eloquent, and always vividly human. They spoke only in English, the language I’d learned to use when I was writing my own characters or competing in a spelling bee. They were also vividly white, with pink cheeks and real Christmas trees, tea parties, and straight-edged noses.

———

At home, I was surrounded by Chinese people — my parents, our family friends, what I heard of our relatives in the homeland, the people on Chinese television. I visited China when I was ten, and I met a world of people who’d heard of me, like some sort of fable, with warmth that I couldn’t have imagined from photo albums and distant voices on phone calls. I spoke enough Chinese to watch Chinese kids shows with my family friends’ daughter who lived in China. We were like sisters for two weeks, sitting in the back of the car singing a cheeky parody of the birthday song. 

But I didn’t feel quite the same as my friend, or as the kids on TV in China. But why wouldn’t I feel like them? I think I may have realized the answer, just slightly, before flying back to the United States. Sitting in the airport with my dad, I yammered loudly in English so that the kids my age in the seats near us could hear that I was speaking English. “I’m from somewhere else, and I’m proud of it,” I wanted to convey. 

It makes me mostly ashamed, now, that I wanted so badly to show off my knowledge of a European language without cherishing my fluency in Chinese. At the time, though, I think I was just missing my friends, our conversations about the latest Jerry Spinelli book or our school’s ban on Silly Bandz, all the things that made up my regular life.

———

When I think about East Asian characters in Western media who left an impression on me as a kid, very little comes to mind. I related more to Bastian, a German kid from “The Neverending Story, than to Disney’s Mulan, who came from what seemed like a faraway world and who my dad told me was a complete misinterpretation of Hua Mulan, or to, say, London Tipton, whose cultural identity was never really addressed. Maybe this was my fault for choosing stories about white people, or maybe it was because the first books and movies on the shelf, and the ones that people talked about, were “The Secret Garden,” or the “Alice” series, or “Artemis Fowl.” I spent my childhood emotionally invested in stories like these, and they made me long not only to have the wonderful hair color called strawberry blonde, but also to experience a WASP family’s suburban life or run away to a dreamlike place in Europe.

———

These days, I deliberately seek books and movies that feature Chinese characters. And I know the lack of good minority representation in the media is a much wider issue than my experience as a Chinese American person. In recent years, I hear discussions about this issue all over my side of the internet and in casual conversations. My friend, who once described himself as an “Indian-American who doesn’t know Hindi and acts whiter than he should,” said something that made me nod in solidarity: “Whenever I imagined a main character, I saw a white person.” 

Kaitlyn Greenidge wrote a piece about the 2019 adaptation of Little Women, which incited a similar reaction in me. In it, she discusses her experience as a Black woman reading American classics and relating, since childhood, to famous white characters. “I understand the fatigue of watching a prestigious film about white women being claimed as a cultural watershed for women everywhere. But I also feel the pull of narrative, of images on the screen, of watching an artist build a world and inviting others to enter.” I relate to her conflict, looking back at all the times I was enchanted by the pull of a white narrative. Like Greenidge says, we don’t necessarily need to spurn classics about white people which we held close to our hearts. But we do need to recognize that they are, specifically, stories about white people, not universal experiences. And they absolutely do not represent the rest of the world. 

Whether we like it or not, the culture we live in defines the main characters we see, and thus what type of people we think we identify with, — who we think deserves our empathy. This is especially true when we are young and impressionable. Better late than never, I do think regularly about being Chinese American, what it means to relate to white characters in white-centric narratives, and how I feel on the increasingly-common occasions I find fully-formed characters who are Chinese American. 

For me, there is certainly no clear distinction between then and now, between a past time when I mindlessly related to a girl named Ramona Quimby and a current era when I criticize the injustice of bad representation. White stories are still a big part of the media I consume. In high school, I discovered Jane Austen, and invited Elinor Dashwood into my living room. And I’ve sat down many times in recent years to watch another movie about white lesbians and been genuinely moved. 

But the way I approach my choices in media is changing, as is the media. In the past year, I’ve adored Alice Wu’s “The Half of It” and the game/visual novel “Butterfly Soup, both which feature Asian characters like Noelle and Ellie Chu, who are complex and beautiful. I’m adding to the list day by day. They are as human as Matilda and Anne Shirley, and stories like theirs must be played at movie nights and featured on the main shelves of the fall book fair.

 

Contact Miranda Jiang at [email protected].