White-Washing: A Tale of Fitting In

I will never forget the time when a couple of my classmates decided to point at a small crack between our desks. It was Grade 8, and we had all just finished giving presentations about the countries our families are from.

“Look Sam,” one said as he tried to stifle his laughter. “It’s a chink!”

Being Asian, this was no coincidence. He had just looked up the word “chink” in the dictionary, and found that its literal meaning was “a small narrow opening, such as a fissure or crack.” He thought this was hilarious, seeing that “chink” was also a rude thing to call a Chinese person.

Growing up as one of four other Chinese students in my class, my ethnicity was the butt of many cultural jokes and a growing fascination to my peers. For them, it was funny to draw Asian people with slanted eyes or to take pictures squinting while making peace signs.

But rather than defend my culture, I gave in to my peers because I didn’t want to stand out even more. As a result, I began to stray away from my heritage as much as possible in an attempt to be more “white”. And while I could never change the colour of my skin, hair or the shape of my eyes, I started to neglect anything that would make me seem “too Chinese.”

For this reason, I became increasingly embarrassed by my family’s Asian accents and decided not to speak Chinese in public. I even started to refuse certain lunches in fear that it would stink up the classroom. I even started dressing like a tomboy and accessorizing with studded bracelets, which I thought would help make people see me differently.

This really seemed to make an impression on two of my uncles, who to this day, continue to make fun of my Chinese and my lack of skills holding chopsticks. Add in the fact that I kept laughing and playing along with my classmates’ jokes, I became divided between my Asian heritage and the Canadian culture I was born into.

It’s probably easy to read this and shake your head wondering why anyone would do this. But the bigger truth of it all is simply the fact that no one seems to know much about the Asian community at all.

At school, we often learn about our country’s treatment of Native Americans, World War II or the importance of having Black History Month. But even though I believe all this is crucial to learn, there is barely any word on the history of Asians, Hispanics or those living in the Middle East. In fact, it was just three years ago that I found out that Canada even had an Asian Heritage Month. And even then, I heard people ask why this was important, as if several Chinese immigrants didn’t come to the country to help build the Canadian Pacific Railway.

I am often approached by people who are impressed with my English and are surprised that I’m studying journalism instead of math, science or engineering. They’re even more intrigued that I can speak Chinese, and often ask me if I can say their name in the language (even though that’s not the way it works). Just the other day, someone who was also Asian asked if I was from Mainland China or Hong Kong, as if there was no other place I could come from. And while I can forgive the fact that he was drunk, it’s surprising that I have to answer these questions in the first place.  The following video is the perfect example:

It’s no wonder why I have sympathy for Julie Chen, who underwent double-eyelid surgery at the age of 25 to help advance her television career. Chen’s decision is based on the racist assumption that mono-lidded eyes are less beautiful than ones that are double-lidded.  When she revealed that workplace racism influenced her decision to change her looks, it was haunting to me how easy it is for us minorities to suppress aspects of our culture as a means to fit in.

But while I think her choice was an unfortunate one, I can’t help but feel that people are missing the whole point–Chen included.

Chen’s decision to change her appearance has overall been positively received, but mostly for the wrong reasons. When showing a shot of her transformation, she was met with a choir of “wows” while Sharon Osbourne was quick to compliment her by saying “Fabulous!”

As I grew up wanting to become a broadcast journalist, it’s concerning to me what kind of message this sends to Asian girls who wish to break into the television industry. It also makes me wonder if encourages both women and men to feel that surgically changing their bodies is a way to beauty and success. After all, Chen’s career REALLY did seem to take off post-surgery with hosting gigs on Big Brother and The Talk.

We are born thinking that being white is the norm. Like Chen, I had grown up knowing that I was Chinese but didn’t think it made much of a difference until people kept pointing it out. So what if I can speak Chinese, value education and cook food that tends to create a strong smell (which is divine, if I do say so myself)? I am grateful that I have learned these things from my culture, but it sure gets annoying to be constantly reminded about it.

Seeing that Chen is one of a very few well-known Asian-American personalities in the media today, what her revelation should be doing is developing a frank discussion about appreciating our outer appearances, accepting the way we are and reflecting on why many feel the need to deny their cultures in order to fit in.

And yet, as Chen tries to bring up that discussion by asking, “Did I give in to ‘the man’ and do this?”, Sheryl Underwood is quick to interject.

“You didn’t give in to ‘the man,’ Julie. Because you didn’t know about giving it to ‘the man’,” she says, implying that Chen doesn’t truly know about racial struggles because she isn’t black. “You made a choice that was good for you and you have represented people, you’ve represented your race, you’ve represented women and your colleagues. Don’t look back.”

And with that, Chen replies, “Look, I don’t like to live with regrets. I did it, I moved on. No one’s more proud of being Chinese than I am and I have to live with the decisions I have made.”

Cue cheers and a standing ovation. And so, the world moves on.

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