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My Racial Awakening: Discovering I am Asian

I tell an abridged version of this racial awakening story to my students to model conversations around race and identity. Being open and authentic with students, I hope, encourages them to be open and authentic with me. I’m sure you have a story of racial awakening as well, and if you haven’t formally articulated it yet, I hope my story can be a useful example.

I learned that I was Asian when I was 11. The fact it took me so long to learn I attribute to luck and privilege.

Growing up, I believed I was Canadian. My identity as Canadian started with my parents before me. Their stories are so much more interesting than what I can share in a paragraph, but simply, my parents lived classic immigrant stories. Both immigrated to Canada from lives of poverty to be part of the first generation in their family to attend college. My dad had a one-way ticket from Hong Kong to Canada with $500 in his pocket, and he drove taxis all night to pay his way through school. My mom grew up in rural Malaysia, and her mother’s belief in the transformative power of education led her to open a coffee shop and earn enough to send all five children to study overseas.

Luck, hard work, and Canada’s generous immigration policy gave my parents opportunities. By the time I was born, we also had substantial privilege. My dad’s career as a chemical engineer secured our position as a middle class family. When I was one year old, my dad had an opportunity to move to the Netherlands for his work, and along with it, the expat perk of paid private school education for his kids. So, I moved to the Netherlands, and then started my education a few years later at the International School of Amsterdam (ISA).

ISA was a bubble of a school that was literally a pink castle. Children from all around the world came together to learn. Everyone’s first question was always “Where are you from?” Everyone had an answer - “The Philippines.” “Brazil.” “The Netherland Antilles.” “Portugal.” “South Africa.” “America.” I needed an answer too, so even though I had spent only a year there, my answer was “Canada.”

I truly believed in my identity as a Canadian. I said I was from Canada to everyone I met. In second grade, when we had to research and create books about our countries, I filled mine with clipart of Mounties and beavers. Every October, I attended a Canadian Thanksgiving gathering with the other Canadian families, where we indulged in turkey and Nanaimo bars.

Going to an international school, where families would move to and from the Netherlands every year, I had an ever revolving door of new friends from all around the world. I got to know their identities from their countries, their culture, and their food. Trading lunches was one of my great daily joys. My best friend in 3rd grade was from Japan, and we would exchange my sandwiches for her onigiri. Not only did I have diverse friends, I also lived under a rock. I didn’t really watch TV, the exceptions being Robot Wars, Pok√©mon (in Dutch), and nature documentaries. Without access to news, music, and movies in my native language, I wasn’t exposed to racist ideas in media or pop culture.

Then, I turned 11. My mom was tired of living far from family in Canada, so my dad organized a job change that would bring us closer to home. Moving to the United States, I remember hearing the classic question, the one that opened most conversations at ISA: “Where are you from?”

I gave my answer, the same answer I had given countless times in my life: “Canada.”

“No, where are you from?” I’d never been contradicted before. Confused, I responded.  “Well, I just moved from the Netherlands. I lived there for 10 years.”

“But really, where are you from?” And after a lot of sputtering, I arrived at an answer that satisfied them. “Before Canada, my dad moved from Hong Kong, and my mom moved from Malaysia. Both are of Chinese descent.”

“Got it, so you’re Chinese.”

The first time baffled me, the 10th time frustrated me. By the 100th time, I was mostly broken. I learned that the constant questioning of one’s origins was a reality for most Asian Americans and other POC. Another POC friend recently gave me a great answer for the future that is accurate and should keep folks satisfied: “My 23andMe would say I’m Chinese.”

While this was the first time I’d had my identity attributed to an unknown country and continent, I soon became adept at navigating comments that began or ended with “You’re Asian,” comments about my math abilities and exotic face and good accent. I also observed how other Asian students identified and grouped themselves as such. My first friend group in the United States were the kids I identified with, and later realized looked like a school diversity stock photo: Asian, Latinx, Black, White, and Middle Eastern. But I noticed how Asian students around me tended to befriend and hang out with other Asian people, added “azn” to their AIM usernames, and made jokes about being Asian. I was confused by this collective sense of identity, this label I didn’t know existed.

While it took me through middle and high school to start seeing myself as Asian, it is now something I include in my identity. I identify mostly as a third culture kid (a term I didn’t learn about until college but explained so much about myself), but identifying also as Asian is both convenient and necessary. It helps me process that as a person of Asian descent, I have different life experiences in this country.

Being Asian impacts how others see me. I deal with racist comments and assumptions. I also benefit from the false narrative of the model minority, created to solidify the racial hierarchy that raises Asian people at the expense of Black people.

Being Asian also impacts how I see myself. A few months before my 18th birthday, I remember learning how to drive, having already heard countless jokes about Asian women being terrible drivers. I was terrified of validating people’s assumptions about Asian women, terrified of getting into an accident and knowing that people would see an Asian woman behind the wheel. It wasn’t until I learned about stereotype threat in my education psychology classes years later that I noticed my shallow breathing and quickened heart rate every time I entered the car. By defining the issue, and my identity, I was able to fight it.

Then, there's the intersectionality of my identities. As a woman, I get catcalls. But as an Asian woman, I also get racist catcalls. As a woman in STEM, I have had my accomplishments constantly questioned as being of my own merit; as an Asian woman, I have had additional scrutiny on the source of my merit. Intersectionality is far more complex for others of different identities. I am an Asian woman but am otherwise standard - cisgendered, straight, neurotypical, able-bodied. For every other marginalized identity, there are more lived experiences that apply to each and some that are exclusive to the intersections.

Now that I’ve learned about race, I see my past through a racial lens. Through this lens, I am constantly learning new things about myself. Like the fact that I lived in the Netherlands 10 years but never properly learned Dutch - I attribute this to a lot of things, most simply to my lack of language skills (I know, growth mindset…) and also to the fact that going to an international school, I was never truly immersed. But I couldn’t be immersed, because every time I spoke Dutch to a Dutch adult, they would immediately switch to English. I used to think this was only because every Dutch adult I met spoke English flawlessly, with a more perfect accent than any native speaker, so that speaking English to native English speakers was more convenient for both of us. It wasn’t until quite recently that I realized that some might have seen a little Asian girl and assumed I didn’t belong, even though the Netherlands was the only country I really knew.

Then, there’s the tradition of Sinterklaas (Saint Nicholas), which you may already know about from recent media attention. I was a lucky kid with two holiday gift-giving icons: Santa Claus and Sinterklaas. Sinterklaas sailed on a boat from Spain accompanied by his helpers, many Zwarte Pieten (Black Petes), who were black from the soot of the chimney. It made perfect sense to me growing up, especially since I had no conception of race. Zwarte Piet went down the chimney to fill our clogs with gold chocolate coins, and the rest of the gifts were left in a burlap sack outside the front door, so Zwarte Piet was dark from soot while Sinterklaas stayed clean. Looking back, I can see how Zwarte Piet’s costume is blackface, and the imagery of this tradition - the white saint on the boat with his many Black helpers - reminds me of the early slave trade.

I also think about my best friend in 3rd grade from Japan.  Now, I wonder whether the adults in the building saw us as two Asian girls sitting together in the cafeteria. The thought upsets me. We were from countries across the world from each other, eating totally different food, and teaching each other about our different cultures and interests. We were as different as all my other friends from me, my friends from Brazil and America and Holland. But some might choose to put us in a monolith. That monolith defines many of my experiences today.

The contrast between my experiences growing up in an international school, “colorblind,” and then moving to the United States led me to grapple deeply with issues of identity and race for years. This journey built in me key beliefs. Race is purely a social construct, but meaningful and powerful. No one should doubt someone’s identity, which should be up to the individual to define. The story behind the label will always be more interesting. And, it is impossible to be colorblind in this country. Race is forced on us, through media, policy, and society.

The idealist in me still strives for the world I grew up in, where every person was recognized for their singularity and valued for their unique background, culture, and experiences. But in order to get there, we need to acknowledge race and the inequities caused by race. Only then can we dismantle the hierarchy and help everyone be seen as equals.

Me, Age 4, Pre-K, a little Canadian girl in the Netherlands

Melanie Kong
HS STEM Teacher
Co-founder and CEO of Floop

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