I loathed myself and I loathed the kids in my class who reminded me every chance they had that I was not like them, that I was this monstrous, appalling “other,” a comical source to be objectified for their amusement. My powerlessness depressed me. I hated and envied these kids for having been born with the power to say something cruel to me. I hated how easily a “ching chong chang” joke or the ol’ PULL YOUR EYES BACK TO SHOW HOW ASIANS HAVE SLITS FOR EYES! joke could bring them instant, unspoiled mirth. It sickened and drained me to think that long after their enjoyment had faded, I would still be trembling, still sick to my stomach. And worst of all? I was ashamed by how deeply affected I was by all this. Not only was I experiencing racism on a daily basis, but I was actually had the gall to feel sad about it.
By the end of seventh grade, I was bursting with hatred and envy for the white kids in my class, whether they tormented me or not, because either way, they would never experience what I was experiencing. There was no “ching chong chang” equivalent for white native-English speakers. There was no “y’all look the same” equivalent. When the white girls in my class dressed up like hippies for 1960s Day during Spirit Week, no one said to them, “WOW! I’VE NEVER SEEN A WHITE HIPPIE BEFORE,” or “YO, THAT LOOKS MAD WEIRD.” But I couldn’t escape those kinds of comments if I tried. And I tried. When I asked my sorta-friend S. if I should audition for the school play—it was The Crucible that year—she said, “I don’t know. It might be kind of weird to see an Asian person as Puritan,” and I thought, Well, crap, that rules out all of Shakespeare and, um, every single play in the English canon unless there’s one about Ms. Ching Chong Chang and her slanty slit eyes. Another time, my friend K. told me that was it all but scientifically proven that people with European features were more physically attractive than people with Asian features, which sounded suspiciously similar to the kind of scientific racism that justified the Holocaust, slavery, and the murder of, and stealing from, Native Americans in America. But, as always, when confronted with moments like these, I always reverted back to the deaf and dumb mute I was that day in Montauk, sitting on a horse that wouldn’t stop crapping.
As preoccupied as some of my classmates were with my otherness, I was just as consumed, if not more so, with their whiteness. I began to obsessively observe how the white girls in my classes carried themselves. I gazed at their curls and asked my mom to buy me hair rollers. (They didn’t work on my fine, limp hair.) I eavesdropped on their conversations to find out where they bought their clothes and shoes and then I pestered my mom to buy me the same exact clothes and shoes (example: black-and-white sandals made of foam with a wedge heel that made my feet smell like the butthole of another butthole). I watched how they spoke to one another, what gestures they made with their hands, how they held their pens, how they dotted their i’s and crossed their t’s, whether their y’s ended with a serif curl or if they were arrow-straight, and I attempted to mimic every detail, even the unimportant ones. I attempted to erase all signs of the “other” from myself. I feared that if I didn’t, I would be forever unlovable, and I didn’t want that. I wanted to be loved. But as it turns out, bowing down to racist ideas of normality, acceptability, and beauty didn’t bring me love. My obsession was destroying me bit by bit, and I was exhausted, and I wanted to stop. So I stopped.
I washed and scrubbed the first layer of butthole smell from my shoes (it was the best I could do) and gave them away. I gave my copycat clothes to family friends who were younger than me. I discovered the band Bush (I NEVER SAID I WAS COOL), who eventually became my gateway drug to Radiohead, which was my gateway drug to punk music, which became my gateway drug to adopting the “I don’t give a shit” approach to life. I wore Dracula capes to school over short skirts and platform combat boots. I tied my hair into little knots the way Gwen Stefani wore her hair in the ’90s, and I smeared black lipstick on my mouth and perfected my bitchface. I washed my hair in sugar water to get it to stay spiky (I don’t recommend doing this in hot weather unless you want to be chased by eager swarms of bees).
When it was all the rage to get Chinese characters tattooed onto your body, I suddenly became the go-to translator for the newly inked. The same kids who ching-chong-chang’ed me two years ago were now the ones who wanted to know if the character they had emblazoned on their neck truly meant “love and peace.”
I didn’t know how to read Chinese characters, so I made it up as I went along. “That one says dickbag, and the one your arm says I farted,” I told them. I licked sugar from my spiky hair, told a girl that if she made fun of my last name one more time that I was going to “slam your head into this wall, and I’m not bluffing, BITCH.” I had no idea where it was all coming from. All I knew was that I had suddenly swung from one extreme to the other—from obsessively trying to cover up my “otherness” to obsessively flaunting it every chance I had.
There’s a slimy, uncomfortable truth about obsession that I find hard to talk about. I’m not quite sure how to think about and tackle the power dynamics between the worshipper and the worshipped. Society tells us that worship is a distinctly feminine act—I’m thinking of the image of the teenage fangirl, overcome by rapture and ecstasy when in the presence of the ultimate godhead (I’m talking about BIEBER, DUH), overcome with emotion, crying, screaming, fainting, overrun—and I want to reject that shit as much as I want to embrace and repossess it, because there’s nothing shameful about this kind of collective religious experience. But at the same time, it was awful to worship at the altar of self-loathing, of wishing I was a different ethnicity, of wishing I had a different face, a different family, a different life. The white girls in my seventh grade class had an immense power over me that they never asked for and were most likely never even aware of, but it was given to them because that’s how privilege works—you don’t have to ask for it; you already have it.
There are obsessions that might literally collapse onto you and destroy you (see: hoarders who live amongst heaping piles of rat carcasses), and there are obsessions that inspire a magical transmogrification of feelings into actual, physical things, like when you transfer your love for the English comedian Stephen Fry into a beautiful shrine, and there are obsessions that bring you into a world of beautiful things, like when you suddenly discover a band or a writer or an artist and it’s like everything they’ve ever created was created just for you, and their music/writing/art makes you want to live a longer life just so you can spend more of it listening to/reading/looking at what they’ve created. And then there is the kind of obsession that hurts you. It won’t physically impair your ability to breathe or move (once again, see: hoarders), but it robs you of something so essential that sometimes you wish you would stop breathing. This is the kind of obsession that doesn’t inspire you to be anything or create anything. Instead you find yourself kneeling at the altar of an idol who does not care about you, all the while berating yourself for not being born some other way. And as someone who has known this kind of obsession all too well, I sincerely hope from the muddy depths of my heart that you have never experienced it, and never will. ♦