I am Chinese and I’m proud of my heritage, but sometimes I feel extremely self-conscious about who I hang around with. My school isn’t particularly diverse, and all my closest friends happen to be Asian, and I can’t help feeling embarrassed, because I know that people are stereotyping us as the “Asian group.” It’s not like we connect on a special “Asian level,” we just get along really well. How can I stop feeling this way, since I love my friends and my nationality? —Vanessa, 14, Sydney
Vanessa, darling, I’m Chinese and when I was 14, I’m ashamed to say that, unlike you, I wasn’t proud of my heritage at all. Looking back, I can see why: Outside of my family, I never encountered positive narratives or images or representations of Chinese people, or any Asian people, ever. We were portrayed as cartoonish, illiterate buffoons in movies, TV, and books—that, or we didn’t exist. When we did the “China, Korea, Japan” unit at school, I squirmed in my seat, fearful for the next person who would raise his or her hand and remark on how weird Asian people are, how weird their names are, how weird their customs are, and the inevitable moment when the teacher would turn to me and say, “Well, in your experience, Jenny, is it true? Is filial piety observed? Is the man always dominant in the household?”
My grandmother used to say, “You’re Chinese before you are American,” and I would burst into hot angry tears of why-are-you-trying-to-make-things-worse-don’t-you-know-I-hate-being-Chinese? And then she would burst into tears, and so the crying cycle went. All I can think now is how unnecessary it all was, how much lovelier life would have been if I hadn’t allowed myself to believe that to love where I come from is shameful. When I was 14, I went to a school where there was one other Asian kid in my class, and he would make fun of me for being Asian. In the grade below me there were significantly more Asian kids, and I noticed that they all sort of hung out together. I remember thinking, Ugh, look at them, why do they all hang out with each other like that? But you know what didn’t happen? I didn’t ever look at the different groups of white kids who were all friends with one another and think, Ugh, look at those white people, why do they all hang out with each other like that? And I’ll bet you those white kids in my school who pretty much only hung out with other white kids weren’t agonizing over whether people were stereotyping them as the “white group” or assuming they connect on a special “white level.” In high school, people would openly ask me, “Do you only hang out with other Asian people because you are Asian?” “Um, no,” was the best response I could come up with. But never have I witnessed someone say, “Do you only hang out with other white people because you’re white and you relate to each other on account of your white background?”
If there’s something weird about being Asian and hanging out with other Asian people, then there has to also be something weird about being white and only hanging out with other white people, in which case there is something weird about like 95% of white people in the world that I’ve known and met. But the world gives a pass to groups of white people visibly and exclusively fraternizing with one another, even as it scrutinizes and shames and stereotypes people of color for doing the same thing. Hey—that’s white privilege and racism!
My heart beams and hurts at the same time when I read your question, “How can I stop feeling this way, since I love my friends and my nationality?” You are already legions wiser than I ever was at your age, and your heart infinitely vaster. You love your friends and your nationality. How come every time a person of color is proud of their heritage and their people, it is seen as excessive, unacceptable? There’s a long legacy that still lives on today of people of color enduring violence and oppression, both physical and psychic, for embracing our cultures, for loving our people, for being too openly proud of who we are. I’m not just spewing words, I’m talking about real shit: forced assimilation of Native peoples, systematic erasure and minimization of the history of immigrants and minorities in public school education, the recent challenges to ethnic studies programs and cultural centers for minority groups, the bombing of a Sikh temple in Wisconsin last year, the high and under-documented incidence of police brutality against young black men, the long history of criminalization of youth of color, and, just a few days ago, the extremely predictable but still disturbing racist outcry against the crowning of an Indian-American Miss America at this year’s pageant. I mean, just look at how much pressure there is for people of color to make ourselves invisible, to make ourselves nothing, to regard ourselves as worthless, to feel shame for just existing. Don’t feel any shame, don’t downplay whatever connection you have with your friends who are Asian. Don’t validate what the other kids in your school are saying about your group of friends!
Even though you say you feel self-conscious, I think you know deep down that it is marvelous to have a group of friends like you do. When I went off to college and suddenly found myself in an incredibly diverse environment and started to hang out with other Asian people again, I realized that it’s not about some sort of innate cultural connection. It’s not like, “Hey, other Asian person, do you like rice too? You do? Let’s be each other’s best friends!” It’s more like: Guess who else has the experience of watching movies where the protagonist is almost guaranteed to not look like them? Or like: Guess who else gets asked “Where are you from?” the first time they meet someone or has had to laugh off a few “Ya’ll look the same” jokes in their lifetime? OTHER ASIAN PEOPLE.
So, to boil this all down: Fuck anyone who makes fun of you or makes you feel self-conscious about hanging out with other Asian people. You don’t even have time to explain their ignorance and privilege to them, because you need to get busy enjoying the hell out of your friends and your big big shiny heart. —Jenny
So, this is an awkward question for me. I feel embarrassed talking about it—even writing this is difficult. What I’m having an issue with is something my dad does that I don’t think is bad enough to count as abuse, but I feel like I’ve been abused. But, OK…my dad has been touching my butt a lot lately. I feel like I can’t say anything to him about it because he’ll get mad and take it out on my mom and my brother. And I can’t tell the rest of my family because they’ll just get upset with me, and they won’t confront him because everyone is afraid of him. So I just end up crying about it every day (he does it every day). My father is not a horrible person, but he is doing this horrible thing. So what do I do? Do I just make sure that my backside is never exposed to him? —Anonymous
I am so sorry that this is happening to you. There are a couple of major things going on here: Your father isn’t respecting your body or your boundaries, and your family is too scared of him to do anything about it. Before I go any further, I want to make sure you have some contact info if you or your brother or your mother wants to talk to someone outside of the family—living in fear is not OK, and there are definitely people who can help. Here are a few important links:
• The National Resource Center for Child Protective Services
• RAINN (They have tons of great resources, like the National Sexual Assault Online Hotline, a list of U.S. crisis centers and international assault and rape resources.)
You said, “I don’t think it’s bad enough to count as abuse, but I feel like I’ve been abused.” What you’re feeling matters, and it is all you need to validate that what is happening to you is abuse, and to start the process of getting help. When someone touches your body without your permission, even your father, especially in a way that makes you cry every day, that is abusive. Abuse takes a lot of different forms, and physical abuse doesn’t always look like what we see in the movies or hear people talk about on TV. Emotional abuse is just as damaging as physical abuse—that’s the living in fear, crying, and not being sure who to talk to that you reported in your email. I want you to know that I hear you, I believe you, and what you’re going through is real.
It can be complicated to recognize and deal with abuse when the abuser is a family member, because your trust is compromised and everything feels all twisted up and, as you’ve pointed out, you’re not sure who to go to. It’s not your fault that your family cannot protect you from this behavior, and no matter what the outcome, you are absolutely correct to protect yourself. I went through something similar to your situation with someone I knew when I was young, and it turned into full-on physical and sexual abuse. Not all abuse escalates, but even what your father doing now is wrong, and you don’t need to wait for it to get worse to tell someone about it.
Talking to people about what’s going on is important, but it is also helpful to know what you want to have happen when you do reach out for help. Do you want someone to talk to your dad and tell him to stop touching your body? Do you want there to be less intimidation overall, like maybe he goes to therapy? Do you want to live somewhere else? Do you want HIM to live somewhere else? The reason I ask is that since you’re under 18, once you tell a therapist or counselor or teacher what is happening, they legally have to do something about it. And I don’t want that to scare you—again, none of this is your fault, and nothing that happens as a result of your taking action is your fault. But if you go into any discussion about this knowing what you want, it’s much easier to ask for that when you ask for help. Instead of saying, “My dad is scary sometimes,” which people might dismiss, you can say something like, “My dad touches me in a way that is inappropriate, and I am scared every day, and I don’t want to live with him anymore,” or whatever it is that you want. I reported what was going on with me, and that person was kept away from me from then on. For years I felt guilty about it, but speaking up probably saved my life, because the abuse was only getting worse, so it was absolutely the right thing to do. Sometimes you have to save your own life, and it’s always going to be the right decision.
This next part is going to take a lot of courage, but you have already proven yourself to be brave by writing to us, so I know you can do it. If you can’t trust the family members that are in the house with you, your first step might be to tell someone in your extended family (cousins, aunts, uncles). If you don’t feel comfortable going to your family at all, you can absolutely talk to a teacher you trust, who might refer you to a school psychologist (most schools in the U.S. have one). If you don’t want to go to a teacher first, you can ask the main office to direct you to the school psychologist, or your school guidance counselor can help you set up an appointment. Those are probably your best options for talking to someone right away in a way that is comfortable for you. If you can safely use a phone in your house, you can also contact any of the organizations listed above, all of whom can help put you in contact with the best non-school based services in your area. (Again, ask them at the outset what they must disclose to authorities.)
You’ve already done the hard part by reaching out to ask for help. My life completely changed when I spoke up about what was happening to me, and I never lived in fear again. You deserve to be safe, you deserve the space to set rules about your body, and you deserve it right now. —Danielle ♦
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