I’ve been grappling with my ethnicity—my Chinese-ness—before I even fully knew what “ethnicity” was. When I reflect on the importance of ethnic studies in my life, I’m reminded of childhood memories tinged with shame, of trying to figure out parts of myself that never quite felt whole. Most of all, I’m reminded of how my Chinese-ness colored my experiences in ways that I could never fully explain to my parents.
In elementary school, I turned in a personal narrative about how desperately ashamed I was of my smelly noodle lunch after my friends made fun of how strange it looked. Luckily for the narrator, her friends eventually came around and one day asked to try her strange noodles. Turns out, they loved how strange Chinese noodles tasted, and profusely thanked her for introducing them to the wonders of Chinese food. Multiculturalism at its finest—that essay should have been plastered all over the school district website. I also completely made it up. What could have possibly motivated nine-year-old 婉婷 to fabricate an entire personal narrative that hinged on how she solved her racial inferiority complex?
Here is what I know to be true: I begged my mom to let me bring Lunchables instead of stir-fry to school, multiple times. The memory of two white boys on scooters jeering Konnichiwa at me at the park was permanently branded into my fifth-grade consciousness, and never made it into any of my writing.
In middle school, my family splurged on a vacation to Europe, and my dad decided to go all out and hire a tour guide for our stop in Denmark. There was something nagging at me.
“Does he know that we’re Chinese?” I asked my dad. “Our tour guide, I mean.”
I couldn’t bear to think of the barely-masked horror on our Danish tour guide’s face when he showed up in front of our hotel, expecting to spend the day with an all-American, blonde-haired, blue-eyed family, only to see…us.
My dad stared at me. “Yes, he knows we’re Chinese. He’s fine with it.”
Contrary to what my memories might indicate, I actually grew up in one of the most culturally diverse areas of the United States: thirty minutes away from San Francisco State University, where the nation’s first ethnic studies program was established. Ironically, it wasn’t until I decided to attend college in rural Massachusetts that I stumbled upon the existence of Asian American Studies.
My heart broke, mended, and swelled all at once when I realized that there existed an entire, legitimate field of study that allowed me to study the unspoken weight of my own identity. I read about the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the only American law that has ever barred a specific ethnic group from immigrating to the United States. I read about Wong Kim Ark, whose Supreme Court case established birthright citizenship in America, and whose legacy is responsible for my own American citizenship. I read about Grace Lee Boggs, a Chinese American woman who worked alongside many Black American activists to lead the fight for civil rights for all minority groups in America.
There was nothing wrong with me, and there was nothing wrong with being Chinese, I realized. I simply lived in a country that never taught me to value people like me, and like many young Chinese American people, I had internalized this country’s racist values. I completed my first Asian American Studies class at the end of my freshman year feeling disappointed and angry that the history of “Beautiful Country” could actually be quite ugly. But I also finally felt whole and empowered.
Now that I am a senior in college, I am writing a thesis about the experiences of different generations of Chinese American women. My interviewees have entrusted me with deeply personal stories: second-generation daughters who felt ugly growing up and cried to their mothers that they didn’t want to be Chinese anymore; first-generation mothers who could only hug their beautiful daughters because they didn’t know what to say. But many of these daughters grew up, went off to college, and took their first ethnic studies class—and for the first time, they felt proud to be Chinese. Above all, my interviewees have told me how grateful they are that someone has deemed their experiences valuable enough to be studied.
The field of ethnic studies exists because sixty years ago, Asian, Black, Latinx, and Indigenous American students worked together to make sure that their histories would be taught in school. Ethnic studies was founded on solidarity, not conflict. Ethnic studies has given me the tools to think about myself and my place in the world, and it has inspired me to work towards a better future for my Chinese American community. When I think about the high schoolers in California that will be able to study ethnic studies, I’m a little jealous, but mostly, I’m really happy for them. I only wish I had learned about my own history sooner.