In the first grade, I got my first lesson in what it means to be Asian in this country. Kids gathered around one of my classmates as he did his best impression of a Chinese waiter. “Herro? You wan dumpling?!” I watched as everybody laughed, and despite being very confused, I laughed too, just to be like everyone else. Over time, I learned that my Chinese grandma and aunties would always be reduced to “Dumpling Lady.”
I decided the only way I could fit in was by making people laugh. Every recess was an opportunity to prove that I wasn’t your average unathletic nerd. My self-esteem became solely based on how many laughs I could get. In elementary school, I was loud and wild. And by the time I reached middle school, I had created witty comebacks to defend myself against endless comparisons to Jackie Chan or Bruce Lee.
But as I grew up, the jokes I was forced to brush off became deeper and more damaging.
Every fake accent, every kid doing Asian eyes, every boy who patronized me and made fun of my size made me less proud of who I was. On the days my mom packed leftover fried fish and soy sauce, I acted like I didn’t have home lunches to hide the smell. I would starve myself until I got home, then quickly eat so my mom wouldn’t get mad. I purposefully went slower on my math sheets, and I overcompensated by trying to act like everyone else.
But I couldn’t escape who I was.
In ninth grade, people looking at me from a distance would have thought I was doing a good job fitting in. I would try anything to make people laugh: telling over-exaggerated stories, doing stereotypical accents, and pretending to sleep in class.
But the laughter came with a toll. I had become the type of person I was trying to escape – a one-dimensional caricature of myself. I had become the Jackie Chan character they had reduced me to being, always providing entertainment, but never garnering their respect as a human being, which I had always craved.
Something had to change, but 10 years of fronting doesn’t go away overnight. I have been trying to allow myself to be multidimensional. I have to remind myself to be honest with who I am and to be proud of the culture that has shaped me. I have to remind myself not to be held back by labels that I had been conditioned to internalize.
Because every single person has the right to be complex, and I have learned not to let anybody take that away from me.