My friend, Jessica, and I sat next to each other in the bleachers of our high school gym, a few minutes after a chapel service in spring 1999.
To Jessica and to my 107 high school classmates at Wheaton Academy, I was known simply as “Chan.” I was one of three girls named “Erin” in my class, but I was the only Asian American, so it was easier to call me “Chan.” (I also played four years of high school basketball, and a lot of us just used last names while on the court.) Several times, even my English teacher acknowledged my raised hand by yelling, “Chan!”
It came out of affection, but also, by calling me by my distinctly Chinese last name, no one would mix me up with the two other girls named Erin. So it was about a lack of racial diversity, too.
That morning in the gym, Jessica turned to me, sincerity brimming in her green eyes, and said this: “Chan, when I see you, I don’t see color. I just see Chan.”
She had meant it as a compliment, and in a way, I felt grateful she saw me as a friend, a human being. But I also felt disjointed.
I sat there, stunned. I didn’t – and couldn’t – speak for several seconds. I didn’t know how to respond.
She had told me she didn’t see my color. But I did look different from her. My parents had emigrated from Hong Kong, met in Chicago and had me in Arlington Heights. I ate dim sum every weekend. I spoke Cantonese (along with English and Spanish). I celebrated Chinese New Year.
I wasn’t sure how to receive Jessica’s comment at the time. So after three beats of silence, I just said, “Thanks.” In the back of my head, I added, “I guess.” I didn’t have the words to explain. Not then.
What unsettled me so much about her comment was its sense of erasure. By not seeing my color, she did not see my Asian American-ness. If she could not see it, she could not understand it. She could not celebrate it. She could not honor it.
All my life, I have been the recipient of comments that cut me. “Chinese, Japanese!” kids would shout in my face when I was a little girl, pulling their eyes into slits.
In several instances, instead of simply asking my name when people first meet me, they say, “Do you cook Kung Pao chicken?” Or “You look like a China doll!” Or “You speak English really well.”
Or we’d have some variation of this dialogue:
“Where are you from?”
“I mean, where are you really from?”
“Chicago. I was born in Arlington Heights.”
“You know what I mean.”
“You mean, where did my parents emigrate from? Hong Kong.”
Those comments hurt – they indicate I’m somehow foreign, somehow exotic, somehow don’t belong – but they also come out as patently ignorant. I can compartmentalize them as such.
The comments indicate the speaker looks at me and sees only my race.
What Jessica said indicated the opposite, that she saw everything except my race. In some ways, the colorblind comments feel more insidious because they come from a place of misguided camaraderie.
Comments of both varieties can be brushed off as mere micro-aggressions, little pricks, but micro-aggressions can also mount until they become giant vats of systemic inequality.
It wasn’t just Jessica, for instance, who didn’t recognize my Asian American-ness. I had gone through more than a dozen years of formal schooling that didn’t recognize it either.
World History in high school meant studying the origins of Europe. American History did not include learning about the Chinese Exclusion Act, which prohibited Chinese laborers from entering the United States for 62 years, or of the thousands of Laotian refugees who arrived in the U.S. after the Vietnam War.
Literature covered only British sonnets and white American poets. I had to read the brilliance of Gwendolyn Brooks and Jhumpa Lahiri and Langston Hughes on my own.
God would give me the opportunity to right-size this during my college years at Northwestern University, thanks in part to hunger strikes students had staged years earlier to advocate for Asian American studies.
I would take classes in Asian American women’s history and Asian American literature, the Modern Civil Rights Movement and the history of Latin American independence, as well as revel in the Black House as my favorite professor taught us about Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison, Toni Morrison and Zora Neale Hurston. This balanced out the years of education I had on T.S. Eliot and Geoffrey Chaucer, Shakespeare and John Keats.
I see some changes now, too. My son not only sings about Christmas at school but also about Hanukkah and Diwali and Kwanzaa. He not only learns about George Washington but also about George Washington Carver. He is one of several Asian American kids in his class, along with students who are black and white, and just like everyone else, he’s taught how to read and write Mandarin.
Even Jessica, my high school friend, has surrounded herself with close friends who represent a palette of ethnicities. She learns different languages. She appreciates other cultures.
And that’s at the core of my wish as a racial minority. It’s about balance. It’s about wholeness. See me as Erin. See me as a child of God. See me as an Asian American. See me as a wife, a mommy of two, a racial reconciler, a traveler, a runner, a black belt. See me as someone filled with insecurities and hurts but also abundant with love and joy. I promise to see you, too. All of you.
Resources: Facebook postings and many conversations have told me we have a lot of avid readers at Willow. But how racially diverse is your pile of books? I mentioned some of the literary greats I had the pleasure of reading in college. My favorites by some writers I mentioned are “Interpreter of Maladies” and “The Namesake” by Jhumpa Lahiri, “Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison, “Song of Solomon” and “The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison, “Native Son” by Richard Wright and “Their Eyes Were Watching God” by Zora Neale Hurston.
For the sake of balance, I also admire “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and “The Waste Land” by T.S. Eliot, “The Canterbury Tales” by Geoffrey Chaucer and “Ode on a Grecian Urn” by John Keats.
For comic relief on racial identity (with some truth about the Asian American experience), check out “What Kind of Asian Are You?” on YouTube.
Question: When was the last time you read a book or article authored by a racial minority? If it’s been a while, what will you add to your reading list?
Erin Chan Ding serves with Mosaic and attends Willow South Barrington.