• Xinyan Lu

Emerging From the Shadows

“Hey! Look at her,” they jeered.

Ten year old me walked into middle school wearing a plain t-shirt with $1 Walmart sweatpants, having absolutely no “Western fashion sense” in me at all. Dressing in the most stereotypical “Asian way”, it seemed that I was practically wearing the term “FOB” (fresh off the boat) on my head. In fact, my own Asian friend told me that because of the clothes I wore, she thought I was “one of those Asians kids” that only focused on studying, had zero social life, and had just come from China.

Being the oblivious kid I was, I always wore whatever my grandma gave me, ate whatever she packed, and happily complied without a second thought because I never knew any better in elementary school. Thinking back, I would always reminisce about the times she would play badminton with me when I missed the school bus that day, make my favorite steamed soup dumplings for lunch, and stuff food in my mouth whenever possible. Whenever she went back to China during summer break, she would take me back with her and we would explore Shanghai together. From walking down the twisting alleyways, gorging myself on street food, and sightseeing the most beautiful sceneries Shanghai had to offer, it was truly the happiest days of my childhood, the days where I felt that I actually belonged, where I was truly Chinese in and out. I never had to worry about others questioning my culture. I still often look back at the many photos we took together and wish I was that child that held my grandma’s hand wherever in the world we went. She was my tutor, my guide, and the person I aspired to be the most as a child. Perhaps this is why I also considered the bond between me and my grandma extra special.

However, these naive, childhood days did not last when I slowly became aware of the culture differences coming back to the United States. When I faced criticism for bringing animal intestines for lunch and not realizing that jeans were “standard”, I became very confused. I felt that another layer of the world had opened up, and that I could no longer be the oblivious kid with $1 clothing and an Asian lunch.

I was walking through the hallways of middle school and I felt like an alien. For the first time in my life I felt that I was not normal. No one in the hallways seemed to see me as their equal because I was too different, because I had not assimilated into Western culture, because I was not “American”. This was further elevated when a group of guys walked up to me, smirks plastered on their faces. “Hey, where’d you get that pig tongue from? Your grandma’s backyard?” they mocked. At first, I was dismissive. “How dare they talk about my grandma like that?” My culture, the way I dressed, the food I ate, and the actions I took - this is what I was comfortable with and my naivety blocked me from seeing anything wrong with that. However, the more I heard these words thrown at me, the more I felt myself being brainwashed. Each splash of paint my peers threw at me stripped away another layer of my innocence, burned like acid on my skin, and left a permanent mark. A mark that spread across me like a disease, forcing me away from what I always stood for, what I always believed in, and healed with a different culture etched into my skin. As my mentality slowly changed, I found myself slowly agreeing with them. Why did I have to eat these gross animal intestines? Why did my clothes look like I have lived under a rock my entire life? Why couldn’t I be “American”? The more I looked at the values I used to embrace so wholeheartedly, the more I felt the need to change my appearance, my language, and my individuality. Some of the things I regret most looking back was trying to be someone else. I absorbed everyone else’s personality like a sponge, desperately trying to be “one of them”. In this process, I unconsciously started turning away from my grandma and the ideals that she instilled in me. I blamed her as the cause of me being different from everyone else, for making me “uncool”, and for turning me into the alien I saw in myself. I refused to eat the lunch my grandma packed, deeming the school pizza a better lunch than any home-cooked meal. I threw out all of my Walmart clothing, only allowing myself to wear jeans from Forever 21 or H&M, and I only listened to Western music, believing that this would make me a true American.

Throughout the years, I never realized the extent of the damage this thinking could cause. In the process of trying to be “just like the other students”, I gave up my personality, my own opinions, and most frightening to me, my own creative ideas. The way I held myself, and even the way I talked, wasn’t authentic anymore, it was what other people instilled in me. I remember feeling jealous that everyone was so social, had so many friends, had people that would deliberately go up to them to partner for school assignments, and had so many people that thought they were cool. The more I embraced this thinking, the more I became desperate to change, to quickly put on a new identity in which people would finally recognize me, would finally choose me as their first choice in a partner assignment.

There was one day where I felt especially disappointed. I logged onto Instagram and saw all of my close friends posting about hanging out together and having a fun time. I remember asking them, “Why didn’t you invite me?”

They responded, “Isn’t your Asian mom expecting you to go back and do a bunch of homework? You are always busy.” Even though this was a pretty normal experience for me, that day I was exhausted. After all of this work that I put in to change myself, others still perceived me as the Asian child that never had a life outside of studying. But this is also the catalyst that got me thinking about my past. I realized that even though I thought that my cultural background was not “cool”, it was actually unique, and something that no one else could have. I thought back to my happiest times and realized that it was all before I felt the need to change myself, it was all before I turned away from my grandma, and suddenly I felt a piece of myself missing. I slowly turned around and ran towards my grandma. I remember telling her everything, feeling the heavy burden of a different identity finally falling off my shoulders. I repeatedly told her how I wanted my old self, the self that was still blinded by naivety back, and most importantly, I wanted to relearn everything about my culture. She comforted me and told me that I never lost my true self, I just needed to peel off the layer of paint and allow myself to grow back. The next day, I wore whatever I felt comfortable in, talked the way I wanted to, and truly let myself go. The Western culture that I tried to pound into myself for so long was no longer my concern and I learned to regain confidence in my true self.

Oftentimes, it is common for people of minority groups to feel different, and to feel the need to blend in in order to be successful. In this journey, I have found that the biggest harm someone could ever do to themself is to give up who they are because it is difficult. It is difficult to see everyone else achieving success through a culture different from yours and not feel compelled to change. It is difficult to have people throw a certain perspective at you for a long time and not feel that maybe they are right. However, I think the most difficult part was changing that mindset and coming back more confident in myself. As a small child, my naivety definitely made the journey a lot harder. My mindset constantly changed due to what other people would tell me; it was like washing a window, only to make it even more blurry as I tried to find my path towards the sunlight. However, now being able to clearly see the beautiful scenery outside, I finally understood that who I needed to be was with me the whole time. I did not need to learn anything new, become someone else, much less take on another identity. Therefore, to all the people who may be struggling with their own identity, take a second and look out the window. Do you see a blurry shadow of yourself? Do you see scratches and dents obscuring the sunlight? Or do you see total darkness? Take what you see and aim to change it. It may take you a thousand tries to find the right method to wash or repair the window, but the day you can finally soak in the sunlight is the day you are finally free to be yourself.