The title of this essay is a bit misleading because I did not outright, vehemently hate high school. It actually had its moments. I discovered hip-hop and punk rock in high school. A few of my greatest friends today were the ones I made in high school. Perhaps I saw through the sensationalist superficiality of it all at an early age, but I didn’t have the proper knowledge or words to express my discontent. However, I still felt it: the alienation, the stereotyping, and the struggle to find my own voice within a monoculture.
During my sophomore year, a classmate of mine had discovered that my Vietnamese name was Bao and proceeded to ask me why I never use it in public. It would have been fine if he had stopped right there, but he followed up his genuine curiosity with a splash of ignorance by asking if I was ashamed of my culture and heritage, and if I enjoyed being whitewashed. I was taken aback by his arrogant tone-deafness. Of course, being in my teens, my first response was to be defensive.
“Hello, my parents named me ‘Benjamin.’ It’s on my birth certificate!”
What really bothers me about that particular incident is that it took away my agency as an individual. It stripped any power and pride that I had for both of my names, and further perpetuating this theme of “not being good enough” for either my Asian or my American identity. These sorts of racially charged shenanigans occurred way too frequently for my taste especially during my grade school days, and it came from everyone on every level of the educational hierarchy, even the educators.
“Where are you from?”
“No, where are you really from?”
It doesn’t matter how many times I correctly answer that question, “American” never seems to be enough. Do you realize how dehumanizing it is to know everything there is to know about being an American, but when it comes to discussing the intersectionality of the American identity, the people around you are completely clueless?
I wonder why I must carry the burden of having to constantly explain myself and educate others about my identity when we all can make an effort to take personal accountability in shoring up our own cultural incompetency.
My school took pride in celebrating uniqueness and differences…up until they actually encounter unique and different individuals, and then those attributes were exposed as just buzzwords to mask their disregard under a guise of colorblindness.
“We’re all the same!”
No, we’re not…and that’s okay.
We all come from different backgrounds whether it’s ethnically, economically, religiously, etc. It’s harmful to blend everyone together into a bastardized stew. My friend, Jason Chu, puts it best: “Our society is not a melting pot, but rather a salad bowl. Every individual represents a different, but important component that makes up the vibrant collective dish.” Differences should be appreciated, respected, and not feared, because “colorblindness” is just another way to describe “blindness.”
I love my name: first, middle, and last; Vietnamese and American. They’re equal, but unique elements that make up who I am as an individual. I have no shame in using either one of them, but contextually, my Vietnamese name is used predominately within a family setting and my American name is used in a public setting. One is an intimate way to honor my ancestors and the other is used to navigate, socially, with other non-Vietnamese folks.
“I know everything about y’all, but y’all know nothing about me.”
That’s sort of how the cards are dealt for an Asian kid growing up in a sea of white faces. Thanks to our history books, curriculum, and media, we are fed this distorted image of what the ideal/default American should look like. I’ve lamented the past, but I remain optimistic about the future as the accessibility of technology has increased the flow of information to the mainstream masses creating a much more aware and sensitive society. My only hope is that as our society grows more and more diverse, our ways of learning will adapt and follow suit.
We can’t say we love diversity if we don’t know why we’re diverse in the first place.
“Nationality” = the status of belonging to a particular nation.
“Ethnicity” = a category of people who identify with each other based on similarities, such as common language, ancestral, social, cultural, or national experiences.
IF YOU DON’T KNOW, NOW YOU KNOW.)