Violin in one hand, a container of white rice in the other and a math club hat slightly askew, I was ready. I walked out into the pouring rain, ready to take on the day.
The night before, I remember brainstorming with my friends about what we were going to be. This was four years ago. Many ideas were tossed around, ranging from Justin Bieber to Gloria Steinem to tigers to flowers. None of those options really resonated with me, although Gloria is pretty cool. But then it hit me. I knew exactly what I wanted to be for Halloween. I wanted to be what everyone already thought I was: a stereotypical Asian girl.
This could possibly be construed as offensive, but it came from years of being offended. It came from years of people asking when my next orchestra performance was (I was not in orchestra), or if I wanted extra white rice on the side (I do not like white rice), or if I could help them with their math (I could not help them with their math). I have since learned that these moments in life are called micro-aggressions, small instances of unintended discrimination that built up over time when people made false assumptions about who I was. I decided to tackle them with the best weapon I had: humor.
I remember showing up for school that day. No one thought I had dressed up. They thought I just had come from practicing violin (I do not play the violin), that I had missed breakfast and was quickly trying to consume some rice before class and that I had joined PRIMES, the math tutoring group. Even my friends, who knew me so well and whom I loved so much, didn’t bat an eye at my costume. And that’s when I just couldn’t help but burst out laughing. It was so funny, but so moving at the same time.
I was adopted from China by my parents when I was around six months old and brought to live in grand old upstate New York, whose many charms range consistent winter temperatures below 30 degrees Fahrenheit and visits from black bears that find your trash can immensely intriguing. That said, as much as I make fun of it, I have come to love where I’m from. I’m from upstate New York. And therein lies the conflict. I will never truly see myself as being from China. But everyone else will.
I grew up in a mostly white neighborhood, was raised by two white parents and went to mostly white schools. The only life I have ever known is one replete with white privilege. While I have certainly benefited from the white privilege to which those around me are so accustomed, I will never be able to claim true ownership of it. My appearance will constantly characterize me as Asian and while race and ethnicity are so much more than appearance, the only relationship I have with them is appearance. Being Asian is nothing to be ashamed of, but that’s not who I truly am.
I studied Chinese for many years, and in reflection, I see that as an attempt to find my place in the racial and ethnic label that others constantly placed on me. But when it comes to racial and ethnic identities, I have never felt so lost. Like a Washington, D.C., native trying to navigate the New York City subway system, there just seem to be so many identities, so many labels staring at me, but I can’t see any of them with any clarity. I can’t figure out which line I’m meant to take, but I can hear everyone around me yelling which line I’m supposed to take. At a certain point, I become immobile, paralyzed by my own uncertainty and afraid to make any step forward for fear of leaving behind who I am.
To me, race and ethnicity are some of the few identities that cannot be left undefined. Is there such an identity that delineates no race? No ethnicity? Is there a spectrum that leaves room for gray area? I’m somewhere there, lost in my own introspection. I’m somewhere there, realizing there is no map, realizing I have nowhere to go and wondering if anyone will ever join me. I’m somewhere there, waiting, thinking, hoping. I’m somewhere there.
Grace Smith is a sophomore in the College. If A Tree Falls appears every other Tuesday.
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