Call me a drifter. I can never seem to stay in one place long enough to take root. I’ve been around the world in 15 years. A kid only dreams of fitting in, but racial barriers, as well as time, have always stood in my way.
I grew up in Canada, along with millions of other immigrants petrified of the Hong Kong take over. My mother insisted that I study as many languages as possible, so I was sent to a French immersion school. By the time I was five, I was trilingual.
I soon worked my way up to the top of my class. Despite my continual efforts to make friends, other students resented me for being smart and Asian. I was beat up and called names that I care not to repeat. One song I particularly recall, they would sing in tune to obscene gestures: “Me Chinese, me no dumb, me climb up my daddy’s bum…” Children with racism drilled into their brains can be heartbreakingly cruel.
Years later, when I had just about managed to put the song out of my mind, a child shouted it at me as I rode my bike down an otherwise quiet residential street. There were a couple of nice kids who would come to bat for me over the years, but peer pressure was hard to escape, even for those brave souls.
Despite the hassle of uprooting oneself and adjusting once again to a new place and the weary cynicism that comes with being a drifter, I always secretly enjoyed moving so that I could start over at a place where nobody knew my old nicknames. In fourth grade, I moved to Hong Kong, but since I couldn’t read or write my native tongue, I was sent to an English Foundation School. I remember turning red with embarrassment every time an adult nodded in sympathy with my mother after we admitted that I could not attend “regular” school with their kids. But my shame only motivated me to stay ahead of the learning curve. Though the workload here was harder than in Canada, over the next few years I managed to teach myself Chinese. For the first time in years, I was surrounded by Asian students returning from abroad, just like me. In this nurturing environment, I began to get a sense of my own cultural worth.
I was sure that upon my return to Canada, I would be ready to defend myself from those who would make fun of me. This time, I was surprised to encounter less racial discrimination. Instead, there was now a gap between the good-looking and/or athletic popular group and the losers. It was the losers group that first took me under their wing and I found they were anything but that derisive label.
After the rigid schooling I had become accustomed to in Hong Kong, this was a breeze. I started to concentrate on my social life for once, trying to make myself look good enough to be accepted into the popular group like any normal kid. My mother, seeing me slip precariously into a cycle of teenage truancy, advised me to transfer to a prestigious boarding school in England. I was once again catapulted into a word of rigorous discipline and ugly uniforms. The almost religious-like adherence to rules took some getting used to, as did the mile wide dorm room full of screaming girls.
At the boarding school, people tended to form cliques. The Asian students (all of whom were from Hong Kong), recognized me as one of their own and recruited me from day one. I tried to diversify but once one has been identified as belonging to one clique it is nearly impossible to associate with outsiders. I felt somewhat uncomfortable with my Chinese friends because they had all been raised in Hong Kong and thus spoke Cantonese almost constantly.
After a time, I tired of the closeted world of this all-girls school where we would squeal at boys as if they were a fascinating new species. I moved on to another boarding school, this time a co-ed prep school on the Long Island shore. It was truly a beautiful place, with towering mansions, a roaring ocean, and brilliantly colored flowers and trees. In short, it was a rich man’s paradise. Here, I was given countless opportunities to explore what interested me and I took full advantage. I valued being able to immerse myself in activities and subjects that I loved most. I was finally making friends with not only guys but also students from different ethnic backgrounds. It was here that I finally felt at home: a place where opinions were heard and discussed and a place where one was encouraged to pursue one’s own path.
Next year I will once again be transplanted to yet another patch of soil as I head off to college. Maybe I’m bound to roam the earth in search of a dwelling place, or maybe my fate will not be quite so dramatic. Wherever I end up, it doesn’t ultimately matter, for though the world is remarkably large and diverse, it is at the same time extraordinarily small and similar.
*Published in the Northwest Asian Weekly, Seattle, 2000*