When I was a little girl, I didn’t know I wasn’t white. Maybe that sounds silly but I just always thought I was the same as my friends at school. I spoke English and French, so I was Canadian. I was in the A-stream for languages, so I was smart. I was in the B-stream for maths, so I wasn’t great with numbers. I didn’t like sausages and beans, so I was a picky eater. These were all things I took for granted.
Until I was twelve years old, no one made a distinction between me and anyone else, by race or colour or religion. Sure, there were people who didn’t like me, but I always knew it was because I was either too mouthy or too quiet, or because I was a little too competitive. When I went over to visit friends at their houses, their parents would serve lumpia or xioaolongbao, baba ghanouj or jerk chicken, and I just always thought it was Canadian food. The only kid in our class we considered foreign was Davide, because he was from Québec.
I remember visiting Hong Kong with my parents and asking why there were signs saying the Filipinos weren’t allowed in certain hotels and restaurants, and my dad had no answer. I remember my Grade 6 teacher made a comment when I couldn’t grasp geometry, saying “I expected you to be more advanced in math”. I thought this was because my dad had been a maths professor back in China, though looking back on it there’s no way she could have known that. At a birthday party I couldn’t understand why the birthday girl’s mother called a boy with cornrows a “troublemaker”.
It wasn’t until I was 14 years old that I experienced racism, and I mean the kind of comment that sticks with you for life. I was excited for the end of year ball; my mum had let me design my own dress, with a red velvet skater skirt and black lace trim, and my date was a boy I’d had a crush on all year. My friends and I were going to get ready together and one of them had an older sister who had offered to do our makeup and nails. I was just so happy and excited that I was in my own little bubble for weeks.
Two weeks before the big night, a boy in my class I had never really spoken to “informed” me he would be taking me to the dance. He didn’t ask, he just expected I would be his date. I thought it was a mistake, he must have gotten his wires crossed, because I already had a date.
“You’re a Chinese girl. I’m a Chinese boy, so you have to go to the dance with me. Your dad would want you to go with me. Not some gweilo.”
The only thing I could think to respond with was that he should go with my father to the dance, but it really stung. Where was this sense of entitlement coming from? Why did this person feel like he had the right to demand I go out with him just because our parents had come from the same country? I didn’t feel any different from my friends, so why was this boy who I didn’t really know treating me differently from them? And did he realise that the word gweilo was an insult?
We talk about white cis male entitlement all the time about the “white feminism” phenomena, but I sometimes wonder if it reduces experiences to us and them. My entire adult life I have been the receiver of casual racism, from men who find me different-looking and exotic and fetishised me, to other asians who laughed at me for not being “Chinese enough”. I am asked about my heritage by total strangers who have no interest in the culture, but who just want to be able to label me correctly in their minds.
If you want to know about someone’s experiences, listen. Don’t think you know everything about them by the way they look, the shape of their eyes or the colour of their skin. There’s nothing wrong with being interested in a culture, but it’s not ok to treat us like a curiosity.
I am not an exhibit in a museum.