Wishing I Were White
Excerpt from On the Move
December 2007 (perspective of a Ph.D. student)
In 1991, I started second grade in a gifted and talented program at Grant Elementary School [a pseudonym], located in the suburbs not far from my home in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. After two consecutive years of starting school as the new kid in class, I had already grown accustomed to the anxiety of entering a classroom filled with strangers who looked nothing like me. I was not nearly as nervous this third time around; at least I didn't need to learn a new language.
When I walked into the classroom on the first day of class, I was amazed by the abundance of whiteness—the teachers, the students, and even the school building were all white. Just like kindergarten in Switzerland, but in stark contrast to my inner-city experience of the previous year. Grant Elementary was a lovely-looking school nestled amongst huge magnolia trees in a quaint suburban neighborhood. There were large open spaces, lots of trees in the playground that we could run around and climb on, and plenty of grass and leaves everywhere, as opposed to the Jackson Elementary scenery of badly-manicured fields encased by barbed wire fences. But what amazed me the most was how polite and friendly the people were towards me. It seemed like true Southern hospitality at its finest. Maybe part of the reason why I felt so welcome was because it was the first time that I could understand what other people were saying to me when I entered the classroom. I'm sure that my teacher and some of the kids at Jackson were just as nice to me, but I could not appreciate their kindness since I did not understand English at the time.
Second grade was so much fun. I made friends fairly quickly since I now felt comfortable in my environment. The two gifted second grade classes contained mostly kids from my middle-class suburban neighborhood. Most students were white, but there were also a few Asian, Middle Eastern, and black kids. I truly appreciated having friends at school after spending two consecutive years as a loner. Most of the kids in both classes got along really well. Whenever someone had a birthday party, he/she would send out invitations to everyone. My classmates and I went on field trips to the zoo, played with caterpillars in the playground during recess, and even cleaned up the classroom together one morning after it had flooded during a heavy thunderstorm. Over the course of a few months, I gradually shed my Southern black accent as I picked up the local white dialect from my friends. We took our class picture outside on the steps in front of the school, surrounded by beautiful magnolia trees. The radiant sunshine and the cordial smiles on everyone's faces perfectly captured my feelings about second grade. That was the first class photo in which I was actually smiling.
Ever since I left China at age five, I knew that I was different from everybody else, but these differences never mattered much to me until I started making friends in second grade. In Switzerland, everyone was white and I was the only Chinese kid in my class and probably in the entire school. During first grade at Jackson, almost everyone was black and I was still probably the only Chinese kid. I had grown accustomed to the fact that I was different, so I didn't closely associate with any of these people who looked nothing like me. I didn't know about their culture, I didn't know about their families, I didn't know about their traditions, customs, or values, and I had no way to learn these things since I never made friends with anyone during kindergarten or first grade. I was just trying to survive.
But second grade changed everything. I could talk fluently about baseball cards, Ninja Turtles, video games, and other topics that little boys liked, so I made friends fairly quickly. As I became better friends with the kids in my class, I went over to their houses more often and saw their family interactions and customs firsthand. I soon began thinking about how their households differed from my own.
I always loved going to my friends' houses much more than having them come over to mine because I thought their homes were so much more interesting than my minimalist immigrant refuge. They always had so much stuff in their houses, plenty of decorations, artifacts, and knick-knacks, so many family pictures with grandiose frames, refrigerators filled with American snacks, and beautiful antique furniture, while my house was much sparser and less glamorous.
My parents valued practicality over aesthetics, so our house was comfortable but by no means luxurious. We used aluminum foil to cover the greasy stoves, old newspapers to serve as mock-tablecloths, and grocery bags to hold the trash. We had mismatched furniture everywhere since we purchased chairs and tables at the lowest prices from various flea markets, garage sales, and second-hand stores. Our refrigerator was nearly empty except for the bare necessities of meat, vegetables, and soy sauce; my parents never bought any of the food I saw advertised on TV—snacks, desserts, frozen dinners, butter, and condiments—because all they knew how to cook was Chinese food (their one attempt at baking a pizza was disastrous). As an immigrant family with only one source of income—my mother's modest assistant professor salary minus my father's business school tuition—our house reflected our frugal lifestyle.
The more my friends' families welcomed me into their homes, the more times I played Nintendo or football with them, the more home-cooked American meals their mothers prepared for me, the more times we rode our bikes together, the more I began to realize just how different I was from them and the more I wanted to be just like them. My friends' mothers were always at home cleaning, cooking, doing the laundry, and politely offering me food and drinks whenever I came over to play. I didn't know that mothers could stay at home; that was a strange concept for me since my mother was always at work. If only my mother could stay at home, then I would be one step closer to being normal like everyone else.
Whenever I ate meals at my friends' houses, the father would always propose a moment of silence to pray and say Grace, something which my family never did. At first, I didn't know what to do so I just sat still, but when I saw everyone else with their heads down, eyes closed, whispering words of gratitude to God for the food and His blessings, I surmised that this was some sort of ritual white people went through before eating every meal. I was too ashamed to ask my friends about the meaning of this ritual for fear of sounding like an uncultured foreign heathen. They already thought that I was different since I was not white, so I didn't want them to learn that I was also not Christian.
I was never able to find anybody to play with me on Sunday mornings. I used to wake up early on weekends to watch cartoons. At around 9:00, I always called all of my friends to try to find someone to go play. Every Sunday morning, I called friend after friend, but nobody was ever home. At first, I thought that everyone just woke up really late on Sundays, so nobody bothered to answer the phone in the morning. My parents couldn't explain this phenomenon either. However, I eventually learned that everyone went with their families to church on Sunday mornings. Every single one of my friends. Everybody in my neighborhood. Except for my family.
Why didn't my family ever go to church? Why didn't we pray to God before eating every meal? Why didn't my mother stay at home to bake cookies for my friends? Why didn't our house smell fresh and bustle with activity so that I could invite my friends over to play without feeling embarrassed? Why couldn't we be just like my friends' families so that I wouldn't have to go to their homes so often in order to experience what I could not get in my own? Why couldn't my parents talk without foreign accents or understand American culture just like my friends' parents? Why couldn't I be white just like almost everyone else I knew?
I remember making a shocking realization one day while sitting alone in my room: I could never be like my friends, no matter how hard I tried. I could never be white since I was not born that way. I could never live their lives since I was not destined to do so. It was horribly disheartening for me to realize that I was so different. The problem wasn't that other kids ostracized me for not looking like them. On the contrary, almost everyone at school made me feel very welcome, and my white friends and their families were always nice to me. But rather, the problem was that I did not like myself for being so different. The firsthand exposure I had gained to traditional devout white Southern households with stay-at-home moms made me realize how much my family did not fit that norm.
As an immigrant child, I was constantly on the move, so I didn't have any firm roots in America. In contrast, most of my friends were born in a hospital less than 15 minutes away from their homes, their brothers and sisters enrolled in the same schools they attended a few years earlier, and their parents and grandparents had gone to school on the other side of town. I didn't have any of that continuity in my own life. Why couldn't I be just like them? I realized that my childhood experiences were so much more turbulent than those of my friends, and for the first time, I desperately longed to have my memories erased and to start a new life, a tranquil domestic existence living in the suburbs of Baton Rouge, a stable life with bike rides, with my mother at home baking cookies, and with my family dressing up to go to church on Sunday mornings. I wanted to wake up one day, look at myself in the mirror, and see a handsome Caucasian boy with blue eyes, blonde hair, and an All-American smile. I wanted to see that white kid whom I knew I wanted to be.