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The Immigrant

September 24, 2020

When I first started school, my parents and I lived in Vancouver, where I attended an elementary school with a large number of Chinese kids. Many had a similar background as me - they were born in China and moved here because one or both of their parents were first-generation immigrants who had come to study at the University of British Columbia. We lived in a safe neighborhood on the edge of the campus, and many of our parents often chatted and visited with each other. I knew many kids already from these family get-togethers, so going to school was almost like a continuation of our regular playdates. In those early years, we even spoke Mandarin with each other while we played, although that became less frequent as time went on. During this time, the idea of "belonging" was something that I always took for granted - I never felt out of place in this safe little bubble that I lived in or even considered that as a possibility.

Things changed when we moved to the San Francisco Bay Area at the end of second grade. The Bay Area is of course, also known for its large Asian population. However, we ended up in Novato, a small town on the northern edge of Marin County, which consisted of mostly whites. Being only in 3rd grade when I started at my new school, ethnicity wasn't something I concerned myself with or paid close attention to. So it never really bothered me that I was the only Asian in my class - in fact, I barely noticed at first. There was already more than enough for an 8-year-old to take in with my brand new surroundings, such as the fact that washrooms were now called bathrooms, and pop was now soda.

Gradually though, I began to notice little things. The first was a small and rather positive memory that nevertheless hinted that I was somehow different from my peers. I don't remember exactly what prompted her to do so, but not long after I joined my new class, the teacher asked me if I wanted to demonstrate to the class how to fold an origami crane. Origami had been a regular activity of mine, along with my other childhood hobbies like drawing and watching cartoons. I wasn't particularly good at it, but I did spend a substantial amount of time folding cranes and other simple objects and even more, it was one of the activities we did at my after-school day care in Vancouver. I had assumed that most other kids knew origami, too. So I was surprised when no one in my class knew how to fold a crane and a bit proud when everyone oohed and aahed as I showed them.

Around this time, I entered into an animal-loving phase. I longed to own a pet, especially a dog. I recall spending hours at the public library browsing the pets section, reading dog books from cover to cover and memorizing all the breeds and their quirks. This obsession was, in part, driven by finding out that nearly all my classmates owned pet dogs or cats, a phenomenon I hadn't encountered before. Pets were not something that Chinese immigrants like my parents were used to having growing up - they barely had enough for themselves sometimes, let alone an additional mouth to feed. To them, pets were not only unnecessary, but were a nuisance that required a lot of extra work and money. My insistent begging was met with little to no empathy. The other, more practical problem was that our apartment didn't allow dogs. This highlighted another big difference between my peers and I - most of their families had been here for generations, were well-established, and owned large, single family houses. My parents and I, on the other hand, rented a small 2 bedroom apartment. One day, we were asked to draw pictures of our pets in class, and everyone started showing off their beloved four-legged friends, while I had none to talk about. Up until now, I had never felt so left out and different from my peers, and I went home that day in a slump. My parents eventually caved in to my pestering and in fourth grade, agreed to adopt a kitten. This finally brought an end to my insecurities about being the only one in my class who didn't have a pet. I didn't fully appreciate it back then, but I realize now just how hard it must have been for them to adjust to having a cat around and the time, effort and sacrifice they put in to accept and take care of our new family member.

In fourth grade social studies, we spent a few weeks doing a section on American history, where we learned about the lives and struggles of those who fled their homelands and came to America, eventually forming the "melting pot" of cultures that we have today. I remember being fascinated hearing about their long, treacherous journeys on ships across the sea, the fearful hours spent while being detained on Ellis Island, and the poor living and working conditions they had to endure. It almost seemed like a make-believe story - these immigrants weren't real to me - they were people from a whole other world in some far, distant past. One day, the teacher gave us as part of our homework that night to ask our families about our ancestors and where they had come from. The next day, we went around the room and each person shared their findings with the class. I heard things like "my great-grandparents came from Ireland" or "my great-great grandparents" came from England" or even "my parents came from South Korea". When it came closer to my turn, I began to feel nervous. Something was different in what I was about to say, but even as I said it, I still hadn't quite wrapped my head around just why it was different than all the others. The words that came out sounded strange and out of place. "My parents and I came from China, then we went to Canada, and then we came to the United States."

A brief silence. Then one girl piped up loudly, "Wait, so she's an immigrant?"

That last word seemed to linger uncomfortably in the room, and I turned a deep red as everyone stared at me. So that was what was wrong with this picture. Everyone else had been born here, even for the few kids whose parents were first-generation immigrants. This made them all Americans. I, on the other hand, was an immigrant, just like the people who had fled to American on ships hundreds of years ago.

My teacher must have realized the awkwardness of the situation and tried to brush things off light-heartedly. "Well, really we are all immigrants in the end!"

But I knew the truth. It had finally dawned on me just how different I was from my peers.

We are all born with no concept of race, ethnicity, or culture. As we grow up, these concepts become slowly ingrained in us, both consciously and subconsciously. We start to form certain beliefs and opinions about our own culture as well as other cultures, driven largely by our families and the environment in which we are brought up. At some point, as we venture out into the world and meet more people, we are exposed to those who are different from us. Our interactions with them, both good and bad, build upon our initial beliefs, and over time, our opinions about both our own and other races and cultures solidify and possibly turn into stereotypes. For me, moving to the US was the major turning point for me. I not only began to see myself as different from my white peers, but even more, I began to consider race as a distinguishing factor between people. It was something I began to notice unconsciously when seeing someone for the first time. It brought an end to that brief but carefree time when everyone was the same in my mind regardless of skin color.

Our fourth-grade studies culminated in a big multi-cultural night celebration, where we were each supposed to dress up in the traditional clothes of our culture and bring a representative dish. I wore a little red jacket made of Chinese silk and my mom brought a huge platter of potstickers. On one wall hung a huge map of the world. The map had been covered in pins representing each person's ancestral origin, and long red strings connected each pin to another pin representing where their ancestors first landed in America. The strings formed neat, sweeping curves spanning the Atlantic Ocean. Except for one, which went slightly north and then made an awkward 90 degree turn south towards the US. I kept looking at the map and thinking how my string stood out like a sore thumb, but at the same time, I was a little proud that I had the most interesting journey of them all.

At the end of the night, my class gave a little performance of a song that we had been rehearsing. It went something like this:

Our American family,
Has roots in every country,
There are so many branches that grow from one tree,
This is our American family

I never really thought much about the lyrics back then, but somehow, the song has stayed with me throughout the years. I realize now that it was meant to foster a sense of belonging and inclusion. I certainly didn't feel a strong sense of belonging to the great American family that night on the stage, and there are times even now when I still don't, but the song brings comfort, especially in times like these, in knowing that it's something that we can all keep striving for.