03/31/2015 12:43 EDT | Updated 05/31/2015 05:59 EDT

Whitewashing in Media Made Me Self-Conscious About Being Chinese

BRENTWOOD, CA - FEBRUARY 24: Nate Sanders displays the collection of Oscar statuettes that his auction company will sell online to the highest bidder on February 24, 2012 in Brentwood, California. (Photo by Toby Canham/Getty Images)
Toby Canham via Getty Images
BRENTWOOD, CA - FEBRUARY 24: Nate Sanders displays the collection of Oscar statuettes that his auction company will sell online to the highest bidder on February 24, 2012 in Brentwood, California. (Photo by Toby Canham/Getty Images)

After the nominations for this year's Oscars were announced, my best friend asked me my opinion about them. I first noticed that all 20 of the acting nominees were white, then that the only non-white directing nomination was for Birdman, a movie with no people of colour in its leading roles.

This illustrates a systematic lack of representation in the media, a problem that still pervades my thoughts and affects who I am to this day.

I grew up in a predominantly Chinese neighbourhood in Toronto. Those with whom I went to school typically looked like me: fair-skinned, shiny black hair, single eyelids and flat-nosed. The teachers, on the other hand, were almost all white. The difference in the colour of our skin was never a problem until the issue was raised by one teacher out of the blue during class. I will never forget what he said that day.

He singled out the only white student in the class and explained to us how the two of them were "different" from "us."

He said, "We're white. We're not like the rest of you."

He reiterated the sentiment in more ways than necessary. I was 13 years old and not yet wise enough to critically process this lecture, but I registered the underlying message: she was white, and the "rest of us" were not. She was special, and we were not. This was the first time I felt self-conscious about my skin.

Throughout my childhood and teenage years, I was interested in movies. I watched anything and everything. I knew a bunch of trivial facts about old movies, new ones and the actors in them. Nothing excited me more than awards season.

Over time, I paid more attention to my appearance. I grew envious at how white babies had the genetic opportunity to be born with coloured hair, pointy noses, deep-set eyes and prominent eyebrow ridges. I changed my style so I wouldn't be mistaken for a "fob" -- an acronym for "fresh off the boat," used to describe new immigrants -- even though I was born in Canada. I had never even been to China.

It was around this time I started to wish I was white. I didn't necessarily want to not be Chinese. I just wanted to look like the celebrities in the movies I watched and in the advertisements I saw. Then I, too, would be special, and others would want to look like me.

This didn't become an active thought until I went to the flea market with my family one day. My aunt had been haggling for a pair of fake Adidas pants for my uncle, but she must've pushed it too far because the seller told her to "go back to China" if she wanted a better deal.

That was the first time I experienced verbal racism, although the comment wasn't addressed to me. I was offended but also embarrassed that Chinese people like me had this reputation for being cheap.

I kept telling myself that if we were white, nobody would've said anything like that to us.

After that incident, I started noticing this kind of prejudice more often. I remember walking past a white man who was arguing with a Chinese man in a mall parking lot. The white man accused the Chinese man of stealing a spot from him. The Chinese man didn't understand, responded in Mandarin, and was told to "go back home." I continued walking -- again, in someone else's shame -- as quickly as I could so that he wouldn't associate the Chinese man with me, even though we were two strangers connected only by race.

I was 18 the first time someone directed a racist comment at me. I was working the evening shift at a fast-food restaurant when a woman came in to get butter for her bagel. She must've brought in her own because we didn't sell bagels past a certain time, so I wasn't allowed to give her anything since she wasn't a patron. Rejected, she told me that I didn't know what a bagel was because "they're Jewish and China doesn't know about Jews."

At the same restaurant, another woman came in for coffee and as I was punching in her order, she asked me when Christmas was. I thought it was an odd question because, one: surely a woman in her 50s knew the answer; and two: it was already January. I said, "December 25?" and she replied, "No, when's your Christmas?" She meant Chinese New Year.

When I started job-hunting again, I feared that hiring managers would treat my application differently because of my last name. As an aspiring writer, I thought I would have a better chance at success if I used an Anglo pen name because it was rare to see a mainstream Chinese who wrote in English. But then I was worried that people would laugh at me once they found out that my name was not only fake but also "racebent," as I had already witnessed this too.

I worked downtown for a few months as an office assistant, a job I loved because it allowed me to regularly leave my cultural bubble in the suburbs. This one particular day, an employee shared with everyone a "funny" story.

He had finished a phone interview with an applicant whose name was something like Sam Jones. It went fine, he said, but what he found so hysterical was that Sam Jones was actually a middle-aged Indian immigrant who spoke with a thick accent. Sam Jones wasn't his real name. He told my co-worker that he had trouble getting job interviews despite his qualifications, a problem he attributed to his hard-to-pronounce birth name, so he changed it. In the process, he became someone's punch line.

These experiences kept telling me the same thing: that I needed to change. I dreamed of the impossible overnight metamorphosis that would alleviate my problems. This feeling dominated my life through my teenage years to the point where I couldn't go out with my non-Chinese friends without wondering if I looked like the token Asian.

Around the time I finished high school in 2011, the issue of diversity suddenly became a prominent cultural issue. More people of colour appeared in movies with plots that were traditionally reserved for white people, and there was a change in the way gender and self-identification, class, age and mental health were discussed in the media. It was a societal shift I saw mirrored in my own life.

When I was 19, I went to Italy with two friends. It was the first time I had been to Europe and the second time out of North America since I attended my uncle's wedding in Vietnam 15 years earlier. I was warned about pickpockets, but I wasn't as concerned with them as I was with the regular citizens because I had heard how Europeans were racist to Asian tourists. A friend of mine from Scotland was baffled at the absurdity of the generalization, but after watching white people for years tell those who looked like me to "go home" -- in Canada of all places -- I was afraid it would be my turn to be told the same.

To my relief, nothing of the sort happened. We went with a tour and were the only Chinese ones on it, but our Italian guide said she thought of us as "her kids." Some of the others were like me in a way: they were Italians who had never before been to Italy. They asked us about our background while making us feel like they weren't just interested in our being Chinese but in us as people.

When I was 20, I was working in a bookstore in Toronto's west end where I was the only East Asian employee. My co-workers asked me about my culture and at one point -- for the first time -- someone said it was "cool." I felt a real sense of pride that I never did before.

In a conversation with a customer, I was asked, "Where are you from?" and like I've done hundreds of times before, I responded with "Canada."

He shot me a look that said, "Alright, smart ass," and asked what my "ancestry" was. I told him that I'm Chinese and he asked from which part of China, but I didn't have an answer. I had no idea. All I knew was that my parents were born in the former city of Saigon, Vietnam before immigrating to Canada.

The man and I talked for almost an hour and he told me how fascinating he found Chinese culture -- my culture. He said that I was lucky to have such a rich one but was disappointed that I didn't know more, as if he had hoped to learn from me. He suggested that I look up Chinese history and learn something about myself.

One of my biggest regrets is not previously taking the time to do that because I was for too long disinterested in my own identity, and always sought to discover someone else's.

I spent most of my life watching white people in movies and on TV, and was desperate to avoid being stereotyped by strangers as a Mr. Yunioshi caricature. Unlike my sister, I never enrolled in Mandarin classes because I was afraid it would somehow make me "more Asian," like the man from the parking lot. Only now at 22 am I playing around with apps on my phone to learn the basics of the language, but I'll likely never be fluent. All those years I spent attempting to suppress my heritage because of what I heard and saw around me is time and opportunities I'll never get back.

The point of these stories is not to say that I crave the validation of white people, but that young minds are easily influenced and manipulated by the media, which create and support harmful microaggressions.

The online outrage at the casting of Quvenzhané Wallis in the titular role in Annie, and the simultaneous approval or silent passivity at that of Jake Gyllenhaal as the lead in The Prince of Persia, Rooney Mara as a Native American girl in Pan and Scarlett Johansson as a Japanese woman in Ghost in the Shell teaches people of colour that being white opens doors that'll always be closed to us.

Another one of my regrets is that there are still adolescents -- of any ethnicity -- who may have the same self-destructive desire to be some other race. While I'm glad to see that people are more outspoken about diversity nowadays, there are bodies like the Academy that continue to try and mute their voices. For example, in the past 87 years, only nine black actors, four Latinos and three Asians have won acting Oscars, according to the Associated Press. This is inadequate for our multicultural society.

Representation in the media affects lives. It has taken me years to see and to understand the subconscious brainwashing that has been done to me through my educators and the hobbies I enjoyed. I only hope that others who are in this situation can realize it sooner than I did.


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