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A Is For Action MAG
I answered aloud, telling my peers what my father’s name was: "Bingming."
“Bingming?” one of them repeated. “Haha! Like bing bing! Bang bang!”
Another kid chimed in, saying, “Bang bang! Hahahaha!”
Upon hearing their teasing and laughter, a confused feeling welled in my stomach and traveled its way up my body, passing through my tightening chest, and materializing into tears that threatened to reveal my vulnerable spirit.
I quickly wiped away any signs of distress and remained still, awkwardly laughing to avoid confrontation. My mind, however, refused to stay in its chair.
What’s going on? Why are they laughing? It’s simply a foreign name consisting of Chinese characters. Perhaps I am secretly a comedian, and just happened to deliver a funny line.
There I was: a then-quiet, awkward, Chinese eighth-grader newly moved to the U.S. after having lived in Shanghai for six years, with no idea how to acclimate to this new culture where people thought a Chinese name was hilarious.
I knew what prejudice was. It’s not like I hadn’t experienced having my cultural differences forcibly acknowledged and judged, but somehow this was different.
I flashed back to a couple of years earlier when my family and I were headed back from Beijing to Shanghai on a bullet train. I remember my mom telling me and my little sister that it took just four hours to get back home, but my 11-year-old self was only concerned with what I could do to entertain myself on the boring ride. As we took our seats and the train station gradually receded, I glanced up at the monitors placed at the front of our car; the speedometer kept picking up speed, its numbers rising steadily until it reached a mind-boggling 206 kilometers (128 miles) per hour. Looking out the window, I saw that the scenery had blurred into watercolor. I averted my gaze, knowing if I stared at it for too long I would get a headache.
My sister suggested we play the alphabet game to pass the time. We would pick a category, rattle off English words in that category that started with the letter ‘A’ until we couldn’t think of any more, then move on to the next letter in the alphabet. It was something we both enjoyed when there wasn’t anything better to do, and a long train ride seemed like the perfect opportunity to dust off our knowledge on arbitrary topics. We didn’t have an objective; simply laughing at each other for getting stuck on a letter was satisfying enough to keep us going.
I picked Pokémon as the category, thinking my extensive knowledge gained from years upon years of mindlessly consuming the franchise would grant me an edge over my then eight-year-old sister.
“Alaska … hey, this isn’t fair, I don’t know Pokémon! Can we do animals instead?”
“C’mon, don’t be a sore loser! Fine, ‘A’ is for alligator.”
As we continued the game, a middle-aged woman sitting in the opposite aisle, overhearing us chatting in English, stared at us with her eyes wide open. After listening in for another minute, she turned to my mother and began speaking in Chinese. The exchange seemed friendly and inoffensive, and despite being preoccupied with destroying my sister in the alphabet game, I managed to focus my attention on their conversation and overheard something that would stick with me for years to come.
“Are these both your kids?”
My mom nodded.
“Wow, they speak English so well! They must have had a very good education.”
“Oh no, they both go to international school but the quality isn’t that high. We moved here from the U.S. a few years back so they were already familiar with English.”
“Oh my goodness, you must be super rich then! America is definitely a very good place.”
My naïve younger self couldn’t understand the implicit assumptions behind those words, and I was struck with a confusion that stuck with me long enough to keep this moment from dissipating into the void of my memory. Questions arose, but among them, the only one I could remember clearly was: Why was I, a random kid who had demonstrated no prominent traits other than the ability to speak English, suddenly viewed as educated and rich?
Despite the woman having no malicious intent, I was unable to shake a strange feeling of isolation after that ride on the bullet train. I would remember it later, noticing hostile stares from the folks around me as I chatted with my friends in English while standing in an airport on a trip to Guangzhou, or when being asked how many burgers I eat per day by the taxi driver as I told him about my background.
I was reminded of these small instances as I was once again faced with race-based isolation, this time on the other side of the world.
I didn’t get it. A new friend would invite me over to their house for dinner, and their parents would always give me strange looks as if they didn’t want to acknowledge my existence. One time, a friend took me aside and asked if I ate dog, to verify his mom’s beliefs.
Eventually, I understood that I wasn’t alone in these experiences, and that anti-Asian racism in the U.S. was a persistent sentiment going as far back as the 1850s; during which, newly-arrived Chinese workers were viewed as inferior and mistreated socially and economically as a result of threatening “racial purity.” Even so, I simply couldn’t wrap my head around the blind hatred some people felt and how ready they were to hold onto untruths that bolstered such feelings. While racial awareness is a topic that has grown over the past few years, there are still many who are prone to othering and dehumanizing those who are different from themselves. What can we do to stop this?
My sister and I have grown from playing the alphabet game to showing each other funny videos on Instagram and Tiktok. I have gone from an awkward 13-year-old afraid of confrontation to a 17-year-old who gets up in front of hundreds of people to debate controversial topics for my Model UN travel team. Yet despite my personal growth, the same problems remain: people make assumptions about others based on the languages they speak, the way they look, and the names they have. Just this past year, the surge in anti-Asian sentiment due to the coronavirus caused patients to denigrate or even punch Asian nurses in the face — or worse, to prompt individuals such as Robert Aaron Long to kill eight people in a massage parlor in Atlanta.
With the journey that I have gone through and will likely never stop undergoing, I can still be affected by the racist comments of others, and will be transported back to those confused feelings I have become so familiar with. Just a few weeks ago I was walking with a group of friends through the streets of Boston, having finished eating lunch and getting boba from the Chinese stores nearby. As we strode down the sidewalk, we passed by an elderly Black man sitting on some steps.
“Hey, you! You Chinese?” he called out to me.
“ … Yeah?”
“Yeah, I’m Black-Chinese, I’m Black-Chinese! DADADADADADADA! DADADADADA!” he teased. (He wasn’t Chinese.)
The man then started spouting gibberish, mocking the Chinese language as our group stood there, taken aback by the sheer absurdity of the situation. I could only manage a “Damn, that’s crazy bro” before walking away and bursting into laughter. It seemed funny in the moment, but the more I thought back to that encounter, feelings of discomfort began to taint the image of "DadaMan" in my mind. I avoided confrontation once again. It seemed as though nothing had changed since the time I sat with those kids in my eighth-grade classroom, or when I played the alphabet game with my sister on that bullet train.
As it turned out, however, there was something new. Later that night, my friends messaged me and talked on a voice channel about how terrible that man was, expressing concern that such an instance of racial mockery could happen under such familiar circumstances. What separated this moment from the others was that now, I had a community there to support me — one where we all shared in each other’s stories when any of us were in need.
If there is truly a way for us to “end” racism, to finally change the stubborn minds of those who refuse to accept each other’s differences and acknowledge each other as fellow human beings, I think it has to start with doing what my friends did: retaining our compassion, empathy, and humanity in discussions of racism. Reassuring each victim of discrimination, prejudice, and racist behavior that they are part of our community. Sharing and upholding each other’s stories so that all of those who have been treated differently, ostracized, or jeered because of their appearance, background, or name will know that they are not alone in these struggles — even if the aggressors are still trying to hurt them.
I wish to end with a message of encouragement: Share your experiences, as I have. Never stop sharing; let those on Twitter, Instagram, and Weibo know — let the whole world know — of our connected, but separate stories. Let them know that, while we are different, we are still able to help each other in solidarity and support, as individual humans.
‘A’ is for action. Let’s start with that.