I still remember the first time someone told me that my eyes were too small. I was in third grade and my teacher placed me in the back of the classroom. My vision was starting to blur at a young age and when I complained that I couldn’t see the board, my classmate explained it was because my eyes were too chinky.
I went home that night and spent hours in front of the mirror in my room. Taking pieces of Scotch tape, I strategically placed them around my eyes to make them appear bigger than they actually were. If only my eyes were bigger, I thought.
Growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area of California, one of the most diverse regions in the nation, I was almost always accepted without question. My group of friends was comprised of individuals of different ethnic, socio-economic, and religious backgrounds. Before meeting me, people never seemed to question if I was fluent in English nor did they make assumptions based upon my Asian American background. I aced calculus as a junior in high school, drove terribly, and wanted to receive all A’s on my report card: but I was never teased for reinforcing specific stereotypes. I’m grateful that I was surrounded by people who understood that these facts represent so little of who I am as a person.
Once I got to college, it seemed like in almost every class, someone had to ask me how long I’ve lived in the United States or question why I was so good at speaking English. At eighteen years old, I was somehow back in that third grade classroom, feeling insecure and wishing my eyes were bigger and brighter. I’d be walking down the street to my next class when all of a sudden, a car filled with rambunctious college students would yell “Ching chong ling long!” or “Go back to China!” Or I’d be hanging out on the quad with a group of Asian American friends and someone would pass by groaning about how there was “too much yellow.”
It’s hard not to feel completely discouraged when a few members of my university community don’t seem to embrace diversity as much as this school has advertised. Time and time again, I find myself disappointed that people still find it humorous to mock an Asian accent: to mock the way my parents speak because they’re not fluent in “engrish.” That I’m reduced to nothing more than a stereotype: a math-loving, Asian, female nerd who can’t drive well. That seeing an Asian girl walking down the street will elicit a typical Asian bow and greetings like “Konichiwa.” That strangers will feel compelled to tell me to go back to China because there’s no way that a girl like me could ever be American. That my own peers would use my identity against me and attempt to strip me of my cultural pride.
But this past year especially, my eyes have been opened to the efforts of multicultural organizations like Korean American Student Association and Asian Students in America. I’m filled with hope when I see students excited about exploring the evolution of Asian and Asian American culture and asking questions like how can we continue this fight against common stereotypes and create an inclusive community. As a resident advisor, I’m so encouraged whenever my freshman residents approach me asking what my thoughts are on affirmative action, outspoken feminist Suey Park, or Katy Perry’s latest music video. The fight for racial justice is ongoing and the voices of marginalized groups are growing louder. Asian Pacific American Heritage Month is an open invitation to all Syracuse University students to reflect on our history, our present, and how we can progress in the future.
My name is Jane Hong. I have small, almond eyes that are a shade of boring brown but I love them for seeing that your race and ethnicity can’t possibly be the only things that define who you are.