I stared blankly at him as defiantly he held up a pinky finger. “You Chinese is the middle finger, is that how they say it?”
I froze at these words, unable to believe what I’d just heard. Despite his occasional mischief, this six-year-old boy had always seemed so lovable. But for a quick second, I thought I saw a glimpse of smirk escaping the corner of his mouth. Then it quickly turned into a childish expression.
Wearily, I brushed his hand away—the small, oh-so-innocent looking pinky was too glaring to look at.
“You can’t say things like that to people. It’s not nice.”
I warned him and swallowed my words of protest and fury.
I was on a service trip with the Boston College Appalachia Volunteers Program (“Appa”). The service-immersion program brings BC students to the poor and marginalized community in the United States during spring break, to live and serve in solidarity with the local communities and families for a week.
That year, 13 of us went to Greenville, North Carolina to engage in community services with a local all-boys school, Third Street Academy. Most kids there were black and fatherless. I was helping a boy with his homework after school when it all happened.
For six months before this trip, the program met weekly to discuss issues in the Appalachian regions and prepare us for the mindset to serve with love, empathy and mindfulness. Each program member was well-aware of our own privileges as elite university students and determined to fend against the messiah complex.
We humbly joined the local communities, wishing to be inspired and educated instead of the other way around. However, no one warned me of the possible offenses directed at me from a child.
That night, my small group gathered in a circle after dinner to do our daily reflection. It was typically the time of a day when love, gratitude, support and self-reflection circulated among us. We went around to talk about our “highs” and “lows”.
Confused and longing for advice and consolation, I slowly started talking about the incident. But much to my surprise, instead of silence or words of compassion, the room burst into laughter. The chuckles and giggles died down quickly. But they stuck in my mind—like the lingering numbing sound when an age-old Chinese bronze bell was struck in the bell tower.
During the entire reflection, I curved up into a ball quietly at the corner of the dim, candle-lit room.
I didn’t know what to think. Was it something worth mentioning again to the group? I puzzled over why people in my group, good friends I made in just three days, would consider the incident funny. I wanted to ask them. Did I make too big of a deal out of it?
Was I oversensitive? Did I overthink?
But the idea of interrogating a group of majority white students seemed daunting, especially when the matter was about a yellow-skinned international student offended by a dark-skinned, under-privileged six-year-old.
I asked another Chinese girl before bedtime what she thought of the evening reflection. She was clueless; she didn’t remember. Nobody cared. It was like nothing happened.
The next day, we were packing up head back to BC. The sky looked cloudy and gloomy. I forced myself to cheer up and said goodbye to the local community and the boys, including the little six-year-old.
In the van to the airport, amidst blasting music from the radio, a formidable idea came to mind—what if I was black, and the boy was not? Would my peers’ reaction have been different, specifically, more sympathetic and compassionate? Yes, I whispered to myself, it would.
The thought haunted me for the entire trip back and weeks after. I grew increasingly agitated. I became annoyed by my group’s nonchalant reaction. I felt angry that I couldn’t share my agitation with anyone in my group. But more importantly, I was mad at myself for doubting my own feelings in the face of others’ indifference, for questioning the legitimacy of my reactions to subtle racism just because nobody else acknowledged it.
As an international student from China, I rarely identified with the conflicts surrounding Asian Americans in the States. Oftentimes I didn’t even consider myself a minority because I have China to fall back on and a rich Chinese culture to inherit.
But for the first time, clearly and painfully, I felt like an Asian minority in the U.S. Moreover, I felt what it was like to be downplayed in the case of racism. I couldn’t help but relate this experience to a larger context.
For years, Asian immigrants have been passively enduring whatever a majority white society puts upon them. From the yellow peril and “Yellowface” in the media to model minority stereotypes, Asians more often willingly played into these titles than actively resisting them.
The golden principle that most Asian parents tell their children is to keep a low profile and stay out of trouble. “The first bird that lifts its neck is the one that gets shot,” the Chinese like to say. Asians tend to mind their own business and feel content with their model minority status.
I poured my emotions, confusion, fury and disappointment into my trip leader application for the program. Soon enough, the program director reached out personally to inquire about my experience.
I talked non-stop to a stranger about something I didn’t even understand for over an hour. When I told him that I was not particularly mad at my group, because their reaction reflected something much bigger than themselves, he said, “You are a very kind person.” It felt like a private therapy session.
I didn’t get the position in the end. But surprisingly, I found some closure in the process. I forgave my friends and myself. I realized that it was easy to blame myself and the entire world when I felt powerless.
But the only way to address the distress was to talk openly about it, or to write about it—which is why I’m here.