Unlearning Beyond Unlearn Week

I’ve been really fortunate to grow up with the family and the friends that I have, but it is inevitable that I’d run into a few uncomfortable situations as an Asian American. I was adopted from China when I was nine months old to a wonderful Caucasian family here in the United States. I have one brother who is biological to my parents and two siblings who are also adopted from different parts of China. I remember when I was young people would turn their heads whenever we walked into a restaurant and sometimes assume that my mom was just running a daycare. When I was about seven, we moved to Spring Lake, Michigan, and I’ve grown up in the Spring Lake public school system ever since.

I remember moving to Spring Lake when I was seven and having people come up to me and greet me saying, “Hi, Grace.” I was so confused at first. I had no idea who Grace was. Yet this happened multiple times everyday. Soon I realized that I was one of two Asians in my grade and that the other Asian girl’s name was Grace. It became very apparent to me that everyone would just see a young Asian girl and assume that it was Grace because she had been at Spring Lake longer. When I explained that I wasn’t Grace, people would laugh and apologize justifying their mistake by saying that we just look so much alike. The funny thing is we looked nothing alike. People were too stuck on the stereotype that “all Asians look alike”. Over 10 years in the same school with the same people in my grade, people would continuously make that mistake. As a senior in high school I graduated with about 250 people and I was still one of only two Asians in my grade — me and Grace. As a senior in high school, people who I’ve been in school with for years would still mistake me for her. Teachers regularly called me by her name. At least twice a week when a teacher was passing papers back to us, they would “mistakenly” give me her paper. It became more than a mistake.

I remember one time I went up to a teacher and she greeted me with a hello in Chinese. I also remember my sister coming home from school one day saying that a teacher went up to her and said, “Welcome to America. Where are you from?” just because the teacher assumed she was an exchange student. I’ve had students mistake me as an exchange student as well. I’ve grown up with people pulling every stereotypical Asian joke in the book, asking me where I’m “from” and if I speak Chinese.

The assumptions that people make, a lot of the time not even meaning to, have profound and lasting effects. When you strip someone of their story, you really don’t leave them with much. Surrounded by these assumptions, I found myself trying to prove myself to people. Whether it was trying to prove I’m not like what they’d assumed, or whether it was trying to prove that I fit in, it’s always a thought in the back of my head. And when you spend your life trying to prove something to other people, you begin to have to prove something to yourself.