By Lindsay Nielsen, VI Form
On a Life as an Asian-American & Embracing That with Open Arms
The worst activity of my freshman summer was taking six-hour classes of drivers’ ed for five days straight. The only thing that made it bearable was that our teacher let us watch the world cup instead of parallel parking videos, and we were let out early on the last day because my teacher’s daughter suddenly went into labor. Before she got the call, my teacher passed out our graded permit tests. “So..” she said, “it looks like Peggy Chen got a perfect score. Please raise your hand and grab your test” Pause. Let me tell you three things. 1. I knew no one in this class. 2. I did not earn a perfect score and 3. When she told the class Peggy Chen scored a 100, every single person, including the teacher, looked at me expecting me to raise my hand. After trying to tell them my last name was actually Nielsen, a shy, Asian, Peggy Chen out-stretched her hand from the corner of the room to claim her test.
Believe it or not, this is a usual occurrence for me. And definitely not as weird at the week before when a middle-aged woman walked up to me in Best Buy asking how the definition of a 4k tv differed from a curved model. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I don’t work here.” A few awkward stares were exchanged. “Oh…” she said. She looked at me puzzled as if all Asians roaming electronic stores were automatically employees. She then walked away.
Race wasn’t always a prevalent component of my life, but once I knew others were attentive to my race, it started an onslaught of experiences relating to being Asian in what was to me: a largely Caucasian world. In my personal experience, I will explain how I went from of state of oblivion, to self-hate, to self love all in a short period of 18 years.
I was born in 1998 in Anhui, China under the one-child policy. After birth, I was abandoned by my biological parents and left on the steps of a local Dairy Factory. It’s not known whether my immediate family already had a child, wanted a boy, were too young, or they were not alive. Maybe it was another reason.
After being discovered, I was given to an Orphanage where I was cared for and overfed. I was constantly in and out of foster care. Although it seems like a sad story, it wasn’t. I was one of the luckiest orphans to be adopted. My Caucasian parents called me “no-neck Nielsen” when they saw my adoption photo because I was so chubby. They flew to China to bring me to Sudbury, Massachusetts where I have lived my whole life with my mom, my dad, sister and two dogs.
I always knew that I was adopted from China and that my sister and I did not look like my parents, but I didn’t know that my biracial family was not the norm. One day before elementary school while eyeing the candy bars in the check out line, a woman pointed and me and frantically started calling out “This Asian girl has lost her mother!” My mom took two steps towards me to claim her “lost” child. Another time, a woman even approached my mom curious to know how much she paid for the “cute Chinese boy in the pink jumpsuit.”
I cannot remember a time my race was mentioned in elementary school. I loved elementary school: I loved my friends, classes and I got to read my favorite books with my husband, Conor O’Brien. My favorite pastimes were creating masterpieces on kid-pix, going to scholastic book fairs and eating 2 for $.30 cookies. The only mishap was in second grade when my husband Conor slipped that he had not three but five other wives.
Middle school was rough. Everything had turned sideways. I started to feel ashamed of my identity. My most vivid memory was when I played zap in 6th grade and had to ask out a boy on the baseball team. He looked at me, laughed to his friends, and told me he didn’t date Chinks. I wasn’t offended until I learned I was supposed to be.
Valentine’s day in 7th grade my mom gave me chocolates to bring to school. I was so proud that I got a gift to bring into my science class to share. That day, my class told me they doubted I had a Valentine. They told me that the only people that would ever love me only loved me because they had yellow fever.
I think the only compliment I received in middle school was that people would invite me to their math group in 8th grade because they thought I would give them an A. I did for the record. I’m not ashamed of that anymore.
The rest of my middle school days were filled with racial slurs to remind me that I belonged back in China.
Middle school taught me that I shouldn’t love my Asian-ness. Being different is not considered good when you are starting puberty. By seventh grade, I was desperately looking for ways to prove I was like everyone else. I thought that if I were to closely emulate the looks and mannerisms of my white counterparts, I would feel better about myself. I started rejecting aspects of myself that I thought would make me an outcast.
My free time was spent looking into double eyelid surgery and learning how to get lighter skin. I bathed in milk. Seriously! I read online that it made Cleopatra’s skin lighter. I told my mom that I was using the milk for a science project and I dumped all of it into the tub. I used straws to breathe underwater so I could my face could soak.
Throughout this whole chaos of rejecting my identity, I knew deep down that I could never avoid the feeling of rejection… and that feeling sucked. Feeling hatred for something I could never change about myself. Realizing I had to deal with the way I looked, the way I acted…who I was. Through a long process, I have learned to accept myself. There was no epiphany. It took me eight grade, ninth grade in public school, and then ninth grade again at St. Mark’s to love my identity.
I will admit that I was a hypocrite. I told people to never change the things about themselves that made them unique. I still stand by that. I just didn’t follow my own advice back then. I am embarrassed that I went through drastic measures to redesign t myself, but I never grew up with the intention of altering my identity. I grew up in an academic environment with the feeling that I was supposed to be ashamed of who I was. When I was at my low, my experience helped me get a perspective on where I was and where I wanted myself to be. I am thankful for my parents’ support and all of the people at St. Mark’s who knowingly and unknowingly helped build me back up. I’m especially thankful my roommate, Dylan, for being my role model. His confidence amazes me every day. I am a better person because of him.
Being Asian-American and adopted has split me in two directions. I have learned to embrace them, negatives and all. I built myself back up from a fragile, self-conscious Asian to a strong, proud Asian. This year at New England’s for squash, four seniors from the Berkshire school shouted racial slurs behind my back as I left the bathroom. I’ve reached a point in my life where I feel more sad for them. They truly don’t understand that we are not defined by egg rolls and parking tickets.
There are three things I hope you take away from this essay. The first is this: Life doesn’t have a yellow brick road–you can’t follow a specific route in order to reach OZ. You don’t need to fulfill the stereotypes that society has given us. Secondly, be kind to one another. You may never know the impact you may have on someone’s life. Lastly, there may be an aspect about yourself that you have tried to reject or conceal. Mine was my Asian identity. There will always be someone who doesn’t understand us, but it is not my job or yours to change into someone they’ll accept. I used to feel so alone, but now my company is within all of the passions I’ve adopted and all the people who have embraced my true identity with open arms.