As I write about my first few months in the United States, I wonder what it will sound like from the other side. Real life situations are rarely black and white, and the other side may provide valuable insight.
Knowing that I am biased, I will try to present the events as my family and I experienced them, to be as objective as I can be, yet there are some parts where I can only speculate. Although I will call out the ethnicities of the people involved, my goal is not to reinforce stereotypes but to present the situation as it was.
The year was 1999, over three decades after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. That year, the six-year-old me moved to Memphis from China, without knowing English. I entered the first grade at a school where there were many blacks and whites, but very few other Asians.
My teacher, a white woman, was respected among teachers and staff for her teaching, yet she was also known for being cold and unkind. On the first day of school, parents lined up to talk to her, and my mom was the last person in line. When it was finally my mom’s turn, my teacher turned away and ignored her, as if no one was left.
At the time, my parents and I were expecting things to be rough, knowing that we were a minority there, so we just accepted things as they were.
Without knowing English, I did not understand what anybody tried to tell me at school. Much of the time I was in my own little world, aloof from everything going on around me, since I couldn’t understand it anyway.
My teacher often left me sitting alone at my seat while the class was engaged in activity on the classroom carpet. I became more and more accustomed to just staying in my own little world, and I was hardly learning anything.
My interactions with other children were okay at first, but things suddenly got violent. I was unfamiliar with the culture and didn’t know what was considered appropriate behavior. Supposedly I apparently offended another boy without realizing it, and he started physically attacking me, giving me multiple bruises under my eye. Other kids were quick to join in, and soon kids were ganging up on me on a regular basis during lunch and recess.
Some just teased me, but many would surround me in groups and physically attack me from all sides. My response was to fight back, which invited even more kids to gang up on me. My teacher sometimes watched them beat me up, and she never interfered. None of the other kids got into trouble for this. When my parents brought up the beating issue with my teacher, she did nothing about it.
Then one day, a boy from the class reported that I kicked him, an incident that I did not recall. Just one offense, but I was immediately sent to the principal’s office, and the school staff called my parents. At this point, my parents decided to try switching me to a different class, even though such a transfer was rarely allowed to happen.
The assistant principal of the school, an African American man, was one who went far beyond what was expected of him. He was the one my mom approached about having me switch classes. Once he heard about the situation, he simply asked us to pick a teacher whose class we wanted to switch to, and agreed to let me switch.
Up until this point, this conversation had only been between my mom and the assistant principal. But then the story about my getting beaten up, my teacher’s negligence of the situation, and my mom approaching the assistant principal about switching classes got leaked to the other school staff. The head principal, another white woman, then sent us an official letter saying that we were not allowed to switch classes for such a reason.
It was after approaching the assistant principal again and again that we were finally able to switch me to another class, although I don’t know the details of how that was accomplished.
My second teacher was also white, but she did everything she could to engage me in the class. This was certainly difficult for her, since she did not speak my language, but she never treated me like an obligation. Knowing that I was getting physically bullied, she was more protective of me, and the bullying eventually stopped.
All of this happened while I was too young to think deeply about the situation. But in retrospect, there was a lot going on that we as humans are susceptible to.
Racism and stereotypes. There were many children of color in my class, but my first teacher’s behavior was particularly cold and negligent towards my family. Not knowing her story, I can only speculate about why.
Racial tensions were still strong in Memphis decades after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, but they certainly did not end there. When I was attending high school in California, a teacher led the class into a discussion about racism that lasted several months. The discussion exposed a surprisingly large portion of the class that identified as racists and had no qualms about it.
“For Christ himself has brought peace to us. He united Jews and Gentiles into one people when, in his own body on the cross, he broke down the wall of hostility that separated us.” ~ Ephesians 2:14
Peer pressure. The group of first graders that took part in beating me up consisted of various ethnicities: whites, blacks, Hispanics, and even the only other Asian kid in the class. Boys and girls alike participated in the bullying. Racism wasn’t even on their minds. Rather, I think they saw me as someone different. Someone who didn’t speak English and didn’t follow expected behaviors. Once one of their peers started attacking me, it didn’t take long before many others joined in the bullying.
But I myself have also participated in shunning or bullying those who were different and stigmatized. Not because I didn’t know it was wrong, but because I didn’t want to stand out among peers. Having known the pain of being rejected by my peers, I did what I could to fit into the crowd.
The fear of being the lone black sheep in a white flock kept me from seeing the opportunities to actually be the one white sheep. It takes true courage to stand up for what is right when no one else around will stand with you.
“Obviously, I’m not trying to win the approval of people, but of God. If pleasing people were my goal, I would not be Christ’s servant.” ~ Galatians 1:10
Child discipline. Though I was sent to the principal’s office for kicking someone, none of the kids who ganged up on me got disciplined for it. Most of their parents and guardians probably did not know about it. I felt like a victim at the time, but ultimately I was not the victim because at least I learned a lesson about what was not okay. As for the other kids, I hope they learned that same lesson at some point.
“Those who spare the rod of discipline hate their children. Those who love their children care enough to discipline them.” ~ Proverbs 13:24
Standing for justice. Why did the head principal dismiss my situation so casually when she heard about what had been happening? Quite possibly, she wanted to avoid conflict within the school staff. Economically, this was a smart decision, but she was effectively turning a blind eye to injustice. On the other hand, the assistant principal was willing to fight for our case and push through the class transfer, despite opposition.
“Yes, speak up for the poor and helpless, and see that they get justice.” ~ Proverbs 31:9
This year I had an opportunity to help with a children’s program at church, where there was a little boy from China who didn’t know English. He reminded me of my own first grade experience.
Unable to converse with the other children or adults (other than myself), he was constantly in his own world. At the same time, he seemed desperate for attention, and he would behave in inappropriate ways to get attention, which irritated the other children.
Looking back, I was very much like that too. I offended another boy to the extent that he started attacking me. I couldn’t help wondering, what was this little boy going through at school? Hopefully not what I experienced, but somewhere out there another young immigrant may be reliving a similar nightmare.
Whether we are children, parents, teachers, or any other role in society, we have a chance to be different.
To not re-erect the wall of hostility that Christ has already broken down for us.
To get over the fear of being the lone black sheep.
To discipline those who are young and try to keep them from going astray.
To stand up for justice, even when it costs us something.
Wherever we are today, let us head in that direction.