Culture Stories

Talk American to Me

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It’s been at least fourteen years since this photo was taken. I was 5 years old and left this playground in Queens for a whiter one and was made to feel alien for the first time; I entered elementary school in a predominantly white district and was assumed to not speak English, assumed to not be American.

I tried, then, to prove my worth, to prove that I belong here. I devoured book after book, determined to learn more and more words. My parents would scold me about damaging my eyesight with my reading habits. Nonetheless, I became a master speller, the resident grammar police, an insufferable know-it-all.

I thought knowledge would protect me. I thought that I could build a fortress with my words. But I was never able to find the words to explain why I was tired to my teachers, to my parents. I didn’t know that I could call what was happening to me “racism” or “alienation.”

Today, I am as speechless as I was then.

Yesterday morning, I read news that Adam Crapser, who was adopted from South Korea when he was 3 years old, is going to be deported because his abusive adoptive parents failed to complete his citizenship application. He has been in this country for almost four decades and our government wants to tell him that he does not belong here. Regardless of the rules and regulations, Adam Crapser has a claim to American citizenship. He belongs here.

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Yesterday night, I read news that Rep. Tammy Duckworth had her family’s history of service in this country (over 240 years of history; she is a registered DAR) challenged because of her Thai heritage. In a debate, her opponent for Senate said, “I’d forgotten that your parents came all the way from Thailand to serve George Washington.” Regardless of what you think of the military, there is something so horribly wrong about 1. assuming only white people fought in the American Revolution, 2. assuming that because Tammy is Asian, she couldn’t possibly have a claim to this country in the way she does, 3. assuming that because her mother is a new immigrant that Tammy herself is any less American.

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Over the years, I have learned words like “systemic racism,” “microaggressions,” “reproduction of inequality,” and I have learned about the history of people who look like me in this country. I know now that it’s not by any defect of mine that I’m treated as “forever foreign” and that the burden should not be on me to prove that I belong.

I have the words to explain how tired I am from desperately trying to get the country I was born and raised in to recognize me. I can explain how I feel when people ask me different forms of “where are you from” until I’m forced to say that my parents are from China, in order to satisfy them. I can explain why this is not right, but I can’t explain away my heartache. I can respond to injustice, but I can’t prevent it.

The walls I built have never truly protected me and so I’ve begun to tear them down in the hopes that people might see my foundation instead and see that I am rooted in this land just as they are. But this doesn’t work either. It is precisely my roots that have been under attack this whole time even though they’ve been rendered invisible.

Chris Kwok said, “I think our K-12 history books need to be rewritten. We need to know that our country wasnt only built by White men from England and North Europe. They need to know all people – black, brown, yellow, white built this country with their sweat.“

America, is that all you need? A history lesson? Once you see my roots, will you let me plant them here? Will you let me grow here?

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