I grew up in a small town about 45 mins east of Vancouver called Aldergrove. Today the population is approximately 12 000 but when I grew up, it was substantially smaller, maybe just under 10 000. My family was one of the few Asian families who lived there. My parents knew all the other Vietnamese people who lived around town which amounted to about half a dozen. There were also some Chinese and Japanese families we also knew about. Growing up, I don’t remember feeling that different from the white people who lived in my town; I never really felt like I was treated differently from other kids in school.
I remember one cloudy summer day we were visiting another Vietnamese family who lived in a different, poorer section of town just beside the local Safeway. The neighbourhood was lined with townhouse complexes coloured a muted grey-beige and dirty dark brown. Back then though, the whole world seemed slighted muted with shades of grey and dirty brown.
As our parents discussed whatever it was parents discussed back then, their two daughters & I left to go to the playground just around the corner. I was excited to go play because I lived in the countryside without anything like playgrounds or even neighbours nearby for miles and miles. We were all sitting on the swings minding our own business, talking about whatever it was kids discussed back then.
Halfway through our conversation, three girls walked up to us, circling the swing set we were sitting on. They pulled their eyes back while chanting “ching chong ching chong” at us. I remember me & my friends watching them stunned into silence. I particularly could not take my eyes off the leader of the pack. She was a tall girl with long dirty blond hair wearing a faded white tank top and shorts. She looked a couple years older and was beautiful to my eye. I remember the distinct feeling of hating her and envying her at the same time.
As her friends continued circling and chanting, she came forward and said to us, “you can speak Chinese better than us but we can speak English better than you.”
I never heard of the word racism much less knew what it was. But I knew in the pit of my stomach that at that moment, it was my Asian-ness that made me different and that was what they hated about me. And I would have given anything to be a blond white girl just like them.
After less than a minute, the three girls took off, leaving my friends and I to ourselves. The only thing I could quietly mutter under my breath as I watched them go was “We’re not even Chinese…” After the coast was clear, we all ran home to go tell everyone what they said.
And although it wasn’t my general experience with most other white kids, I knew I was different. And would always be on the outside looking in.