Most of my friends know that I often joke about my Asian-ness and the stereotypes that surround it. There’s a reason why stereotypes exist, because usually they’re true 😂. But all kidding aside, we all know that racism is deeply rooted in so many communities, including the one I grew up in.
Wichita, Kansas. Smack dab in the middle of the Bible Belt full of hardworking Americans and young families, but with that came lack of diversity and outside thinking. Wasn’t anyone’s fault. That’s just how things were growing up in Kansas.
Very early on I can remember being made fun of as a kid. As I got older, the racism and prejudice I encountered didn’t go away, it just looked different. Those close to me know that I don’t walk around with a chip on my shoulder, looking for and pointing out every instance of racism and prejudice I experience, but I do notice it, I never forget it, and just choose to divert my energy towards other things.
But since we’re on the subject, especially with this year’s election and how heated things have become with all things racism, I’m sharing my past experiences here not to complain or gain sympathy, but just to give you all an inside look of what experiences have shaped who I am today. If anything, I hope you gain some insight on how we can better interact and embrace people and situations that are different from our own.
- Kids would ask if I knew karate or KungFu. Boy, I wish I did. I’d kick the shit out of all of them…but then again it’s a blessing I didn’t or I’d end up in juvie.
- If I had a dollar for everytime I was asked “are you Chinese?” nope. “Japanese?” nope…and rattled through the list of Asian ethnicities. Granted, back then, kids in Kansas had no idea about Thailand.
- I was usually the only kid in class that wasn’t a Christian. Most Thais are Buddhist and that was the “religion” in our home. I was told by several friends that I would be going to hell because I didn’t believe in God or Jesus Christ. Well, in my world, you’ll probably be reborn as a slug with some mean kid pouring salt on you for saying such a mean thing to me. Not really, but don’t underestimate karma. It’s a powerful force in the universe!
- The “nickname” kids gave me was Khem SuziWan Dinners. I remember going home crying to my mom asking her to change schools. She told me that I had to stand up for myself because no matter where I went, I was going to run into mean kids. This was true and unfortunately the same for mean adults.
- Teachers would give me B’s in Language Arts and my mother didn’t understand why, especially since I always did well with homework and tests in all my subjects. She assumed it was because I was Asian. Eventually I ended up skipping grades.
- I always got 100% on my spelling tests (yes, typical Asian). I remember in class after the test, we would pass our test to the person behind or in front of us to grade. When I received my test back, I noticed I had one word marked wrong. My heart sunk. Then I looked closer. The girl who graded my test (I’ll never forget who she was!) erased my answer and wrote in a incorrect one. I complained to my teacher, showing her clearly that wasn’t my handwriting. She said “nope, it’s wrong.” The only thing I could think of was my “grader” was either jealous of my grades or didn’t like Asians.
- In 1st grade our class put on a holiday play. I really wanted the part of the princess, because what little girl didn’t want to be a princess? Well, I got stuck being the narrator, and the part of the princess went to a blonde-haired blue-eye girl. Well, not all princesses have to look alike, and thank goodness Disney came out with Mulan!
- I once had a piano teacher who probably assumed I came from a poor immigrant family. Why she had this assumption was beyond me. My family by all means was not rolling in the dough, but we weren’t poor by any standards either. She gave a list of new books that needed to be purchased and made a snide comment “let me know if you can’t afford them.” I think the total was something like $10. When I told my mom about her comment, instead of complaining she sent me with a $100 bill to my next piano lesson. Needless to say, my piano teacher was shocked and not long after this incident is when I quit taking lessons from her.
- High school, I had a Biology teacher who point-blank asked me in front of the class why was I so “Americanized.” Um, maybe it’s because I was born and raised here??? My mom even said in all her years of going to parent-teacher conferences, he was the only teacher that had something different to say. “Khem is awfully outspoken.” Gee thanks. Nevermind my grades.
- If I had a dollar for everytime someone asked “Where are you originally from?” Kansas, followed by “But where were you born?” New York, which then led to a lot of head scratching. Just ask – what’s your ethnic heritage, ancestry, etc. It’s not that hard!
- I remember walking into the bank to make a deposit, back when you had to go to the bank to do these things…and every person in the lobby, including the teller, looked up and just stared at me like they had never seen an Asian before.
- Even amongst Asians, the first time I really had other Asian friends outside of my parents’ and their friends was in college. I remember being called a twinkie (yellow on the outside, white on the inside). Sadly true 😂. So while most non-Asians think all Asians are the same, this is so far from the truth. Even between some Asian groups, there’s prejudice and judgement.
- In my college organic chemistry class, we had weekly open book “group” quizzes, where you could discuss amongst your friends. Well, at the time all my friends in class just happen to be Asian (and yes, we were all pre-med!). But we always had this one non-Asian who would poke his head in, never contribute, but ask what we thought the answer was. Go find your own group buddy.
- I once dated a guy of Asian-descent, and I remember him asking me why I didn’t act more Thai. Thus dated, past tense. Which then leads to…
- Dating for an Asian American is interesting. I had to constantly avoid “those guys” who had Asian fetishes in addition to bringing up the question “are your parents okay with you dating an Asian?” Growing up in Kansas, my parents really had no choice but to accept the fact that most of my boyfriends were going to not be Thai or Asian. Luckily they don’t care.
- I’ve been told on several occasions to “go back where you came from.” Funny, because I am where I came from. Bred, born, and raised in the good ‘ol USA. What’s interesting is when I do travel to (not back because I never lived there) Thailand, I’m seen as a foreigner. Put me in a line up alongside my cousins, I stick out like a sore thumb. Maybe it’s all the red meat and potatoes I ate growing up, but even in my parents’ motherland, I’m a foreigner.
So the accounts I’ve described above only scratches the surface and I hope it gives you an idea of what I have and could potentially encounter on a day to day basis. Luckily I live in a city where communities are pretty diverse, my friends embrace each others’ differences, and are well traveled. I find that the more well traveled someone is, the more open they are to experiencing different things and getting to know people who are not like them. And well traveled doesn’t mean you go to Las Vegas or Cancun every year via a cruise ship. 😂
In my life, I’m usually one of the few people “who look like me” who do what I do. Cycling, triathlon, skiing, adventuring, working in oil and gas, etc. While I could let that hinder my experience, I choose to let it enhance it.
Parents, do society a favor…get your kids traveling and encourage them to learn more about the world outside of their bubble. Combating racsim starts at home.
One thought on “How I’ve experienced racism, let me count the ways…”
I feel your pain.
Try being Jewish.
Weâre tied with Roma for worldâs most hated ethnic group. I wonât go into the details, but I have and continue to experience much of what you describe. Top that off with the fact that my grandma was a wealthy German Jew who fled in 1936 with nothing. My wifeâs parents were Holocaust survivors who survived unimaginable horror only to return to Krakow and face a new round of persecution. After the pogroms of 1947, they fled to Steyr, Austria as stateless people. My wife was born (1948) in a US Army refugee center. They finally made it here a few months later.
As for Asians, when my parents moved here in 1947, my dad set up shop at 27th and Larimer (see attached). He was next door to TK Pharmacy. It was the community gathering place, owned by Dr. Tommy Kobayashi, in a working class Japanese/Hispanic neighborhood. ALL of his friends were Japanese war vets. To me, Japanese people were my people because we knew so many. It was only later in life that I learned that not everyone else saw then that way. Needless to say, I was shocked.
Among my worst memories were those at the Sportland YMCA, which was somewhere around 32nd and Steele. It was a great facility with what I think was a 100 yard pool, playing fields and picnic areas. I spent lots of time there swimming in the summer, taking archery and crafts classes and going on field trips. Still, I ran into lots of kids that hated and threatened me. My boys had similar experiences.
My youngest son, Jonathan, was at Y day camp when another Jewish kid turned up missing. The police found him hiding in some bushes, scared to come out because of the threats that he faced.
My oldest son, Aron, was kicked out at Schlessman when a man knocked him to the floor and he decided to fight back. They kicked him out, along with his entire family. The other guy just got a warning. Miriam and I will attempt to join this summer so that our grand children will have a place to take swimming lessons. I think that theyâll let us join as long as they donât realize who we are. Iâm interested to find out.
I have lots more to tell but I think that you get the picture.