I dreaded going to the gas station when I was in middle school. It was where clusters of camouflage-wearing high school boys would congregate, mulling over Gatorade flavors and talking over each other loudly about the large-breasted chorus teacher; it was where pairs of slender, porcelain-skinned girls went to buy Skittles after school was out. Most importantly, though, it was a playground for the older kids to stare freely at me and make comments about the shape of my eyes without any consequence.
On a particularly humid afternoon during my seventh grade year, I wandered through the candy aisle while my petite mother waited in line to pay for a full tank of unleaded. I ran my fingers along the shelves of Twix and Hershey’s, and a deep voice, dripping with a Southern accent, soared over the sound of the air conditioning. “Do you need help?”
I glanced up, startled, to see a familiar face — Ryan, a senior who played soccer and was notorious for his charming winks around the hallways, even though he had never before acknowledged my presence. I heard sniggering behind me and subsequently turned to see two of his friends looking directly at us, holding back giggles and clutching their flat stomachs.
“I can read the words out to you,” Ryan said, this time enunciating every syllable he uttered.
It clicked. I knew this game, and every time I faced it, I froze with embarrassment.
“Speak… Any… English?” He leaned in with wide, patronizing eyes.
That was the final straw; all three of them erupted into a fit of laughter, nearly crying from the deliciousness of it all, and it felt like I was trapped in a surround-sound tunnel of humiliation. I ran out, into the stifling heat, hoping that my mom was done with her transaction so I could make it home before the flushed cheeks gave way to a flood of tears.
When we moved to Richmond Hill, Georgia, in 1995, it didn’t take me long to learn that the pigment of your skin here meant something very different than it did back on the shores of San Diego, where I was born. It placed you in one of two categories — white or black — and that was that. No question about it. There wasn’t a place for me — a product of a Korean mother and Italian father — back then. I was stuck in limbo, this in-between space where I was considered both frightening and fascinating, weird and wonderful.
Whether it was at the mall or the seventh grade open house, I watched clusters of girls and boys with matching complexions waltz around, completely at ease with each other, like they had been buddies their whole lives. When they walked by me, they gawked, open-mouthed, and if there were no adults around, they would sometimes whisper horrible things like “God bless America.” For the majority of my childhood, I was trapped in these recurring moments, which were made even more confusing by the fact that, yes, I had some friends, and, yes, I had a boyfriend who was smart and cute. But even the people who were kind to me constantly exhibited behavior that said I simply didn’t belong — and I couldn’t help but believe it.
The school cafeteria was second only to gas stations as the place that held the most hurtful memories. When the lunch bell rang, I suddenly hated all the foods that usually excited me at home. I would sit at the end of a long, rectangular table and wish my mom would buy Chips Ahoy and Goldfish, rather than the portable packets of dried seaweed that triggered girls holding ham and cheese sandwiches to exchange glances as they scrunched up their noses in disgust.
Katie, a brunette with a strong nose whose mother worked at the same company as my dad, once pointed to my meal and asked, “So, is that what Chinese people eat?”
The second I tried to explain that I wasn’t actually Chinese, and that there is more than one country in Asia, my voice was drowned out by the ensemble of gasps and laughs from everyone, leaving me too flushed to invent a clever way to describe my heritage.
“Your face is, like, flat and oval,” a sweet girl from my English class remarked to me another day, while we waited in line to throw our food scraps away. She smiled, innocently enough, but employed the kind of reluctant tone used to inform an acquaintance that they had spinach stuck in their front teeth. I was nervous under her unwavering gaze. I desperately wanted her to look away — look at anything else but my weird face.
I went home that day and locked my bathroom door. I then fingered my cheeks and nose and pushed the outer corners of my eyes inward in an attempt to make them more conventional, more round. At church that weekend, I got on my knees and prayed for God to turn me into someone white, blonde, and blue-eyed overnight, just like the caterpillars in my tucked-away children’s books that transformed into stunning butterflies.
Bullying, particularly in the context of racism, is usually imagined as a series of vicious acts, flanked by verbal daggers and physical aggression, intentionally collected to tear a person down. While those versions of torment are very real for many innocent people across the world, there is a piece of the puzzle that is easily overlooked — and that’s the quieter, more subtle kind of discrimination that is emitted as a constant stream of uncomfortable stares and charged comments. It was nearly impossible to know what to do with these hurtful actions because they were insidious; they flew under the radar. Plus, they mostly came from a place of ignorance, the kind that existed on a societal level, leaving me feeling like there was nothing I could do about it.
By the time I left Richmond Hill after graduation, I had trouble with the most elementary social skills, such as making eye contact or laughing at the appropriate times. I had developed an unfortunate habit of opening my eyes as wide as possible — until I gave myself a splitting headache — when meeting someone for the first time, thinking that would make me look more, well, normal. True, full-bodied trust in friends was a foreign concept to me, because even the girls I spent the most time with in high school never fully accepted me like they did each other.
It wasn’t until my early 20s — after being active in multicultural communities as a leader for multiracial-focused retreats, putting myself through therapy, and finding ways to move my body in positive, healthy ways — that I was able to look at myself in the mirror again without self-loathing. Every day certainly isn’t a breeze, and I’m still working on the whole self-love thing — heaven knows it ain’t easy.
But a significant part of my healing process has been teaching others what kind of pain awaits individuals of mixed races when we don’t show the younger generation how to see past cultural boundaries. During the 2014 winter holidays, I found myself in Georgia (reluctantly, I admit) to celebrate Christmas with my parents. We were in downtown Savannah for a weekend lunch, eating at a kitschy cafe that was lined with black-and-white framed photos of James Dean and antique coffee mugs, when a small hackey sack landed softly at my feet. I turned to see a child staring back at me from a few tables away; she and her brother had been playing a game with the toy to pass the time while their parents sipped on chai lattes.
I walked it over, knelt down, and handed it back to the little girl, who couldn’t have been a day over six. She looked up at me with gorgeous blue eyes. Strands of golden hair fell over her brow bone and her cheeks were rosy and plump, as if they had been permanently touched with the best NARS blush available to womankind. I smiled and immediately recognized her befuddled look as she inspected my features — my mother’s almond-shaped eyes, my father’s elongated forehead.
After I asked her how old she was and what Santa brought her this year, she couldn’t hold it back any longer: “Are you from China?”
It was adorable and slightly hilarious, so much so that I couldn’t help but laugh. I glanced at her mom and dad, who looked embarrassed, yet relieved at my light reaction. The girl’s eyes stayed locked on mine, and I recognized how important this moment was — as much for me as it was for her.
“I’m actually not from China, but my family is from a nearby country called South Korea. We sort of look alike,” I shrugged, then added, “We might have differently shaped eyes and noses and mouths. We might even speak a different language. But at the end of the day, we’re just like you.”
The confusion remained on her face as she cocked her head to the side, not quite grasping what I said. I knew, though, that no matter how long it would take — a month, a year, a decade — one day she would understand.