My Chinese name is Yaowen Zhang. Growing up, I was so embarrassed because I didn’t think it sounded “American” that even before teachers could try to pronounce it at the end of the roll call list, I interrupted and said, “It’s Laura. Laura Zhang.” Once, a boy made fun of me for having “small eyes and yellow skin.” When I was in 6th grade, my mom asked me if I wanted to wear my red qipao dress to school for Chinese New Year to celebrate my culture, but I was scared to look different so I didn’t.
When I was little, I never saw being Chinese as a good thing; I was always silently disgusted by my culture. On TV, I always saw whites and blacks and latinos but very rarely Chinese people, especially Chinese women. And when I did, it was usually a stereotyped version of what a Chinese person should be. In everyday life, people, even Chinese people, made fun of the accent my parents had. And every good grade I got, every time I challenged myself, other people would attribute it to my “tiger parents,” when that was the farthest thing from the truth.
When I was 18, I went to China for the first time since I was 3 years old, and ironically, it was the biggest culture shock I’ve ever experienced. It made me so sad to see that everyone looked up to blonde Barbie dolls, like our entire culture had been invalidated and deemed unworthy, not only in America.
It’s for this reason among many that I’m so glad I studied abroad in Barcelona. Looking back, I’m so ashamed for the way I treated and viewed my parents, making fun of them, correcting them, or getting impatient with them for not understanding an English word or idiom. When I was on the plane to Barcelona, I was terrified of flying to this country, and then I realized this fear was only a fraction of the fear my parents felt. I’ve studied Spanish since seventh grade, and even though I knew the language, it was still so difficult to communicate. Only then could I really empathize with how my mom felt when she was uncomfortable to strike up conversation with the cashier in fear of sounding dumb. At least I knew Spanish and had the safety net of knowing I was coming back home six weeks later. Like many immigrants, my parents gave up any sense of home and familiarity in search of a better life for them. It was that American dream that made my parents want to immigrate here, and this diversity is what makes America flourish.
Since coming to UT, I’ve made a very emphatic and purposeful decision to branch out and befriend people of all backgrounds, and it has been one of the best decisions of my life. It took a long time, but I’m slowly learning to appreciate my culture. I hope that as a society we continue to fight against intolerance, bigotry, and invalidation of diverse backgrounds, now more than ever.