My Experience Of Race Prejudice

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When I was a new entrant to Queenstown Primary School, I was put into a special language program called the “Learning Centre” for children who struggled communicating in English. To a person who was born in New Zealand and whose English was their first language I felt clueless as to why I had to attend these special English classes. As confused as I was, I still attended the learning center to read books that I already knew how to read and spell words that were below my capabilities. It wasn’t until later in life when I looked back on this experience and realized that I had been thrown into this program because of one thing that made me different to everyone else. I was Asian. I was a shy Asian girl and the teachers all assumed that I couldn’t speak English because of this.

Our school throws around the word “diversity” proudly and frequently, exclaiming the greatness of the fact that our students come from over 21 different nationalities. But this sort of casual racism towards Asians are common and go unnoticed because they’re often made by otherwise well-meaning people. New Zealand needs to learn a lesson or two from this essay before they continue hurting our feelings unintentionally.

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As a child I didn’t know that I was different to my friends because I didn’t understand race. I assumed that everyone was the same. But most New Zealand born Asian children will experience that earth-shattering moment in our childhood where we realize that not all of us are white. You begin to realize that first of all, your parents are a little different to your friend’s parents. That they carry a different accent and put food in your lunch that smells a little differently. You notice that your name is strange and that when someone’s speaking slowly to you, it’s not because they’re trying to be articulate, but because they think you don’t understand English. You also realize your height, your eyes, your nose, your skin, they don’t quite fit into the same category as your friend’s facial features. In year 2 (and still an ongoing experience), my teacher called me Amy. I corrected them and told her “it’s pronounced Army,” in which she replied, “that’s not how you would normally pronounced it in English.” Little six year old me felt like I was being accused for having a name that didn’t sound Kiwi. I wanted a new name that wouldn’t be followed by an awkward pause on the roll. In year 4, I wished I was blond and blue eyed like my other friends. I looked down whenever degrading Asians jokes were made by people too ignorant to realize that by them pulling their eyes back to mock mine, really hurt my feelings. In year 7, I brought rice balls and homemade Japanese bread to school for lunch, but after one to many judgmental looks and “ew you eat that,” I convinced my mum to pack me vegemite and cheese sandwiches. “You’re so Asian,” became a regular expression used to justify my Asian-ness, an expression that I wasn’t sure if I liked. What does this phrase even mean? Can someone please explain to me what criteria one might use for determining my level of “Asian-ness”. I heard this stereotype one to many times until it got to a point where becoming ‘too Asian’ scared me. It left me despising my own race, I tried my hardest to avoid speaking Japanese in front of my non-Japanese peers. I would tell my parents to keep quiet in public in an attempt to stray away from appearing foreign because I was scared their accents would embarrass me.

In year 9, a friend showed me a text that a guy who I’d never even met sent her. It read, “why are you friends with that queer asian.” I won’t go further into this (let’s just call it an unpleasant) experience but you can probably guess how I felt afterwards. Also in year 9, I had a Chinese teacher who spoke broken English. Students in my math class made fun of her accent and mockingly repeated what she said which was completely unnecessary and plain right rude. She knew twice as many languages as those who were making the racist remarks so excuse her if she couldn’t speak her newer language perfectly. Most non-native English speakers will have an accent that they cannot get rid of- and that’s completely fine. What’s not fine is you looking down on someone just because they can’t speak fluently in a language that you’ve spoken your whole life. Them having an accent does not equal to them being uneducated or being a loser. They’re hard working people who have accomplished so much by moving to a different continent, experiencing culture shock, learning a foreign language and still being able to make a living in this new unfamiliar world. Unsuccessful? A joke? Look at yourself -being condescending to a teacher whose gone through so much in her life, only to be shut down by people like you who are unwilling to see that she’s trying. These people are what I call absolutely pathetic. It upsets me seeing people patronizing those who can’t speak fluent English. It mortifies me when I see my mum being treated this way. And it made me think that it’s not my mum or my math teacher but those instigators who should feel ashamed. You are the unsuccessful individual for not being able to emphasize for my mother, your teacher, your international friends, your colleagues who are being mocked daily because “they don’t sound like the rest of us”. You are a loser for judging a person's hardship as nothing because they have an accent you find difficult to understand. And you are pathetic, because you are the ignorant, heartless, malevolent person you are.

In year 11, a friend questioned me about my “Asian-ness”. She wanted to know why I wouldn’t speak Japanese in front of her. As a Kiwi Asian who grew up feeling ashamed of my own culture because of the experiences I faced as a child, her friendly discrimination caught me off guard. It made me feel as though it would be unreasonable to tell her what I thought, because in truth the thoughts that looped my head were something I wouldn’t of had the courage to say in person. I thought ...what the hell? You don’t understand Japanese so why should I start speaking Japanese to you? You mocked my culture, now you want me to embrace my culture? What do you want me to do? Why do I feel as though I have to please you? Stop judging me for who I am and who I’m not and JUST LET ME BE. To whoever’s asked this question to anyone with an Asian descent, I ask you all to stop policing kiwi Asians on how Asian they are. With this bs of judging anyone for not being entirely fluent in their language or entirely engaged with their culture. Many of us spent the majority of our lives living in western society forced to assimilate to be accepted and more often than not, ashamed of our own heritage. Everyone’s journey to connecting with their roots is different and no one should have the audacity to point fingers and tell others how they should live their lives. And with as much kindness as I can gather, I ask all intruders to please mind your own business and shut up.

In year 12, my teacher asked if I was going to Otago University and I replied, “no I want to become an architect.” To that my teacher seemed really confused and replied, “Oh, I thought you wanted to become a doctor.” Does being Asian and getting good grades automatically incline me into pursuing a career in medicine? Because if you are assuming that all Asians LOVE science and would just LOVE to become a doctor one day, then you have some serious stereotypic-perception on Asian students that really needs to be reviewed. Not all Asian students want a career in the science field.

Now I’m a year 13, no longer ashamed of my own heritage. But I am tired of people’s assumption that I’m smart only because I’m Asian. That my accomplishments mean less to you because of my ethnicity. I’ve worked just as hard as other students at Wakatipu High School and nobody should have the right to claim that my academic achievements deserve less acknowledgment because my race is supposed to be “smarter”.

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