What is a race of one?
Each morning, I would ride the bus to the sheer white answer. From kindergarten to eighth grade, I was the Asian spectacle. Black hair, yellow skin, ugly eyes, weird snacks, stupid pronunciations, alien associations. I was the one who was put at my own table by the kindergarten teacher from week one. My presence was a deadly contaminant, the disinfectant being some chanting of "ching ching chong" or "Hey, look at my eyes!" I would run up to half empty lunch tables only to be told that there were no seats. And if I dared to take one, a bitter and prolonged exodus would begin.
In second grade, I finally found to courage to admit to a teacher that something was wrong. "Can you tell me what they are doing?" her soft voice asked. For the length of eternity, I stood unmoving. My face flushing red with each second, trying to come up with just one word, one specific thing that could show the world what they were they doing.
But how could I? The words "Go away" are a way of life, not a single action. They were not putting gum in my hair or taking my money. They were sweeter than that, pretending to play hide and seek when I tried to join recess games so I could hide away forever.
Sometimes they would compliment the bowl cut my dad cut for me or the "brand name" clothes that had belonged to my older cousin. “Oh, you're so pretty," they would say, "I wish I were you." Their sarcasm bursting like capillaries with laughter.
When the last day of eighth grade finally came, I walked out on nine years of my life in silence. I was going to a high school where 20 percent of the people looked like me, where caring about school was the absolute norm and not the exception.
The anecdotes that people would tell, the "nerdy" things that interested them—for the first time I felt the euphoria of existing.
But sometimes when I found myself laughing, the past would wash over like a dream. I wanted to forget, to choke the nightmare insecurities and pretend that humiliation couldn’t have happened to me. But the question haunted me: What would they say now? In the span of a few months, I had learned to be normal. And I realized painfully that the new me would have dealt with things differently.
I shouldn’t have taken myself so seriously. I should have fought harder against my parents and gotten the right clothes. Or maybe I could have figured out how to truly do it right—how to have the confidence and self pride that would draw people towards me as me. But how could I have come to know this if my concept of race was “weird” rather than “human”?
With each year’s distance, the question moved further away, fading into a random curiosity. So when it jumped out of amnesia, as I posted more photos to Facebook of my time in Japan, my entire mind became clutched with the anxiety of the old question. How beautiful would they find these pictures? Would they see these pictures and realize that I could be happy too? That there is more to this world than the white well they were born into?
And somehow, for the first time I realized the actual answer: Nothing. If they saw me now, they would say nothing. I had only been a small, silent part on the sidelines of their memories. What they did to me was insignificant because they never did anything. They had never argued with me, never seen my tears, never told me to die, never outrightly told me to leave. Carelessly, they had tolerated me. Making sure that I sat at the farthest seat so I could have the privilege of existing in the same room.
But tolerance is fragile—it depends solely on silence, isolation, and erasure. Synonyms of tolerance: endure, condone, forgive me for existing. Tolerance crumbles when those who are on the sidelines start walking towards the middle. And while I lost the battle by submitting to those around me and leaving, it’s funny to think that one day I will win the war. Living here, it is so painfully obvious: Japan is real, China is real, I am real. I might have been alone, but my race is not a race of one.
Elizabeth Y. Sun '19, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Eliot House. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.