It began with a senior year English class discussion about Amy Tan’s essay, “Mother Tongue” in my high school in the southeast corner of Minnesota. The conversation had lapsed into a philosophical reflection on immigration and the stigma of Asian accents. As the daughter of two people from China, I felt deeply connected to the topic at hand. Some of my closest friends, who I knew were also daughters of immigrants, sat beside me. Surrounded by that group of familiar faces, I felt a surge of confidence and decided to share my thoughts.
“A few generations from now,” I said. “The people in my family probably won’t even speak Chinese. Thinking about that, it’s actually really sad.” I saw nods from several of my classmates, who told their own stories afterward. Walking out of that class, I felt gratified by the level of acceptance I had found in my peers.
“Why don’t they just go back to where they came from, then?” This overheard whisper, relayed to me hours after the discussion had ended, shattered my sense of belonging. I felt a slap of shame and disgust that reminded me of my uglier experiences in grade school. I had naively assumed that as I grew older, my peers’ casual prejudices — prejudices that had fueled shallow jokes about my eyes, my parents’ accents and my packed field trip lunches since elementary school — would simply correct themselves. Brooding over those words, I wondered how many more of my peers could have whispered the same statement. How many of them believed, based on only my cultural background, that I was not truly an American?
Two years have passed since that incident, and if the events of this last week are anything to go by, nothing has changed. What was a single whisper in an English classroom has become a chorus of xenophobic hatred in this conflicted nation. Swept up in the aftermath of these chilling election results, I’ve finally found the words I’d like to whisper back.
Dear Unknown Classmate: Let me tell you where I came from.
I was born in Philadelphia in December 1996 to parents who met at the University of Sciences Philadelphia College of Pharmacy while completing their Ph.D.s on full academic scholarships. They worked hard, finished their doctorates, moved out of their apartment and into a house and raised two kids in the suburbs of Philadelphia. Mom passed her board exam and became a full-time physician at Temple University Hospital. Dad independently transitioned into a career in information technology. I grew up on the border of Pennsylvania and Delaware, drawing and creek-jumping and baking and trick-or-treating with the rest of the kids in the neighborhood. For 9 years, I attended Garnet Valley public schools and went on field trips to Gettysburg, Valley Forge and Independence Hall. I swam on the Delaware Swim Team, and then on my high school varsity team. I celebrated Thanksgiving in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, almost every year. I ate cafeteria lunches every Monday through Friday.
I grew up proud to be an American, despite all the flaws that made me doubt my pride in my own identity. Then, when Mom got a job at the Mayo Clinic right before my junior year of high school, my whole family — two parents, two kids and a Mayflower truck full of memories — moved to Rochester, Minnesota. The only thing missing from the picture was a golden retriever. If that’s not American, I don’t know what is.
But apparently, to you and a frighteningly large part of this nation, the fact that my family speaks two languages and celebrates a few extra holidays each year disqualifies us from the American dream. You seem to believe that certain types (see: colors) of people, no matter how much they’ve applied and integrated themselves, cannot possibly be true Americans like yourself. Where did your pedestal come from and what is it even made of? My family came here for the same reason as anyone else’s: opportunity. And there were sacrifices — the impending loss of our language and culture, for instance — made to accomplish that. Despite all that, and the fact that virtually no one in the United States is “from here,” you apparently have the right to tell us that we should simply pack up and go. Well, you’ve heard my story. I, for one, was born in Philadelphia. And now I live in New Haven. Tell me, where exactly would you have me go?
Dear Unknown Classmate and all of the people who endorse your message of ignorance: From the first Chinese-Americans who built the Transcontinental Railroad to the thousands of Chinese exchange students pushing all fields of research forward today, this country relies on the strength of immigrants like my parents. So I’d like to return to you the same question that you were too cowardly to ask me in senior year: Why don’t you go back to where you came from? Come whisper your American story into my ear — but before you speak, take time to mull it over. You seemed so confident about my family’s origins, but it’s clear that you, sitting on your pedestal of entitlement on that day in English class, had forgotten your roots — as well as America’s.
Catherine Yang is a sophomore in Trumbull College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .