On the first day of kindergarten, I was excited to embark on the new adventure: oscillating between the monkey bars, creating MoMa worthy hand turkeys, stomping down the hallway in my light-up Sketchers, and uniting with new colleagues. It was the day I was going to become a part of a community, something an only-child without pets longed for.
As the teacher goes over the first-day of school protocols, I embrace the unfamiliar environment; I marvel at the colored floor tiles, lysol aroma, and glitter glue. The teacher begins to call the roll. As the teacher exclaims a new name, I swiftly turn my head to match it with a face. Each time, I am greeted with a new wide-eyed smile accompanied by a blonde or brown head. At last, the teacher reaches the end of her list- Annie Wang. As my name is called out, I take note of the teacher’s pronunciation. My name is Wang (W-ong), I politely explain. In Mandarin, Wang is the Chinese word for “king” and is a common surname amongst Chinese people. My mother always talked about how easy “Wang” should be to pronounce for non-native Mandarin speakers, yet few people could correctly execute it. The teacher gives me a blank stare, looks back down to the roll sheet, and examines my name. It says “Wang” (W-ang). No further comments were made, and my new name was Annie Wang (W-ang).
At lunch, my classmates brought packed meals like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with goldfish while I had leftover white rice and vegetables from the night before. I even brought a niángāo (rice cake) to celebrate the first day of school. My peers lean over the table to gawk at my meal and incredulously ask, What is that? I felt unexplainable embarrassment for my home cooked meal and shyly shrugged off questions. Instead of conversing with potential friends, I broke off small pieces of the niángāo and hastily plopped them into my mouth for the rest of lunch. I could feel my dream to unite with new colleagues begin to nervously drift away.
Over the next few years, I became accustomed to that unexplainable embarrassment. After taking group pictures, my white friends would complain that they looked too “Chinese” from the squinting of their eyes when they smiled. In the mornings, I was routinely greeted with Kon’nichiwa by several classmates. In 4th grade, I was shunned for killing and eating dogs for the first (but not last) time. By the end of elementary school, most of my friends had already experienced their first “relationship”; I learned that if boys had a crush on me, it was because of “yellow fever”.
Mastering tongue twisters used to be one of my favorite hobbies. Sally sells seashells by the seashore was a popular one I struggled with because I couldn’t properly pronounce the “s” sound. A few weeks into middle school, I’m introduced to a new tongue twister in homeroom- one dedicated to me. Ching, chong, wing, wong chants one student. I glance over at them and instantly regret it; they’re pulling both of their doe-like eyes back with their fingers. My cheeks begin to burn and my hands sweat profusely. My eyes follow the influence of my cheeks and hands, stinging and swelling with tears. Before any tears drip out, my innocent fascination with colored floor tiles returns to me. No matter how hard I focus on the floor, I still can’t block out their voice. They proceed to mock Asians with broken English. Is that your mom? Does she talk like this?. I’m worried that if I speak, I will cry. I keep my head low and shake it side to side, unable to defend myself or my parents. I’m paralyzed with humiliation. I finally made an effort to look up from the colored squares, only to discover an audience has witnessed me going up in flames.
When I return home from school, I put on a brave face as I tell my mother about the day’s nightmare. As I rehash the details, my bravery quickly slips away. My words turn into cries, and tears begin to flood out. While trying to catch my breath, I express hatred for my almond eyes, embarrassment from the tragic tongue twister, and confusion for how my classmates could simply watch me crash and burn. My mother is a stern woman, but for a fleeting moment my sobs soften her with sympathy.
As I progressed through middle school, I acquired a code of conduct: always stretch after cross country practice, never forget to turn in homework, and -most importantly- do whatever it takes to fit in. Even after all the blatant racism I had encountered, I still wanted to be accepted into this community. At school my favorite food was Caesar salad, I despised academia, and the only pronunciation for my surname was “W-ang”. At home, on the other hand, my favorite food was jiazi (dumplings), I loved to read, and my father’s nickname for me was Lǎohǔ (tiger). In Chinese culture, the tiger symbolizes ambition and nerve – traits that made the emperors of ancient China successful. My royal names were unfitting, considering my ignoble persona.
Despite my futile effort, I still felt excluded from my white counterparts. In history class, we learned about America’s heroes: George Washington, Susan B. Anthony, Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, etc. I referred to these figures as “my country’s heroes” and a big part of “my history”. Yet, none of these heroes even remotely looked like me. Learning about Asian culture is unheard of in American education: even learning about true American history is rare. On the few occasions Asians were incorporated into the history lesson, China and its people were bashed for being revolting communists and disgusting dog eaters by my peers. Finally, I realized I never saw historical figures that looked like me in classrooms because the curriculum did not see me as a part of the class.
I have conquered countless playground obstacles, created top tier crafts, and raced down a dozen hallways in several pairs of sneakers. I can even swiftly say Sally sells seashells by the seashore. Nevertheless, I have not been able to grasp onto the sense of community I was eager to embrace ten years ago. Desperately reaching for acceptance as an American, my hands always meet a void. I’m frequently reminded that my creaseless eyelids, dark hair, and ethnic surname make me a stray. Regardless of the remarkable value in self acceptance, kings depend on a council to rule a kingdom, just as tigers depend on a jungle’s ecosystem to survive.
Annie Wang is a junior at Hurricane High School in West Virginia. She is a contributor for WV Flipside, the teen branch for West Virginia’s Pulitzer Prize wining paper, Charleston Gazette-Mail. She is also the founder, a writer, and a graphic designer for Advocating101, a youth organization creating media that focuses on pop culture, social justice, and youth empowerment. She also received a Gold Key for work recognized by Scholastic Arts and Writing.