The first time I learned that I looked different was in second grade. It hadn't been an issue in first grade, but now, at my new school, people thought my Asian-American face looked funny.
"Why is your face so flat?"
"What happened to your nose?"
I remember playing alone a lot. Nobody wanted to play with the weird-looking girl. Sometimes they’d let me play near them and give me hope — until they ditched me again or called me names like "flat-faced." When the counselor did her normal classroom rounds and sang songs about hygiene and friendship and not being a bully, I sang halfheartedly in the back of the class, my voice quiet.
But I also acted out. During recess, I would kick the boys and say mean things to the girls; it was my only outlet for the anger in my heart. And I was tired of being ignored: I wanted my classmates to notice me. The boys thought it was hilarious and would usually taunt me to kick them again. I got in trouble for it, and also for throwing one boy’s shoe into a puddle — but "trouble" just meant a stern "Don’t do that again" from one of the teachers. They never really wanted to know why I did it.
One night, my mom came into my room and asked me how school was. I think she knew something wasn’t OK. I didn’t want to tell her the truth, but she kept asking. I burst into tears. I sobbed and sobbed, telling her about how the kids at school wouldn’t let me play with them, and how much I hated it there. Even today, now that I'm off at college, I can’t talk about that time without my throat closing up and tears burning my eyes.
The changes were swift. The next day, my mom marched into school, dragging me reluctantly behind her, to talk with the counselor. I was mortified when the counselor came to my class, called the names of everyone who’d hurt me, and asked them to talk with us. It was almost everyone in the room. I was embarrassed as she discussed the ways we’re supposed to treat each other. I knew everyone was staring at me. They all eventually apologized for not letting me play with them, and I apologized for being mean.
And that was that. We all learned to play with each other over time, and everyone else forgot all about it.
In theory, everything was fine, but the damage had been done: I’d grown to hate how I look. I didn’t understand why I couldn’t be blonde with blue eyes like the other kids. Our town was predominantly white, so it was easy for me to remain self-conscious about my Asian-American features.
And people continued to talk derisively about my appearance as the years went on. Some made comments about my face — particularly my nose, which is abnormally small even for an Asian-American, and is probably the result of a genetic mutation. In time, I learned to be the one making the meanest jokes about it, so nobody else could hurt me more. Sometimes I still joke about having Voldemort’s nose.
People also teased me for pronouncing words wrong. Because I had learned these pronunciations from my parents, that made me stop believing that my parents were perfect. I no longer saw my mom as the warrior who had stormed into that counselor’s office, demanding justice for the way I had been treated, and instead began to view her as part of the reason I was different from everyone else in the first place. I know it was unfair, but I resented both her and my father for not having grown up in America, and I was ashamed of their English (despite the fact that they do better than many native speakers).
In middle school, I asked my mom to stop giving me Korean lunches. I couldn’t handle the comments anymore.
"Eww, is that fish?"
"Is that even food?"
"It smells gross. How can you eat that?"
In sixth grade, instead of going to my area middle school with my friends, I chose to enter a program for accelerated students at a different school. I became a new kid again, and the old wounds resurfaced as I tried to fit in. I teased or ignored the kids everyone else teased or ignored. I sometimes hit people with my lunch bag, though that was mostly in jest and nobody took me seriously.
In hindsight, I know that my violent tendencies were my way of getting attention so I wouldn’t be ignored or overlooked, but if I could redo middle school, there’s so much I would do differently. I was always so preoccupied with being like everyone else, and I wanted to believe that being mean to the right people would prevent me from becoming the odd one out again.
I still find signs of an unconscious anxiety, of scars deeper than I like to admit. Once a teacher told me I touch my nose a lot when I get nervous or when I think really hard. I often notice myself being unusually quiet in a large or new group of people. I’m always worried about being left out among my friends — something I've done with every group of friends I’ve ever had. I'm readily able to admit that my middle school self was a bully, but I'm reluctant to say the same of my second-grade classmates. I’m nervous about trying to fit in. I often wonder if I’m enough.
But I also find signs of change and improvement. I became the new kid once again in high school, but I didn't want the past to control my future. I was so tired of being angry, especially of being angry with myself for turning my back on the values my parents had taught me. I promised myself that this time would be different, and I soon figured out that loving myself is more important than fitting in. I also learned that being open and accepting of others makes me happy, and also makes it easier for me to live with myself — which is more than my protective shield of harsh words ever did.
Since my grade-school days, I've tried to understand why the people who treated me differently acted the way they did and, as John Green likes to say, I began to see what it means to "imagine each other complexly." I realized that my parents have always done the best they could, and that being different isn't bad or a vulnerability. Perhaps above all, I've begun to understand that racism comes from ignorance and can be bridged with understanding and love.
I continue to learn these lessons every day. I'm slowly shaking off the veil of my past. Attending a diverse university helps, too. I've begun to repair the divide between myself and my heritage, finding pride where I once found embarrassment. I'm learning to love and accept who I am — inside and out. I still approach people and friendships with wariness, but my friends continue to show me that our differences are the things that make life vibrant. I'm learning that not everyone will hurt you where they know you're vulnerable. I'm learning to live with my scars and to limit their influence on my life.
I understand myself better now. And for now, that’s enough.
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