After growing up in Utah, living in Southern California for three years has given me a different perspective of the United States.
For one, white is no longer the majority in California (at least, in the big cities anyway). Almost all of the friends I’ve made here are either Hispanic, Asian, Arabic or Black. In fact, I’m sometimes hard pressed to find a white person here and it’s a great thing. As someone studying international affairs on a professional level, diversity warms my heart and it makes for a very interesting place. Now, after three years in diverse Southern California, I’m dumbfounded by how white dominated Utah is every time I return.
More than, that, though, I’ve been shocked by the comments from my minority friends who were born and raised in California.
“Utah freaks me out. Too many white people. When I’m around so many white people it bothers me.”
“I couldn’t live anywhere else besides California because of the diversity. I need to be around Asian people. Being with white people makes me uncomfortable.”
Most recently, I talked to a fellow half-Asian from SoCal who said:
“I never liked being with white people, and even though my dad and I have a good relationship I never felt close to him like my mother–because he was white. Even today I don’t have very many white friends.”
That, to me as a fellow half-Asian, was shocking.
When I heard these comments, a part of me felt offended. I am, after all, half-white. And more than that, why do we have to hate or bash a certain race… even if they are the majority? I know white bashing is all the rage now, but just because someone is white doesn’t mean you should shy away or assume that they have the inability to understand your culture.
As someone who grew up in all-white Utah, I had the opposite experience of my newfound SoCal friends. Asian Americans (notice I say Asian Americans (AA) and not Asians) made me very uncomfortable, mostly because I didn’t grow up with the AA clique growing up. I also looked more white than Asian and was thus often rejected as a fellow Asian. The Asian American club at my university even had the guts to ask me why I was joining their club, since they assumed I wasn’t Asian. In the United States, Asian Americans have their own unique culture that is nothing like that of their parent’s home country. It’s a weird blend of western values and American pop culture mixed with their Asian traditions (especially in SoCal, this culture is very strong).
Ostracized, but still in love with Asia, I lived in China and Japan and felt more welcomed by the locals there that called me ‘foreigner’ than by my fellow Asian Americans in the United States. Even today, I have closer relationships with Asians born and raised abroad than with their Asian-American counterpart. Asian Americans flaunt their Asian-ness, but if you planted them back in the homeland, most would suffer and experience extreme culture shock.
My Stance on Diversity and How It Came To Be
As the new kid in second grade, and the only half-Asian in an all-white school, all my classmates avoided me like the plague. Everyday at recess I sat alone on the green grass of the playground, wishing for the bell to hurry up and ring and for the day to be over. Being the loner kid sucks.
And then, one day, a tall girl with long blonde hair and fierce green eyes towered over me. Her arms were crossed, her head held high, her confidence unwavering. I could do nothing but look up to her with my mouth agape.
“You,” she pointed at me. “You’re going to be my best friend starting from today.”
With a “who, me?” look on my face, she repeated herself and I, the lone kid at the school with no friends whatsoever, had no choice but to consent.
H and I were inseparable after that day. We played tag together. Read comics together. Hung on the monkey bars together. The other kids started to see me as a normal person, and I felt like I was finally fitting in.
“Ew, look, it’s smelly Shelly,” the classmates cried at the other loner in the class, an overweight girl with tattered clothes and oily hair. Although I didn’t know it at the time, Shelly was extremely poor. Her family couldn’t afford to give her proper clothes and it was obvious to see she came from a broken and difficult home. Kids are cruel and thus called her Smelly Shelly, and she was perpetually without friends.
Despite this, she gave everyone an invitation to her birthday party at her house.
“Ew, who would go to your stinky house Smelly?”
“Gross, I might get fleas if I go to your party, Shelly.”
H took the invitation, passed it to me and said: “We’re going.”
When you’re a kid, you worry about your image way more than you should–and that included me at the time. What would the kids say if they found out we went to Smelly’s party? Would I really get fleas?
“We can’t let Shelly be alone on her birthday,” H said. Wise and powerful words from an eight year old. I decided to go.
And we went to the birthday party. I got her a coloring book, H gave her a poster. There were four of us there, and you could tell that Shelly was elated to have us at her home. I remember she lived in a trailer and her mom was nice.
Just Go For It
Throughout the years, H never talked to me about how we should protect the lesser man. Or how we need to help the less fortunate. Or how minorities weren’t represented to their fullest and we had a duty to fight for diversity.
She just went for it. In her actions, and not words, she treated everyone as equals.
She befriended the only Hispanic girl in our fourth grade class and introduced her to the group. Even in college H managed to befriend more Asian, Indian, Arabic and black friends in Utah than I ever did (in fact, she introduced me to almost all my Asian friends in undergraduate school). She wasn’t on a vendetta to make minority friends; oh no, she was just being herself and keeping an open mind. She saw everyone as equal, as a person (not as a skin color or certain culture) and created friendships. Bonds. White or not, it didn’t matter.
“You shouldn’t judge someone by how they look or dress Mary,” H would often tell me when I shied away from those covered in tattoos or other people who seemed ‘strange’ to me. “Be fair. Learn who they are first–because that’s what’s most important.”
As I learned from H, I strive to go into any social situation with an open mind and without prejudice. Sure, there were times when meeting with different cultures or people (white included) made me uncomfortable, but I knew that, like H said, it was about heart. I couldn’t judge a book by its cover.
Sure, H is white and maybe she doesn’t understand Asian, Indian, or any other culture as well as she should–but she’s more than willing to. She bashes and hates and shies away from no one. She just goes for it–she dives in with an open mind, introduces herself, and becomes a friend to those who need one. Myself included. And really, that’s what we should all do.
As I’ve learned from H, I do not hate, discriminate or judge anyone without, at the very least, giving them a chance.
So I say, let’s stop with the “Asian people make me uncomfortable” or “I don’t like white people” mumbo jumbo. Just go out there and meet someone different. Keep an open mind. Give help to all who need it.
PS: H commanded me to be her best friend in second grade, and I have obeyed the order ever since. H and I have been friends for 22 years now and, most recently traveled to Thailand together.
What do you think? What was it like where you grew up, and do you feel more comfortable with diversity or homogeneity?