By Forrest Wang
What is it about them? The fluffy ears, the black and white splotches, or the innocent little smiles? Is it because they are utterly adorable or is it the way they plod along without a care in the world? Is it the thought of riding one along the streets, holding a stick of bamboo in front of it? Or maybe it’s simply because as a part of my culture, it is something I can relate to.
Sitting in the colorful classrooms filled with the letters of the alphabet and a various assortment of animals, my kindergarten self swelled with pride: pride in having a claim to another language, another culture, another world. Even at six years old, I was content to be atypical.
I relished the fact that I could speak two languages, that I could read seemingly indecipherable Chinese characters, and that I was exposed to exotic food. I was proud to be Asian. I can still remember labeling black and red, a color representing luck in Chinese culture, as “Asian colors” as if they were exclusively mine.
Every day, I knew that another world was waiting for me back at home. After learning the rules of grammar and mathematics at school each day, I knew I would be able to immerse myself in a totally different world, one that was excitingly foreign.
The feeling of slipping from one language into another in one conversation was exhilarating; and the conversations themselves were as diverse and varied in the size and scope of interest as my dinner was different in the tastes and spices from food I had at school.
I often hear people advise others to go out and experience other cultures and to “walk in someone else’s shoes” in order to see the world in a new way. Being able to become a different person each day I got home, I truly felt as if I had a better grasp of how others lived.
Every day, I “walked in someone else’s shoes.” I experienced not only American culture, which is already diverse, but also assumed my Asian culture at home.
It seems obvious that I would like pandas because they are related to my culture, right?
Wrong. Entering junior high and heading into high school, I came to truly know about stereotyping: what it did, what it meant, and how people used it; I knew all about it.
What had been a form of expression for me was now distinctly separate. I became almost embarrassed for being distinguished specifically as an Asian. I felt awkward, as if there was a side of me that no longer represented who I was.
The unique joy and pride I had in being different, in being Asian, was no longer there. That natural feeling of pride that students often have in being special was tainted with the knowledge that it labeled me as “different.”
Later I began to reflect on what a stereotype really meant to me. It would never be able capture the joy of speaking Mandarin fluently for the first time, or the taste of a multicultural cuisine with all its oddities, or even everything I had learned, just by knowing and experiencing the subtle differences between my Asian culture and my American one.
I realized that in the end, stereotypes were simple generalizations; they would never reflect that Asian ancestry I had been so proud of as a child.
And now, years after first claiming red and black as my “Asian colors” in response to why I like pandas, I can easily say that I like them just because they are what they are, and I like them. Simple as that.