An individual, but not such a different one
"Where are you from?"
"No, where are you really from?"
I once tried to keep a running tally of how many times I heard these two questions on a regular basis. This was, as I quickly realized, a futile task: It felt like everyone around me relied on these questions as a go-to conversation starter.
Most people ask out of genuine curiosity, or simply to make inoffensive small talk. So why am I always left with such a bad taste in my mouth?
For a long time, I thought I was just too sensitive, but now I realize what it is that is so off-putting: the insinuation that I'm different. The feeling that I am and always will be on the outside. For children of immigrants and members of minority groups, this feeling is an ingrained part of life.
In my extended family, I was the first to be born on American soil, the first U.S. citizen, and the first to have an English name written on their birth certificate.
As a kid, not only did I carry these "firsts" as an emblem of pride, but there also was no doubt in my mind that I was 100% American. It wasn't until I started elementary school that it occurred to me that others might not see me the same way.
I distinctly remember being in my first-grade music class, back when we all said the Pledge of Allegiance at school each day. I remember placing my hand over my heart, ready to recite the words, while the teacher told us that the pledge is something all Americans know.
"Well, what if you're not American?" one girl said, looking pointedly at me.
We can't expect 7-year-olds to be particularly nuanced in the complexities of race, ethnicity and nationality, but that still stung. It was still irritating to have to say "we're not" every time someone asked me how I was related to the one other Asian kid in the room.
As much as individuality is praised as a desirable characteristic, feeling different is rarely a pleasant experience. I became hyperaware of everything that separated me from the vast majority of my peers.
Gradually, I stopped watching Korean television, started lying to my friends about what I ate for dinner because I didn't want them to recoil at the description of Korean food, and vowed not to make too many Asian friends.
The one area of my life where I couldn't avoid Asian stereotypes was in academics. I am absolutely not a genius (not even close), but I am definitely a hard worker. Whenever someone insinuates that any and all of my successes can be boiled down to race alone, it's frustrating.
However, I will say that having immigrant parents has infused me with additional motivation to work hard. My parents made immeasurable sacrifices to come to the U.S., and I know there are millions who wish they could be in my place. I truly think I was dealt a good hand in life, so to waste it is unthinkable to me.
When other people take it upon themselves to unabashedly define your identity for you, it feels impossible to truly be yourself. It's a work in progress, but I'd like to think that I'm getting closer and closer to that shiny beacon of self-acceptance.
Sydney Byun is a senior at Wilsonville High School.
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