Friday, 18 December 2009
I don't even know where to begin describing how I never quite fit in. In University I landed the perfect part-time job at Banana Republic. It became a real passion of mine as I moved up in ranks as the top seller, dressing other people, and realizing in myself something I never knew I had in me. I had discovered an extrovertedness that seemed to come so naturally that the confidence in me lasted for years as I graduated with my BA and embarked on my first career in the real world. I had somehow managed to convince these financial bigwigs that an English & Psychology major like me was capable of succeeding in the financial sector, downtown in some tall, fancy, glass tower. The elation I felt landing that job quickly dissipated as I quickly realized I didn't share the same excitement for that kind of culture; it just wasn't me.
Looking back I realize how happy I am now even though I still struggle with fitting in. It is an odd phenomenon being Asian in an environment that preaches diversity, and yet is filled with minorities who feel trapped by the stigma of their backgrounds. It is an unspoken rule that if one wanted to move up at work, one had to be fully assimilated. No accents, and no rice in the lunch room.
It was odd growing up in the suburbs as a minority in the 80s in a primarily caucasian world. There were only two other Asians in my class: an East Indian girl with perfectly braided pigtails, and a chubby faced Japanese girl who kind of looked like me with my straight black hair with thick bangs. We were all taught to speak perfect English, and how to sit in class with matching clasped hands on top of our desks. I remember defying my teacher once by refusing to clasp my hands, just for the sake of rebeling, and it earned me some time in the corner.
My family later moved to East Vancouver where there were a lot more minorities, but by then my family had started to assimilate so much I no longer identified with my peers. While I played hopscotch and rode around the block on my tricycle, my friends went to Chinese school so they could spell their names in Chinese and count from one to ten in their mother tongue. By then I had traded my Cantonese altogether for English and my younger brother followed suit. I no longer called him by his Chinese name, and he no longer called me "jei"--Chinese for "older sister". Instead I taught him to only call me by name, even though my name was clearly an anglicized version of my Chinese name.
My differences were not always cultural or ethnic. I did not realize how big the economic differences were between my peers and I until I entered University and shared classes with West Side kids who attended prep school in the US and were all destined to be prelaw the day they were born. I still remember that one day, when this cute, clean cut, blond guy sat next to me in one of my English classes and after introducing himself, asked me where I was from. He quickly retracted his friendly smile as I answered that I was from the East Side, and he never did speak to me again. Most practical Asian parents wanted their kids to major in Engineering, Commerce, or Biology, and I now knew why. Very few of the poor kids planted their asses in day long lectures about 17th century literature, and at this moment it became clear why: because we didn't belong.
Even at my favourite job at Banana Republic I was surrounded by wealthy kids who drove high end Audis and worked purely for the fun of it. I was the only kid at the end of the day who needed that paycheck and was from the other side of town. It was by pure luck and chance that I landed that job, which happened to be close to school in the most affluent part of town. I learned to shop like these kids to my dad's dismay, and since then I have carefully preserved almost every garment I purchased in those two years because it was the first time I had ever had such nice clothing.
Growing up I was ridiculed for my flamboyant style, which was compensation for the fact I rarely was allowed to shop at the mall. My mom was a seamstress that handmade most of my "designer" outfits, and now that I am older I miss the unique styles that I imagined, which my mom brought to life with her sewing machine. I wasn't able to grasp back then, that most kids did not identify individuality as something to be embraced, and because of that I spent the majority of my highschool years floating from group to group. I became highly sensitive to people who based their opinions superficially on outer appearances, and still cringe even when complimented about my looks. A part of me is flattered by the admiration, while a part of me has a difficult time accepting the fact that someone is judging me based on my outer appearance. I have had girls write to me on Xanga who share the same sentiment, and I can't help to think we all that the same "ugly duckling syndrome".
It is almost with a bit of sadness that I admit that I have toned down over the years to fit in with the majority. Deep down I am still that raging girl who just wants to be me, but in corporate culture the person who stirs the pot is the person who doesn't get promoted. I have learned to bow my head down, lie low, and clasp my hands as I have been shown. Perhaps my elementary school teacher knew all along that a girl like me would have to struggle because I had too much fire in me to give in--a Chinese girl who spoke perfect English, and who would forever sit in the corner designed for misfits and radicals like me.