Dear Ms. Compestine,
Ten minutes into third grade, my current best friend introduced herself to me. We struck up a conversation, but like half the other students in my class, one of her first questions was, “Are you Chinese?”
I squinted at her in confusion - where could she have gotten that idea? Neither my generic clothing nor my mousy brown curls seemed particularly Chinese. I weakly retorted, “What makes you think that?”
“Dunno,” she replied with nonchalance. “Then are you Japanese?” I remember shaking my head and changing the subject, like I had with every other nine year-old who had asked a similar question.
As a mixed-race person in a primarily white town, my ethnicity has always been closely linked with my identity. I am half-white, half-Asian, an apparently difficult combination to accept. To full Asians, I am an outsider, assumed to be the product of a fetish. To Caucasians, I am colored, a foreigner who happens to speak the same language. People find it difficult to connect with someone whose race is neither immediately obvious nor identical to their own. I share experience with this breed of ignorance with Ling Chang, who I first met two years after third grade in Revolution Is Not a Dinner Party. Though she is not a displaced ethnic enigma, your character is a girl whose appearance is the basis for others’ assumptions. Her clothing and silky long hair mark her as an anti-Communist sympathizer, regardless of her own political leanings, during China’s Cultural Revolution.
I only realized the extent of your work’s effect on my self-discovery last year, when I spoke with a Russian foreign exchange student at my school about racism and prejudice. She recalled the blatant stares she had received upon speaking in stilted English, the repetitive and occasionally inane questions: “Where are you from?” “Can you say something in Russian?” “Are you a Communist?” She was often offended, but was too embarrassed to speak out against the same three people who asked the same three questions.
I remember hesitating - was it my place, or even her place, to defend her heritage? - before I remembered Ling’s “snarled” refusal to apologize to her bullies. I urged my friend to tell her own bullies about her home and her family. After being told all my life to “open my eyes,” I doled out similar advice to my friend as I encouraged her to open others’ eyes to the true nature of her country. It was her responsibility, I explained, to display Russia’s diversity, its centuries of history, and its role on the global stage. She had unknowingly become an ambassador between her nation and forty clueless high schoolers.
Six years ago, I would not have dared to spin such a spiel. Even in retrospect, I wonder if I spoke too edgily, if my passion for cultural appreciation had been misplaced. Ling’s sharp and direct personality, however, has convinced me that I had every right to speak and act with pride. Her quest to explain to others that no, she doesn’t attack their wellbeing with her existence, is minimized and modified into my own journey to perpetuate a dialogue about ethnic perception and identity. I aspire to possess Ling’s defiance and diehard loyalty, evident when she resists
throwing out ‘bourgeois’ photos of her family: “I’ll forget what my grandparents looked like!” When I was only nine, I had already learned to hide my history with sheepish shrugs and halfhearted chuckles, but your work taught me to refuse discrimination or judgment. The world, I have realized, does not exist to oppress me, but to provide a chance for me to teach others about my family and my values. Ling’s family compensates for their socioeconomic standing by draping their apartment in Communist sympathies, but I do not want to hide my identity beneath mermaid curls or Starbucks drinks. Ling’s fiery refusal to submit to students’ harassment taught me that neither my family nor my personality should ever be a source of shame.
Your writing changed my view of the world by helping me realize that identity is more than color. It is work ethic: Ling’s parents, like my own, work day and night at a hospital to make ends meet. Identity is tradition: Ling’s “flower fabric” clothes are my white and blue embroidered linens. Most of all, identity is family: the lines under relatives’ eyes tie years of ancestry together to complete me, just as they complete Ling. I am more than the sum of my Slovak and Korean parts.
From my youth until now, Ling has provided an inspirational heroine dedicated to family, culture, and individuality. She guided my own development from meek nine year-old to proud and outspoken teenager, proving that the world and others are as open as I allow them to be. Thank you for providing her voice and, in turn, my own.