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  • Writer's pictureMarías at Sampaguitas

1 Essay by Kathy Mak

Updated: Mar 4, 2019

Living Up

I wonder what people think of me when they see me.

An Asian girl with short black hair, thick framed glasses, bulky clothing, loaded with a twenty-pound backpack. Check. Check. Check. By the look of her slanty eyes, she’s Korean. No, wait. Look at her nose – a flattened squash, maybe Japanese…

I fit the criteria of an Asian nerd and I know it. Teacher’s pet. Try hard. Geek. And so on. I once had a classmate ask me if I studied 24/7. Her mouth was open in shock, wide eyed, when she learned that I listened to music on YouTube in the evenings. After class, she asked me if I was an ESL student. My face might have reacted in some way, that propelled her to quickly say: because I’ve never seen you around school before.

On the same day, I learned what FOB meant when I was walking home with a friend. We were passing by an outdoor basketball court where a few boys in sweats were shooting baskets.

“See those guys? They’re FOBs.”


“Fresh off the boat. People from overseas China. Though it should be FOP now. Fresh off the plane.” She laughed at her own joke.

I wanted to ask her if she thought I was a FOB. But I didn’t, because I was afraid the answer would be yes.

Here in the twenty first century, we are making progress. We do not segregate between races. We do not allow discrimination nor prejudice. We promote diversity and inclusion. This is what the government says, what business corporations say, what society says. It. Is. All. Lies.

Because in reality, we are humans. Where there are humans, there is racism, prejudice, discrimination against everyone and anyone. But some races suffer more than others.

I had a White prof for a Kinesiology course. He was from England. He made playful jokes during lectures, which made a lot of people find him easy to talk to. One day after class, I stayed behind to ask a question. A White student was talking to the prof, so I stood behind the student. The prof started walking around the room closing the sliding doors, preparing to leave. So I followed in suite. He saw me waiting, and I’m ninety-nine-point nine percent sure he did. But he turned his back on me and answered a question from another guy that just came up to him from the other side. And he was White.

Because I am yellow, I am invisible. I am not seen, much less heard. I regret that I didn’t stand up for myself, for brushing it off like it was nothing.

“Do you need paper? If you don’t have paper, I’ll give you paper.”

I’m at the front of the line, showing my math teacher my homework for completion marks. I tell him my work is on the front side of the page only – the flip side is scrap paper from last year’s math class.

“What’s last year’s, is last years. This year, we use new paper.”

I muster a polite-forced smile. I wasn’t going to give up saving trees.

“Are you from China?” he asks.

I wonder how high up eyebrow raises can go on a person’s forehead. I wonder why he asked a question that wasn’t even related to the current matter on hand. Priceless disbelief was written all over his face when I answered no, that I was born in Canada.

Over the past few years, the flow of immigrants from China has increased. Friction, like dark energy between races is invisible, but present. Black Friday discount signs are lettered with Chinese characters, Oxford has the phrase 加油, “add oil” added to its dictionary, and according to Rocket Languages, Mandarin Chinese is one of the most widely spoken languages in the world.

Conclusion: China is becoming more and more prominent.

And yet, yellow = Chinese = poor = good at math = likes to eat rice = pees on the streets = spit and phlegm = underhand

I resent being judged as an overseas Chinese because of what it represents.

Appearance is what we feed on. Slim bodies, thick muscles. White skin. Dark skin. Beautiful. Ugly. Accomplished. Dropout. Wealthy. Poor. Every detail we think we know about this person is from what we assumed, judged, picked off from what we S E E.

This process: judging, is effortless. Natural. It requires no creative brain juices to be pumped. Yet it hurts the person being judged.

Fact: we are both the bully and the victim.

I am a CBC. No, not the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. I am a Canadian born Chinese. Some of my friends are CBC. Yet we no longer talk to each other because they think I am a FOB. CBCs don’t want to associate with FOBs because it will degrade them. It hurts their pride, it hurts their being, to be associated with an underhand. They don’t want to learn about their culture, their mother tongue, their heritage. Cantonese, Mandarin, or their native dialect becomes a broken language when forced out of their mouths. It becomes a baggage they don’t want to face.

In my university, I volunteer in a conversation partner program as an English as an Additional Language (EAL) peer educator. I meet with international students once per week to converse with them in English, to exchange cultural perspectives, to let them feel comfortable speaking English. On one of my training sessions, my supervisor shows us a message that an international student wrote in response to the question “why do you want to join this program?”

Hello, This is my first year in Vancouver and also Canada, I feel very bad when I discuss with my classmates in the class due to my boring English, sometimes I have a lot of good ideas but I cannot speak them out. And I also face some kinds of social problem, nobody want to make friend with bad English. So, I really wanna practice my English as soon as possible, it’s so important to my study, living, or working in the future. Please help me ;-)

It seems as though English = legitimacy. It seems as though being able to speak fluent English enhances social status, economic status, personal status, etc. It signifies success, superiority, belonging. It indicates you are a true Canadian. When I first read this response, I gleaned the fact that the student wanted to assimilate themselves to fit into a Canadian English-speaking society, because only in that way, they feel they can belong.

I begin to understand that initially I thought the same way. If I changed my appearance, clothes, strip away my culture, my language, people wouldn’t categorize me as an overseas Chinese. I would look like I belong even more. I would be able to make more friends, be more successful, be loved more. I would be a “true Canadian”. But by doing so, I would be assimilating bits and pieces of myself, that are a part of who I am, willingly.

Looking into the mirror, I don’t need to wonder what people think of me. I see what they see. I know what they think of me. But I only care about what I see in me.

Kathy Mak is an emerging writer based in Vancouver, British Columbia. She has completed an online creative writing course called Lit Mag Love taught by Rachel Thompson, and an online fiction course with the University of Iowa. Her poetry has appeared in The /tƐmz/Review.

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