Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

Orange People

When I was younger, all I could remember was filling in the people in my colouring books with orange markers. Why? Because there was no other colour to fill them in with! I wasn’t particu- larly dark, but I wasn’t paper white either. So how could I possibly show that they were people? So orange it was.
As I grew up, I heard the words “white” and “yellow”. I didn’t really know the difference, they were just colours, right? And then I realized what they really meant.

It meant that there was a “you people” and an “us”. It never made any sense to me. Aren’t we all just people?

I can still remember the first time someone called me a “chink”. To this day, I still don’t understand what that means. But all I know is that being a “chink” was something that was dirty and disgusting. I remember trying so hard to fit in, I would tell them (my classmates) what they wanted to hear, crack jokes that I didn’t find funny, and laugh when they expected me to laugh. But I was never happy.

I began to reject the most fundamental parts of myself. I stopped speaking my language, I stopped going to family dinners, and I stopped trying to cultivate meaningful friendships altogether. And in the end, I would look in the mirror and wish that I could burn off my skin and paint it white. I wished that I could rip the coarse, black hair off my head and exchange it for fine, blonde hair. I wished that I could restructure my nose and the rest of my face so that I could be called “pretty” for once in my life. I felt like a monster in my own skin. I felt like a horrible, disgusting human being for even daring to have such an ugly shade of skin.
And when my classmates began to call me the “magic school bus”. I was honestly confused when I heard this, but they call me “magic school bus” because it was yellow, fat, and had a lot of random people in it. I was 11. I didn’t understand where they could have possibly come up with that as an insult, I had never thought that I was particularly yellow in tone, I was pale with green under- tones. I never considered myself as particularly “fat”, I just considered myself to be an average size. And I had never considered myself as a “disgusting, two-dollar whore” like they said I was. As “solu- tions” to these “problems”, I starved myself for 2 days and refused to wear anything that showed any kind of skin, arms, legs, neck, any of it, because I was so self-conscious that I would look like a “whore.” It made no sense. But I guess to sixth grade boys, lying on your stomach while reading at the school library is considered “slutty”.

I told my teachers, they ignored me. I tried to tell my family, I was “dramatic”. If anything, my family made it worse. I wasn’t just the youngest in the family, I was the one who had thighs too big, the one that could only beautiful if my skin were lighter, and the one who was horrendous to look at if there was even the slightest beginnings of acne. I told them exactly how I felt, I told them exactly how much I hated being told things like that, but I guess it just didn’t matter. I was called “silly” because that’s just how “Chinese people express their love.'' But I don’t consider myself Chinese.

I may have been born to Chinese parents, but I wasn’t born or raised in China. I was born and raised in Canada. And their words hurt me, deeply. To my family, I wasn’t smart, capable or mature, I was just “silly, stupid, and useless”.

I had no one to turn to except for me. And maybe that’s where it started. I began taking a blade to my skin to just feel something, anything at all. And maybe a part of me wanted somebody to notice and care, but nobody did, not even when people at school saw those horrid wounds on my skin. I dreaded waking up everyday knowing that I had to go to school, I had a headache everytime I was forced to go to school, and I started having panic attacks in my sleep that had me vomiting stomach acid from the pent-up stress; I came pretty close to just ending it all, but I would always stop just at the cusp of it; what would it change? Absolutely nothing. And I think that a part of me also wanted to show those classmates that they were pathetic, because there should be no reason why one would need to put other people down if they have a perfect life.

Nobody really knew that there was anything wrong with me until grade 7 when I had a mental breakdown. It was the result of bottling up emotions for my entire life, having absolutely no support whatsoever and feeling empty and hollow inside for years. My teacher brought my mom in to talk about my issues with a translator, forced me to see the in-school councillor and strongly recom- mended me to see my family doctor. My mom didn’t understand, she told me that “there’s no reason for me to be sad”. I saw the councillor once, and it helped a lot before I was put into a counselling group, it did nothing for me after that. I saw my family doctor, she prescribed me with antidepres- sants, they were working just fine until I cried at school once and a teacher told me that I should talk to my doctor because the meds were making me “too emotional”. At least I was feeling something.

As I got into high school, I slowly came to realize that nobody actually cared that I was showing my arms, or that I accidentally showed the slightest hint of cleavage, or even that I was Asian! I slowly began to start dressing the way I wanted to, talking the way I wanted to, and actually began to make friends, real friends for the first time. And now, I’ve come to accept that there is nothing that can possibly change the past, I’ve learned how to breathe through it and live with it. I continue to live with the results of this dark period of my life, I have developed clinical depression (I can manage it just fine now), I still have issues with eating, and I am still conscious of my body. But it has gotten so much easier to live with. I have grown to be a person who no longer shuts down with a mention of race. I have grown to be a person who is proud of the colour of their skin, proud of their language, and proud of their heritage. I have grown to be a person that I can be proud of.

So the question here is, does race cause a spiral into other kinds of hate? Or is race just the easiest thing to pick on? In the end, are we not all human? When you peel us back and view at us from under our skin, we are all the same. We share the same blood, the same bones, and the same hearts. But maybe it’s the socio-economic influence within society that are demonstrated by so much of the wider part of society that children are willing to drive another child to seriously contemplate suicide at age 11. But is there even a purpose in caring in the first place?

In the end, aren’t we all just orange people?