Listen to Natalie’s live version of Only Asian Kid in School on Georgia Gazette, 5 minutes (click link on Media page)
For the first 20 years of my life, I did everything I could to avoid being called a “chink.” You see, we were the only Asian family in the neighborhood. Before the 1990’s, Smyrna was really considered the boonies. Even the local newscasters mispronounced our town name. We shopped at the Winn-Dixie grocery, ate at Fat Boy’s Fried Chicken, fished at Cooper Lake and saw the same dentist.
All I wanted was to fit in, to be “all-American,” to be blond and buxom and popular. Like many other girls, I could relate to Margaret in Judy Blume books. I wore blush to liven up my hopelessly pale cheeks and desperately curled and permed my flat, straight-as-an-arrow hair. I wore a bra even though I really didn’t need one and I didn’t get eyeglasses when I really did need them. I tried not to speak Chinese in public. To no surprise, I wasn’t very successful at being un-Chinese. Seeing old pictures, I did succeed in looking like a Chinese Cocker Spaniel!
Given the popularity of Asian fashion and food today, it’s hard to imagine the stark contrast and homogeneity of our world back then. And kids and teenagers were, well, kids and teenagers. So even though I spoke with a Southern drawl, loved chicken potpies and wore Nikes, I still stuck out like a “foreigner.” Folks complimented me on my English, asked me where I was really from when I said I was born in Atlanta and one time, I was called to the principal’s office to help translate for a Japanese visitor.
The ugly stuff, name calling, taunting, mostly from strangers, scarred me. Later, as an adult, I still held my breath when a school bus or joyriding teenagers drove by. As I became an adult, the comments gradually shifted from chink to foxy Oriental lady, so who says things haven’t changed? Fortunately, most of my classmates knew me from first grade, I had compassionate teachers, a circle of smart, sweet girlfriends and a few ponytail-pulling jock friends.
As the only Asian kid in school, everyone thought I was “good at math” and “cute like a Chinadoll.”Not a bad thing, except that I excelled more in Language Arts and Social Studies, almost blew up the chemistry lab and loved competitive sports. Breaking another stereotype, I also asked a guy to the junior prom, but was turned down. I went anyway with a 25 year-old stud from Venezuela, a friend of the family. I did get good grades but never had a date or a kiss before college! My fantasy was to have someone “have a crush on me” or “to go (steady) with a boy.” (When I told my mom, she asked, “Go where?”) For better or worse, I had to wait until college!
Recently, with a mixture of apprehension and anticipation, I made a last minute decision to attend my 20th high school reunion. The decision surprised my sisters and me. I thought you didn’t like high school? True, I had graduated and never looked back. Those four hours changed my life!
The occasion was exciting and surreal. Except for one or two girlfriends, I had not seen anyone since high school. Most arrived with their spouses or friends; I went by myself. Many of the guys who were hot were not anymore. The geeks turned into hunks and I hardly recognized others. My small circle of girlfriends looked radiant with their partners; the guys flirted with me and I found common ground with classmates I barely knew. Later that night, I overheard one of them say, “When did Natalie get so hot??” Serious or not, hearing that made my evening! Actually, it made my year. I had finally come full circle and been redeemed for all those dateless years!
Maybe it wasn’t so much high school that I disliked. Maybe it was me who I disliked. The environment was so different then. Asian food and culture was not popular or trendy– and I was different inside. My looks or hobbies haven’t changed that much since high school. What changed was inside–more confidence, more passion and acceptance– for who I was.
Now I’m back in Georgia, and it seems like everything’s changed but my name. The growth of ethnic business corridors, the Latino population and diversification of the Asian community have transformed our social, economic and political landscape. I am excited to be here and feel lucky to have family nearby and lots of new diverse friendships. Now I speak Chinese as much as possible and have started teaching Country Asian cooking classes!
If you have the opportunity to go back to reunion and you didn’t like high school, you should go! Not only was it the best night of my year, it was the healing and closure I needed to look back with gratitude and move forward with a fresh perspective.
My homecoming reminds me of this moving passage in You Can’t Go Home Again by Thomas Wolfe:
To lose the life you have for greater life;
To lose the friends you love for greater loving;
To find a land more kind than home, more large than earth.
Whereon the pillars of this earth are founded,
Toward which the conscience of this world is tending
A wind is rising and the rivers flow.