Most of my childhood growing up in North Carolina was spent as a token Asian kid. Oftentimes, not only would my brother and I be the only Asian students in our classes but we would also be the only Asian students in the entire school.
Whether it was at school or elsewhere — like the bookstore or the supermarket — I got pretty used to people noticing me. I knew I was different, a sight not often seen in that little town.
One time, in the fourth grade, a substitute teacher took over my classroom for the day. She was an elderly white woman with spectacles and white, curly hair. Amidst a crowd of Caucasian faces, two kids stuck out: me and the only black kid in class.
While we were all quietly doing some sort of activity at our desks, the substitute teacher looked over at the black student and asked, “Do you have Hispanic roots?”
The boy shyly nodded. I had never heard the word “Hispanic” before, so I had no idea what it meant. All I knew was that the lady was looking at the boy and talking to him like he was different—just like I was.
“I’m Hispanic too!” I exclaimed. My nine year-old mind equated “Hispanic” with “not like everyone else” and I wanted to let the substitute teacher know that I was indeed not like everyone else.
“What?” said the lady as her eyes darted from the boy to me. “No… you’re not.” She started to turn a little red.
“Yes, yes, I am. I’m Hispanic!” I insisted. I kept on saying I was Hispanic until she just gave up and carried on with teaching the class. Thinking about it now, it makes me chuckle—imagining a little Asian girl telling an elderly white woman that she’s Hispanic.
I was a weird kid (weren’t we all?), for sure, but I think that memory stays with me because I realize what a strong sense of “otherness” I had at such a young age. As a grown woman, I know very well that I’m not Hispanic (haha), but I think that feeling of being an “other”—someone different—still lingers.
Nine year-old Anna was proud of being different—and I think I am too.