My daughter told me people in school, students and teachers alike, call her Helen. Which would be fine, except for the fact that her name is not Helen. La Chica’s name is actually four syllables and doesn’t start with an H. So I asked her why they call her Helen.
“Because we look the same, “ she replied. You see, Helen is also an Asian girl in her grade. My heart tugged. That refrain has followed me like a shadow throughout my entire life–it became a part of who I was, and I couldn’t escape it or outrun it. I thought my daughter’s generation was more diverse and open-minded–our county’s school district can now boast that minorities are the majority in regards to the student body. I thought this might make a difference in allowing others to see her as an individual and not as a category.
My entire life, people confused me with every other Asian remotely enrolled in the same school or employed in the same agency regardless of our skin tones, length and style of hair, facial features, height, weight, or other physical attributes. It irked me to no end, and when I would point out that the other woman doesn’t even wear glasses, or that I had a straight bob hairstyle and she had long, curly hair, or that I wasn’t even Korean, the response would inevitably be, “Oh, but you two do look the same.” Um, OK. I cannot take that conversation any further other than accepting the fact that no one can see me.
What really bothers me about the situation with La Chica is that she has begun to internalize these external messages already–when she says “Because we look the same,” she can already feel what they mean. For her to say that, she’s beginning to believe that they do indeed look the same. I don’t want her to incorporate the world’s invalidation of her individualism so I ask her what she thinks about this.
She says, “But we actually don’t look the same. Her hair is straight and not as long, and always in a braid. We’re not the same height. And we like different things.”
“We like different things.” Thank God. She gets it. She gets that the crux of the issue is that people can’t see her. She knows she’s more than her outsides and the external evidence of her race, and she knows it’s important for the world to validate who she is as a whole person.
I ask her what she does when people call her Helen. She simply responds, “I’m not Helen.” Then she asked me what she is, and what I am. “What?!” I ask.
Oh wait. I know where this is going. This too is another shadow that has followed me through life. Apparently, a teacher recently tapped her on the shoulder and asked her, “What are you?” and she rightly did not know how to answer the question.
When she said “I don’t understand what you mean,” the teacher then asked, “I mean, what is your mother?”
La Chica rocks–she looked blankly at the teacher and walked away. She literally could not comprehend how that question could begin to allow anyone to see who she is, or who I am, or who Helen is, as whole and complex individuals. These are not just rude or insensitive social mis-steps. These are instances of invalidating and not seeing a human being in front of you. I hope La Chica continues to feel this dissonance when confronted by this (which sadly it looks like she will continue to encounter), because we are not Helen.
I used to say I could get away with joking that “We all look the same,” but I see now I can’t, and shouldn’t. By doing so, I give tacit permission that this concept of not validating a person is acceptable, that it can even be funny. It’s not. I’m betting Helen doesn’t think it’s funny, because I’m pretty sure not everyone is calling Helen by her name either.