What my white daughter starting Chinese School taught me about privilege
Recently my white daughter started Chinese School. Chinese School is a school, typically for Chinese people, that meets on Saturdays and focuses on teaching children about China, Chinese culture and the Chinese language.
My Chinese son started Chinese school last semester, so this semester, his sister wanted to join. This way, they will be able to speak Mandarin together, and she may be able to talk to her new brother (we are adopting) when he comes home from China in a few months.
Walking my daughter into a school where she is the only white person was odd and uncomfortable. She was nervous, starting a new school, looking different, studying something utterly foreign to her. But, she walked in next to her brother with courage and excitement.
I have to admit; I was a little uncomfortable. Everyone spoke to one another in Mandarin. Even though I’m learning Mandarin, I only understand single words here and there, and cannot make out conversations or phrases.
I was nervous for my daughter as well. Knowing she was the only white person, I had to consider things like, will she be accepted? Will the teacher favor her, or ignore her? Will other kids talk to her or make fun of her? Will she get past her insecurities and learn what she is here to learn?
As I worried, I realized my worries and feelings were a tiny fraction of what so many people in the US experience. So many kids attend a school where they are in the minority. So many kids start school, not knowing the language or culture. If I was nervous about my daughter taking a 90-minute class once a week, those parents must be terrified. If my daughter was nervous about looking different in her class for this small moment, how much more nervous must thousands of children be across the US?
I confess, this unease, being outside of my element, being in the minority, is something I have been oblivious to for most of my life. It’s uncomfortable. It’s challenging. Fundamentally we know being different from the majority is hard, but myself being a part of that majority, I rarely experience the discomfort.
I have lived 95% of my life with the privilege of looking like the people in authority. My teachers, principals, professors, coaches, and mentors all looked similar to me, spoke my language, and lived in my world. Navigating the supermarket has never been hard for me, or scary. Figuring out how to get a driver’s license was no big deal. Catching a taxi, taking the subway, ordering coffee, going to a job interview, even starting a company has been easy for me. I’ve been part of the in-crowd without even knowing it. I speak the language, know the culture, and look like the majority. Navigating everyday life is easy.
But, put me in a place where I look different and don’t speak the language, and the challenges grow exponentially. Figuring out what the Chinese school offered, getting registered online, and getting our kids to the right place at the right time, were surprisingly tricky. All because we were not a part of the majority in the interaction.
I’m thankful for this experience. I hope it will help me to be more empathic to people that don’t look like me and don’t speak my language. I hope I can show the kindness and patience to others that the Chinese School has afforded to my family and me. And, more than anything, I hope others like me will find themselves in the uncomfortable minority, even for a moment, and gain some additional insight and empathy as well.
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