Once, in a conversation about libraries with a Chinese-American friend, I had mentioned that I liked the Science & Engineering Library, to which he snorted.
“Why would you study there? That place is like mainland China,” he said, laughing, “there are so many FOBs.”
At the time I had laughed with him—there were a lot of likely international Asian students at the NoCo library—but looking back, I just feel deeply ashamed. Why is it that we, as Chinese Americans, so utterly reject Chinese nationals on campus?
FOB, short for “fresh off the boat,” refers to Asians in the West who haven’t acclimated to Western practices. To Asian Americans, FOBs are pretty easy to pick out: They wear different clothes, do their hair and makeup differently, and most importantly, don’t default to English when conversing casually.
Many Asian Americans, like me, have internalized anti-Asian sentiment for our entire lives, and it continues to bleed into our attitudes at Columbia.
When I was in elementary school, my mother packed food for me to eat at lunchtime. “A little piece of home,” she had said once before dropping me off in the morning. Sometimes it’d be rice and vegetables, tomatoes and eggs and bok choy—leftovers from dinner the night before. But when she was feeling particularly generous, my mom would pack me dumplings, nestled in my Tupperware like gold nuggets in a treasure chest, a touch of comfort when I was surrounded by kids who didn’t look like me.
One time I tried to munch on a dumpling during our break time, a kid got up and shouted, “Ew!”
And then, “What is that?”
“Smells like rotten eggs,” another boy had said.
Something about the boiled wrapper skin and braised meat didn’t do well when locked away in Tupperware all day. However, the only thing I could smell were pork and chive dumplings so I knew that they were talking about me.
That night, I went home and told my mother not to pack me the dumplings for lunch anymore. When she asked me why, clearly confused and a little hurt, all I could do was tell her that they smelled. It didn’t matter how much I liked them or how much they reminded me of home, because all I could think about were the disgusted looks on my classmates’ faces.
It was the little things that instilled a sense of self-hatred in me growing up: how none of the white kids could understand my parents’ accent or my small eyes and flat face; how I was expected to be good at math (I’m not); how they would look at the smelly dumplings in my Tupperware with disgust, and I would bury them at the bottom of my backpack, face burning hot with shame.
Internalized racism is a rampant problem in the Asian-American community. And though I’m proud of my heritage as a Chinese American, there are still a lot of things that I have had to actively undo my disdain for, because I’ve been trying to avoid being the FOB all my life. I didn’t want to be seen as that weird Asian girl who didn’t know how to blend in, who didn’t know how to dress, talk, and act like everybody else, alienated by my Chineseness that was so evident in the Chinese FOBs that I knew. I tried to be just like my white friends at school. I wore Abercrombie & Fitch and went to Starbucks. I talked like them, walked like them, ate the same lunches as them. So it’s no wonder that even as I grew older my internalized racism followed me to Columbia, where I’ve found other Asian Americans with the same self-hatred ingrained deep within them.
And frankly, it’s fucked up. I don’t think there’s another group on campus that treats people of our same ethnicity the way we do: with disdain and upturned noses. Sure, Chinese Americans don’t necessarily share many experiences with Chinese nationals, but that doesn’t mean we have to shun them and call them FOBs—the very acronym that most Asian Americans grew up hating.
Our attitude towards Asian international students at Columbia says a lot about how we feel about our Asianness. Simply put, we call Asian international students FOBs because we are, at some level, uncomfortable with our cultural identity in society. We don’t like being the other, marked different by how absolutely foreign our culture is. So we grow up assimilating, discarding what makes us Asian in lieu of blending in with the majority, and when we encounter Asian nationals, we are reminded of the very things we had to get rid of. And it’s okay to be uncomfortable, but it’s not okay to marginalize members of your own race because of it.
Growing up in a primarily white neighborhood, I know that I tried to hide away parts of my Chinese identity so I could fit in and not be hated by my classmates. So even now as I celebrate the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival or cook Chinese food in my Wallach floor kitchen, I know that my anti-Asian self-hatred is still there when I look at an Asian international student and think, “FOB.”
But nowadays, I try to pause and undo that line of thinking. Because there’s absolutely nothing wrong with being Asian, no matter what I have internalized over the course of my life. Asian Americans, I invite you to do the same—because our attitude towards Asian nationals only reflects a deeper sense of internalized racism that we all have to work to change.
Victoria Hou is a sophomore in Columbia College. Despite everything, she still loves dumplings. Chop Suey runs alternate Mondays.
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