Ambivalence is when you tell your friends that some guy made ching-chong noises at you in the hallway after school and their responses range from, “Ew,” to a sarcastic, “Oh, how nice,” to nothing at all. When that happens, you feel ashamed. You wish you knew why.
Maybe it’s because you have it better than others do. Let’s face it. You’re Asian, middle class. Your family is whole and, for the most part, functional. There are people who’d kill to be you, and you don’t blame them. So why speak out? Why shake the foundation of this house whose construction your birth granted you?
When you went to the mall to shop for summer clothes with your black friend, he was watched constantly by hawk-eyed clerks while you were left to roam free. When your Hispanic friend had to find a cash job at fifteen, scrubbing dishes at an Italian restaurant so she could help keep her family afloat, you were livid. Your Muslim friend tells you stories from before you met. Puberty was hard enough for you—on top of the typical issues, she had to deal with kids who she thought were her friends pulling her newly adorned hijab off her head as a joke. She had to think about what it meant when they snickered at her hair falling loose, when they plugged their ears while she tried to explain why she chose to start wearing hijab, how much it mattered to her. That was how you knew: of all the brown people you could have been born as, you came into the world the luckiest.
But no amount of privilege will rescue you from the stereotypes your complexion conjures in others.But no amount of privilege will rescue you from the stereotypes your complexion conjures in others. If only they always took the form of something visible, like harassment. This sort of treatment isn’t always malicious—even your friends make fun of you sometimes, imitating your parents’ accents, asking if you’ll grill up your dog with an apple in its mouth when you invite them over for dinner. But that’s all right. Talking shit is what friends do, after all. Isn’t it?
Sometimes it comes from the adults in your life, this well-intentioned maiming of the spirit. Teachers laugh and make that face they always do when reaching your name on the class attendance list. They inevitably give up in the middle of mispronouncing it; if they even try to pronounce it at all, that is. They mistake you for the Filipino boy in the period before yours. They ask if you and your underclassman sister are related, explaining themselves with, “Sorry, I didn’t want to assume. You all tend to blend together for me sometimes.”
But you don’t say anything when this happens. Why would you? What have you done to deserve having your relations known? What marvelous feat of strength or courage did you perform, to expect your name to grace the lips of one who professes knowledge?
You have done nothing.
You lie in bed at night thinking about it. As much as you would hate to admit it. You dream of how sweet it would sound to hear your name spoken by an unrelated other. Someone not of your blood, yet recognizing your lineage. Proving that your name does, in fact, exist outside of your family’s little corner of the world. Maybe you’re afraid it doesn’t.
You realize a painful truth on these nights, but only when it’s late enough so you safely know you won’t remember it in the morning. It’s a truth that pierces farther into your soul than any insult ever has; one you would rather endure a thousand years of prejudice than admit. It disorients you—discombobulates you—fills you to the brim with guilt. The truth is that the most ambivalent person you know is you. You who aren’t marginalized, just in between the lines.