The Chameleon: The Master of Adaptation
art by Lily Smrtic
CONTENT WARNING: RACISM AND ASSAULT
In the humid rainforest of Madagascar, there is an animal that can adapt to its surroundings in seconds. The chameleon can change into almost any color when needed, yet it is still the same chameleon despite its appearances. Like a chameleon, my self-identity is ever-changing to reflect its environment. There always seems to be the common traits, of course — the things that stay the same despite whatever life throws at me. The ever-changing environment over the years has left little time to contemplate what on earth I was doing.
I am a female Chinese-American teenager and after years of experiencing racism, it never fazes me anymore. It was not always like this, and as a young child, I was oblivious to remarks made by my peers in a school where no one looked like me. Unfortunately, the bliss of ignorance soon wore off with each passing remark. The comments about the food I brought or the shape of my eyes just became a part of the everyday noise as I tried to navigate the perils of elementary school. The racism that I and many other Asians face goes beyond the stereotypical bullying that young adolescents face but instead we have the added pressure of the “model minority” stereotype perpetuated by society.
As an Asian-American, you are almost always expected to be smart (especially in S.T.E.M fields) and hardworking. You always have to work twice as hard for half the credit when it comes to any accomplishment. The belief that all Asians are successful and are engineers, doctors, or lawyers is far from the truth. The lack of Asian representation across all positions of leadership has always irked me and made me want to be an exception. This has made me into someone who is always trying to prove myself to others instead of myself.
In elementary school not only did I have to deal with racism, but I was also considered “one of the smart kids”. This placed extra pressure on me to do well and outperform my peers. I always went to prep during the summer, often at the expense of my extracurricular activities which I enjoyed. I remember the first time I publicly answered a question wrong in class. I corrected myself almost immediately afterward, however, even 2 years after that incident, kids would still bring it up. As a result of the prep, I was often ahead of what was being taught in class so I read. My colors yet again changed into the nerd who always got her books taken away by the teacher for reading in class. I was also a “goody-two-shoes” and was never in trouble with teachers. I remember the first time I had my card moved from the green section of the behavior clip chart to the yellow. The reason that it happened was that a tablemate lied to the teacher to get me in trouble (and it wasn’t the first time). I remember sitting there crying over something that, in hindsight, seems so arbitrary. After about twenty minutes, the teacher gave up trying to console me and just moved the card back. That story may seem irrelevant (and perhaps some parts of it are) however, that lasting feeling of dread has never really left me. The feeling of being publicly ridiculed or not being good enough has made me fear failure. The last year I was in that school part of me snapped and went “screw it I’m done with this. I’m going to leave here in six months anyway.” My grades started slipping and I stopped caring about the people around me. I made a last-ditch attempt to make friends but that didn’t pan out.
Middle school was a new chapter for me; the chameleon changed again this time into what I thought was my definition of “cool”. I thankfully made friends with people that I could be open with and not have to worry about the act I was trying to put on. Sixth grade was a rough year for me. It was not being in a new school. It was suddenly being considered average. I went from being at the top of my class to a GT program (Gifted and Talented program) where all the students were just as smart as me or smarter. This reawakened the “prove myself” side of me. I always loved social studies and history, so I knew a lot about it from outside research. In 7th grade social studies, I became the kid that always had the answers, and then some, much to the annoyance of my peers. The conflict from my peers was not made any better by the childish gossip about who I liked or being continuously partnered with a person that disliked me or “was out to get me.” Just like that person in elementary school, this person was happy to see my downfall.
In 8th grade everything was starting to look up, I managed to achieve something I am still proud of to this day. In physical education, we played volleyball in teams that were not Co-Ed (it was normally co-ed but it was changed when I was in 8th grade). The school’s volleyball team had been canceled since the coach got into a car accident and I could not join a team outside of school due to external factors. I had practiced for the better part of two years to try to get on the volleyball team but because it was canceled, I could only really play with other people in physical education. Initially, I started out playing on a girl’s team but eventually, I became frustrated because it was rare that the volleyball would go over the net multiple times. I asked the teacher if I could play on one of the boy’s teams and they responded that they would think about it. While I was walking away I heard one of the coaches say, “she’s good” to the other coach. This phrase may not mean much to others but that teacher also happened to coach college volleyball in Long Island.
For the first time in a long time, I was proud of myself because I earned those words with sweat and countless hours of practicing. They put me on an all-boys team and for a few minutes I was over the moon with joy, I could not wait for the next gym class. Then… I saw all the faces of those on the bleachers looking at me. I did not see the faces of my friends who were cheering me on or congratulating me. Instead, I saw the faces of those behind them just staring at me and the chorus of whispers saying, ”what is she doing over there”. I immediately felt like I was chained to cinder blocks while trying to swim. Again, I felt like I had something to prove to people, to prove that I belonged standing there in the middle of that court. The next few classes were the best and worst times of that school year. I remember a save that I did. Imagine the volleyball sailing over my head and me turning around to hit it. I hit it backwards and it went over the net. In one well-practiced, fluid motion my team got the point. I saw the faces of those who had noticed what I had done, my friends in the bleachers cheering, and the shock on the other team’s players. There I was, standing tall with a grin on my face relishing the validation. Then, during one of the next games, I was serving and I missed. Everything crumbled around me within seconds. I hated myself so much for messing up something as easy as a serve. As the game continued the order of people serving became a jumble. I asked another teammate, “I think it’s my turn to serve right?” He responded by saying, ”Just let him serve, it’s not like you're that good anyways”. I went into full shutdown mode and I took his words to heart. Afterward, I wondered why I even asked the coaches for this in the first place.
I never really addressed my feelings though. Instead, I bottle up everything inside, and it stays that way until the bottle breaks. I was the person that helped other people with their problems. I remember when a friend was rudely broken up with and then called a gold digger and a slut, I was one of the people who walked with them almost every day after school and spent a mini fortune on ice cream and chocolate for us. I was also the person in my friend group who listened to other people’s problems and supported them by dealing with the fallout socially and emotionally. I now realize that I was also trying to bury my problems by helping other people with their own. Even now I still do not like asking for help.
That summer was the summer that I prepared for the SHSAT. Again, I was forced to stop extracurriculars and spent my weekends sitting and learning. The inactivity resulted in a weight gain which made me feel disappointed and dislike my body, which at that point was the least of my problems. I remember walking into prep one day on the verge of a full-on breakdown and I remember just sitting there crying. I do not remember why and I doubt I had a concrete reason why when I was sitting there crying. Thankfully, the teacher was understanding and did their best to help me which I was very grateful for. In eighth grade, I was faced with that familiar feeling of defeat especially because of high school results coming out. When I saw the high school I got into I started to full-on cry and it was not from relief. I was crying because it wasn’t the “best one” and I was worried that my parents would be disappointed despite the high school being highly prestigious.
I am a child of two immigrants, my parents have always also been a point of contention for me. It’s not that they are “bad” parents but there is a generational gap and a cultural gap that is there just like with most other first-generation Americans. We are from two different worlds when it comes to trust and affection. They try their best though. In first through third grade, my mom brought things to school when it was my birthday for the usual classroom celebration. However, this has made me not talk to them about my problems and I’ve become largely self-reliant when it comes to what I face in my day to day life. In 6th grade, when someone decided to kiss me on the cheek non-consensually, and in 7th when a group of boys decided that it was a good idea to touch my behind, I told a teacher about both instances but when the school had to call my parents due to school policy, I became defensive. I didn’t want to have my parents involved and I didn’t want them to use these instances as a reason not to trust me. When in 8th grade I heard a guy say, “look at that a**” in gym class I just gave up. Nowadays, I talk about my problems more to my friends than my parents, but I’m beginning to understand my parents better, especially with age.
It has taken me a long time to be able to openly write about my experiences and I have learned to deal with things in a healthier way. I may not be the smartest in the grade anymore or be the one that has all the answers to everything, but I did manage to overcome racism and, honestly, myself to become the person I am today. I am in no way, shape, or form “perfect” but honestly who is? I may not know what the future is going to throw at me, but I do know that I have an amazing support system to get through it. All of the true friends that I have acquired throughout middle and high school have been some of the best people I have ever had the pleasure of meeting and I hope that I will continue to know them for many years to come. The important thing is that all of my experiences have made me stronger than I could ever imagine.