It begins from the day you are born. You stand out as you enter the playground. It might be the black hair in the sea of blondes and browns or the way it grows from your scalp like branches, twisting into knots. It could be the secret language between your parents and yourself while the rest of the toddlers gape at your mouth as it produces sounds they have never heard before.
But it will not be until you enter nursery you realise that it is more than your appearance that sets you apart. While your friends play with Barbie dolls and push their little prams, the words ‘doctor’ and ‘engineer’ have already made their way into your vocabulary. No, not from your parents or their friends, but from strangers – teachers, neighbours, the old lady sitting opposite you on the bus.
Once you start primary school nothing seems to make sense anymore. You sit there in confusion while the teacher walks past, her eyes on everybody’s work but your own. You overhear her excitement when your best friend receives full marks while your own perfect score receives nothing more than a tick. You realise you live in a different world from everyone around you.
It’s only when you enter secondary school you piece things together bit by bit. Like the day you sit next to the Chinese kid who the teachers never quiz, only to come to the realisation that he puts in just as much work as you do and only to receive less in return. There seems to be something about the two of you that gives off a different vibe.
But it is more than that. It’s not being invited to parties because your friends aren’t sure if you eat meat and ‘it would be awkward to ask.’ It’s the assumption you’ll be studying the sciences in college because who’s ever heard of an Asian in the Arts? It’s the assumption you don’t drink alcohol so you wouldn’t want to go out clubbing anyway without being asked. It’s the ‘so, you’re applying to Medicine then?’ without waiting for a response. It’s the surprise in their faces when you tell people you got a B in the exam. It’s the terror behind your eyes that someday this facade will all fall apart.
This is just the tip of the iceberg.
What about the times you watch your favourite TV programme and find no reflection of yourself? Or when you scroll through music on your iPhone, never to come across an artist’s name like yours. Maybe these are little things which kids wouldn’t notice anyway. But if you grow up in a world where your own identity is hidden so deep beneath stereotypes and labels, then how do you know who you really are?