On the Halloween of my third grade year I showed up to our school assembly sporting black robes, taped glasses, a crudely drawn backwards lightning bolt on my forehead and a stick I found on my way to class. I was also wearing a stupid grin on my face, barely able to contain my excitement of becoming a two-dollar costumed imitation of my hero at the time.
I was Harry Potter, boy wizard extraordinaire, enemy of He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named and hero of my own book series. With my best friends Ron and Hermione, I was bound for magical adventures throughout the- “HEY YOU CAN’T BE HARRY POTTER HE ISN’T ASIAN.”
A sneering eight-year old dressed as a Ninja Turtle snaps me back to reality. Weakly, I protest that Harry has black hair and it’s not entirely obvious from the book cover what race he is but am immediately told Harry has to be white. This time another girl in a tutu nearby nods matter-of-factly.
My face feels hot with embarrassment. A douchenugget wearing a Jason ski mask breaks my stick wand. Fighting back tears, I ask who I should dress up as. Someone suggests Jackie Chan. Not a particular character he had played in a movie, but just Jackie Chan.
Born to Chinese immigrant parents in a sea of white faces in suburban Kansas, this had increasingly become my reality growing up. Who I could be, or even who I wanted to pretend to be was limited by others to a small palette of concepts and names I had no interest in. Math genius, stoic Kung Fu guy, weird foreign loser kid in general. At the same time, I had no real life heroes in real life, TV or otherwise who looked even remotely like me. And so I turned to books.
Thematically, I felt like I related to Harry. He wasn’t exactly the coolest kid in school and was blundering his way through a crazy magical world without context (This is not entirely dissimilar to being the child of immigrants attending American elementary school).
One of the greatest things about books is not the exact arrangement of words on paper, but what is unwritten and left to your imagination. A book can give you enough to feel the world, but leave out just enough to insert yourself into the story. I wanted to be Harry Potter, live his adventures, overcome his troubles and gain the respect and friendship of his classmates. But I couldn’t. Not in my peers’ eyes anyways. Sure, apparently his eyes were green, but an Asian with green eyes would hardly be the craziest thing in a book where owls are a valid form of communication, broomsticks fly and MAGIC IS REAL.
Is it too much of a stretch to let a kid looking for a hero to pretend that the main character was Asian like him? It seems that even in literary fiction, unless there was an explicit plot-based need for an ethnic character, your default character is white and male. It’s an attitude that has extended beyond fantasy novels, where the concept of “normal” fits similar physical descriptors and anything that doesn’t fit the mold is different and only acceptable in limited doses on the periphery. This isn’t a criticism of any one race in particular, but I’m hoping that all of us can open our minds and reconsider what we see as normal.
This is why I am so happy to see the casting of Noma Dumezweni as Hermoine in the newest theatrical production of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Hermoine is a badass, intellectually strong woman with a lot of humanity, a character trait that isn’t limited to a particular race. Beyond that, you can see the beginnings of change: A man wearing a turban and a Captain America suit can garner cheers and admiration in New York City. The new Hulk is Asian! Black, Latino and people of other races have increasingly progressive portrayals in fictional media and are helping serve as role models for children of all colors in real life.
Obviously there are plenty of issues still, but even some of these minor steps were unthinkable for that eight year old Chinese-American boy with his stick and two dollar wizard costume.
My only regret is letting some stupid kids take my imagination away from me. I’m a little older now, but I won’t ever let anyone again tell me who I can or can’t be. There’s enough magic in this world for everyone, after all.