In the 3rd grade, teachers and staff called me Caitlyn. Even the school nurse, after spending several minutes trying to find the medicine she was holding for me among the rows of labeled bottles, turned around and said, “I just can’t find it, Caitlyn, none of these has your name on it!”
“My name’s Renea,” I corrected her.
She looked embarrassed before her face turned sour. She huffed, “Well, why didn’t you say so, then?”
My parents and I were already settled into life in Florida. Things still felt a little foreign and a little far away — we had moved here only a few years ago after my dad was stationed at Eglin Air Force Base. It was my first time going to a public school in the United States. I was shy and making friends had always been scary. I found myself wanting to blend into the background, knowing even at that young age that assimilating into this new place would be the most beneficial to me.
Most everything remained the same. Anthem in the morning, times tables, “Daily Oral Language”, health videos on how weed kills, and predicting each other’s futures with folded up paper. The quintessential American grade school experience.
Then there were other things that I just wasn’t used to.
Like the heat in my face when I would hear my mom speaking to the teacher in her accent and limited English as a girl with dusty blonde hair and blue eyes said incredulously to me, “Can you understand what your mom is saying?!”
I said yes, much to her surprise.
“Can you understand what your mom is saying?!”
One of the girls I played with was named Caitlyn. I was never close friends with her, but had the kind of relationship where we would talk at lunch and wave at each other in the hallway, and if there was an apocalyptic event of some kind, I’m sure we would have hesitantly teamed up and formed a strong bond through shared trauma or something. In this universe, though, we were lunch buddies.
Anyway, Caitlyn was Asian. I don’t even remember if I knew she was Asian when I first met her, and if I did, it clearly wasn’t important enough to recall. What I did notice, however, was that she was sweet and funny and cheerful and absolutely beautiful, with long wavy black hair and deep eyes that lit up whenever she smiled, which was often. At the time, I thought that certainly what I felt for her was just admiration — now when I look back, I know it was more. So when I was eight and I noticed that several ladies who worked in the office, a few teachers, the nurse, and the janitor, all called me “Caitlyn”, I naively thought, “Wow, do people really think I’m pretty enough to look like her?”
By the time I left the United States in the fourth grade to move back to Korea, I had corrected enough people enough times that nobody called me Caitlyn anymore at least, not in front of me. Even now, it still floors me that the entire time I went to that school, I was never able to make the connection that the overwhelmingly white faculty and staff couldn’t distinguish between me and Caitlyn simply because we were the only two Asian girls in the school. I assumed that we just looked alike.
We didn’t. My mom forced my protesting self into blouses and dresses while Caitlyn wore jeans and t-shirts. Our families came from different countries. I’m mixed and she’s not. Our hair, clothes, voice, personality, and even height were wildly unalike. The list goes on.
How could I have ever thought we looked alike? I realized that it was only because everyone told me so.
Social conditioning is a bizarre experience. What did I internalize that I’ll never remember and never tear apart, quietly hiding somewhere like a dormant virus? How many times did I feel resistance welling up in me for reasons I was too young to put in words? Those experiences still exist. They float up sometimes and you realize why you said this, why you did this, why you didn’t do this, why you were hurt, or why you hurt others.
How many times did I feel resistance welling up in me for reasons I was too young to put in words?
Not much has changed since then: the other day at a party, a white girl drunkenly called me “Nora” for several minutes before she realized that Nora, the only other Asian person present, was actually on the other side of the room. She’s the fourth or fifth person out of our mutual friends to have mistaken us for each other.
Eleven years and my mistaken identity didn’t go away — it just changed names.