Ying tells stories in a thin, nonchalant voice.
Like when she mentions that on a near-constant basis, professors and international students alike approach her with a flourish of welcoming Mandarin, before they find out that Ying can only respond in English.
Or when she recalls the various moments throughout her life when someone thought it was OK to ask her if she fit Asian porn stereotypes, some of which she wasn’t even aware of.
Bukakke? A sideways vagina? She had to Google them.
A lot has happened to Ying on this campus, but it is simply following a pattern she picked up in her hometown.
She grew up in Dayton, Ohio, with first-generation immigrant parents who fled violence in Taiwan, and a grandma who told the Buddhist monks at their local temple to pick on her for being an ungrateful American child.
“Maybe you’re just a magnet with a big, white, racist ghost following you,” Marisa, Ying’s close friend, joked with her.
Ghosts, both white and Asian, seem to haunt Ying.
The classrooms that dismissed her
Ying didn’t speak English for her first two years in school. Her teachers and peers thought she was dumb, but she just refused to speak out of spite. Ying understood them, but she simply didn’t want to talk to people who pulled their eyelids back and greeted her with “Ching chong ching chong!”
Her teachers put her in the mental retardation class a year before the school rebranded it as special education.
Eventually, Ying spoke English. Her teachers put her in regular classes.
Ying grew up, but perhaps her peers did not.
Once, she was giving a tour to a new freshman student at her high school. They finished the tour, and she dropped him off at his next class. She left the classroom thinking she was alone, but the student ran out of the class to catch up with her.
“Hey, come back here! You dumb chink Asian slut!” the student, whom she had never met, said before he ran back into the classroom.
Ying rushed in after him. “Get the fuck out of here! You need to leave!”
She cussed him out. In front of the whole class, the new student, the teacher.
Ying got in trouble. Not him.
Make it Miami?
Ying is unusually kind. She will help someone she just met to carry a heavy load. She will walk a new friend home. She will offer to connect someone she barely knows with another friend who can give free stick-and-poke tattoos and piercings.
But Ying has a lot of anger. Lately, it has been bubbling up more often.
Ying saw the warning signs in the months leading up to the fall semester of her first year at Miami. Students protesting the campus’ handling of the Thomas Wright n-word scandal last year had taped up posters in Armstrong Student Center to warn prospective minority students and to make the university worry about how it could affect admissions.
While touring the campus after being accepted, Ying snapped pictures of these ominous posters and sent them to her friends, adding, “This is the fucking school I’m going to.”
When they saw the posters, they told her to deal with it.
Ying didn’t choose Miami. Her parents did, for the sheer amount of scholarship money she received here in comparison to Ying’s first choices, the Ohio State University and Yale.
Ying attended the Bridges Summer Scholars program, which offers scholarships between $2,500 and $5,000 and emphasizes diversity, but couldn’t bond with people of color in the program. They were snobby, standoffish. A sophomore helping to lead the program bragged that she could get into all the best parties because of her race.
The next time Ying returned to campus, it was to start her four years of college — “the best four years of your life,” some people call it. Within a week, she considered transferring.
Just hours after moving into her residence hall, her roommate mentioned showing a picture of Ying to her grandma.
“Oh, she’s oriental!” the grandma had said.
The old slur didn’t alarm the roommate.
“Yep, she’s smart, too,” the roommate added.
After her first time going Uptown, Ying walked along frat row to return to her residence hall.
Drunk bands of brothers splayed themselves on their respective porches. She made eye contact with them. It seemed like they assumed she was an international student, because they talked as if she couldn’t understand.
“Why are there so many people of color on this campus now?”
“We shouldn’t have let them in.”
Ying is Taiwanese, and so is her name. She doesn’t bother sharing it at Miami, though, no matter how easy it is to pronounce. So she goes by a generic English name.
This is the one similarity between her and international students on campus, other than not being white. But for Ying, not being white nor Asian enough has put a target on her back.
She’s having a hard time finding her place at Miami because of this.
Sometimes, people drop the casual “yo, chink,” “yellow” or “oriental” on Ying from the opposite side of the sidewalk, as if in greeting. Frat boys have catcalled her, targeting her Asian appearance with these same words.
Her eyes. Her skin. Her hair. Her eyelids. Ying’s appearance makes her the target of people who don’t look like her, but international students see a friend in the same features.
That is, until she opens her mouth. They become disappointed once they find out Ying is too embarrassed to respond to them in her broken Mandarin.
Outside the locked door of Clawson Recreation Center
Ying and a friend waited for the gym to open, leaning on the stair railing that leads up to the door. They went to the gym together every Saturday afternoon during fall semester, so they didn’t have to look at the gym’s hours of operation, on a sign beside the door, to know the facility would open in less than 10 minutes.
A group of students sauntered up, muttering to each other in Chinese. One pulled on the door handle. They inspected the sign, not seeming to understand it.
One turned to look at Ying: at her skin, her black hair, her familiar eyes and eyelids.
He asked his question in Mandarin.
Why is this door locked? Is the gym open today? His questions were expectant, hopeful.
She stood up straighter, off the railing now. She understood, but she responded in English. They didn’t understand, so Ying tried again in her rusty Mandarin.
The group only grew more confused and walked away. Ying returned to the railing.
At 2 p.m., the door lock clicked open automatically. Ying and her friend walked into the gym alone.
The closed exit doors of a packed bus
“HEY! What do you think you’re doing?!” the bus driver screeched, glaring at the mirror above her.
The Butler County Regional Transit Authority bus hadn’t fully stopped. The doors weren’t open. Yet a group of students were out of their seats, crowding the exit doors.
The driver kept yelling while Ying watched and listened from her seat, jaw clenched.
They all looked the same to the driver: another bubble of international students who could only understand each other. She opened the doors and turned to continue her tirade while the students escaped the bus.
“WHY can’t you all just —”
Ying snapped. Her voice became shrill. “They can’t understand you! Yelling is not going to help them know what you’re saying. Why can’t you understand that?!”
Ying left no room in the air for the driver to keep yelling after the students, who had already left the bus.
Ying watched the driver’s face morph as she registered Ying’s words, clearly stunned. As if she was on autopilot, the driver turned back in her chair, turned the handle to close the doors and kept driving.
Meanwhile, Ying seethed. She couldn’t help but say something in a situation like this, even if the same international students may not have treated her with the same respect.
The eyes, the skin and the hair do not always equate to mutual respect when centuries-old politics are involved.
The island of Taiwan became a Chinese colony for Han Chinese immigrants during the 17th century. Taiwan and its people — Ying’s people — were given to Japan as war spoils in 1895, and the neighboring island governed Taiwan for 50 years.
Despite Taiwan’s lingering genealogical connection to China, both Taiwan and China would transform during their time apart.
Japan had used classic censorship and propaganda from afar in an attempt to assimilate the people of Taiwan into Japanese culture, while China’s communist state emerged. Then, amidst a civil war, Chinese nationalists loyal to the old government — or, as the Chinese would call them, traitors — had fled to Taiwan.
Japan eventually gave Taiwan back to the Republic of China as its penance for being on the wrong side of World War II.
Under the new China, Taiwan was under harsh martial law. In the 1980s, when Ying’s own parents grew up in Taiwan, China’s iron grip weakened and finally left room for Taiwan’s independence.
War spoils. Assimilation. Fifty years of separation, bookended by propaganda. Traitors. Over 100 years of political conflict are dumped unceremoniously on Ying when a Chinese international student lets her know she doesn’t belong.
Yes, Ying looks familiar to international students. But in the case of Chinese international students, this interaction gets more complicated.
If Ying doesn’t talk about her country, they don’t have a problem with her — but of course, the first thing they ask Ying is her nationality.
When they discover she’s Taiwanese, they assume she’s not wealthy. When they know she was born in the United States, they assume her parents must be traitors for leaving China.
Then, they release a verbal wrath that carries a ghost of what history unleashed onto Taiwan — a ghost older than the original racist white ghost that Marisa had joked about.
What should have been an uneventful line
Ying waited patiently in line to get a stamp from a table at Chuseok, a Korean Thanksgiving festival organized by the Korean American Student Association. Once she and her friend collected enough stamps on their “passport,” they could get in line for traditional Korean food.
An international student with an entourage of two girls started speaking Mandarin to Ying.
“I’m sorry, I don’t speak Mandarin,” Ying said.
“Oh, so where are you from, then?” he said.
“Oh. But you don’t speak Mandarin,” he said, not believing her. He continued to speak Mandarin.
“Look, I can understand, but I can’t speak back to you. I don’t know how.”
“Oh, so you’re not actually Taiwanese. You’re just American-born, you’re not actually from Taiwan.”
“No, I’m not. But I do speak Taiwanese,” Ying said.
Taiwanese Hokkien is a dialect of Chinese Mandarin. The differences can be compared to how British English and American English use different words for the same object.
“That’s the same language,” he said.
“No, it’s not,” Ying corrected him.
“So why don’t you speak Mandarin?” he pushed again.
“I speak it at home with my parents. But I don’t usually speak it while out in public, because it’s not good enough,” Ying said.
He began a tirade.
Your country’s not real. It’s not a real place. Taiwanese people are all shit, and you don’t speak another language.
The two girls backed him up: Why don’t you just speak Mandarin with him? You’re literally being so rude right now.
She shut down. The food hadn’t even arrived, but the ghosts were here. So Ying left without a word.
“I feel like you can’t be a minority and be here, and not notice it all the time,” Ying said.
Ying can have a visceral reaction to both casual and targeted racism, but at the same time, she usually tries to be gentle with the same people who say these things to her.
“When these things happen, they’re not intentional. They don’t grow up around people who aren’t like them, so they don’t know how to talk or act,” Ying said.
When Ying reached out to other minority students on campus, they told her the racism at Miami was about the same as it was in their own hometowns. But Ying seems to experience more than the normal student.
Ying told her RA everything that had happened after a month into fall semester. The RA gave the standard response: report them.
“Nothing’s gonna happen,” Ying said.
The RA said it was all she could do.
Ying filed the reports. Nothing happened.
It’s at least easier than it was in high school for Ying to never see these people again, but it’s not unavoidable, and it adds up. Ying still passes by the same people who mocked her, on campus sidewalks, in class and on dating apps.
She doesn’t feel at home with her roommate. As a Taiwanese person, she doesn’t feel welcome in the Asian American Association (AAA), a Miami organization for students from all backgrounds to celebrate Asian and Asian-American cultures.
Ying doesn’t want to steel herself against another person who doesn’t understand her culture and demands for her to explain herself, so she refuses to go to AAA meetings.
Last semester, she wanted to transfer. But she had to do her best to make Miami feel like home.
She interviewed for the RA position and made it, so her room and board will be paid off next year. She hopes to support other students with similar struggles.
“I want to help other kids like me,” Ying said. “It’s suffocating here, and it’s worse when you feel alone.”
Financial security softens the blow of everything else. Ying’s roommate is hardly ever in the room anyway, and Ying simply chooses to avoid going to Asian American events.
The ghosts are still here. But so is Ying.