On Words People Have Said and Responses Never Voiced

I think we all have moments when people say things and we don’t know how to respond, but their words are remembered and we can almost taste our responses on our lips but they get caught in our throats. Here is a small collection of mine. 

“Why can’t you just get it?” 

My dad, trying to teach me math concepts often times before they were covered in school so that I could get ahead. Whenever I got stuck, he would explain the concept to me, but he would get impatient by the third time – and then I would cry, and he would yell, and I would cry more until I understood. I got it, in the end. I don’t think you needed to yell.
“Do you understand?” 
Teacher Chen, the art teacher that I visited every Friday since I was 7 years old, tirelessly explaining the differences between shadows and highlights and how to depict them accurately to a child who could not yet understand the language he spoke. You changed my life. You showed me what a difference a wonderful educator could make in a child’s life. I could never be grateful enough.
“Ching Chow Ling Long.”
My high school ex-roommate, every weekend, whenever I spoke to my parents on Skype. I had just moved from China to the US. While I had lived on this side of the world before, I had been a child young enough to be shielded from racism. Her words made me uncomfortable but I always tried to laugh it off because I did not yet know how to advocate for myself and call her out. You are the most distasteful person I have ever had to spend an extended amount of time with.
“Did you know, they talk about your boobs in Clement House?”
The same high school ex-roommate, telling me this as if I wanted to know. No, I did not know that. Thanks a lot – and I mean not at all – for letting me know the peers I looked at and spoke to every day were objectifying my 13 year old body. 
“You just need to loosen up!”
J.P. Jacquet, my high school art teacher, telling me to step outside of my box during my AP art class before promptly putting my drawing under a water faucet. I hated you a little bit when you did that. I was – still am – careful, measured, disciplined, detail-oriented. You showed me how to have fun on a canvas. You are one of my all-time favorite teachers. My body is inked with a tribute to the impact you had on me.
“You’re good at math because you’re Asian.”
No, I worked hard at math and did problems every day for years of my life. Funnily enough, I’m not even that good at math, although high school math is still immensely fun.
“You helped me get my first B in English!” 
An underclassman I tutored in high school at the Writing Center, surprising me with a joyful smile and a hug in the dining hall. I had worked with him to organize his ideas and formulate his sentences. You showed me how rewarding tutoring could be, and I hope you’ll go far.
“Thank you for being her friend.”
When my friend came out as lesbian to the school and her parents, who taught there, felt compelled to thank me for sticking by her. Her sexual orientation did not and should not change how I feel about her. There was no need to thank me. 
“She didn’t deserve you.”
My high school best friend, Lydia, told me this after a friend graduated, left me behind, and never responded to my texts. Thinking about it now, it was like a bad breakup, except we were never romantically involved. Thank you for helping hold my heart together and sticking by me even when I failed at being a good friend to you later on. 
“You should exercise more.”
My mother, telling me after I had mentioned that I felt fat. It was not the beginning of the spiral I sunk into around my self-image and my eating issues, but it certainly did not help. For future reference, mom, I do not think that was the appropriate response to your daughter telling you she has body image issues.
“You’ve gotten skinnier – you’re pretty now!”
One of the few times I’ve ever seen my dad yell at my uncle. I was visiting my extended family over a school break and it was the first thing he said to me after he sat down at the dinner table. If only you did not hold so much value in appearance and actually tried to make something of yourself, perhaps you would be a better person. Unfortunately, here we are.
“Now that Jiang Jie is married, it’s your turn!” 
The same uncle, telling me that I was next in line to get hitched, even though there is another cousin between the one who got married and myself. When I pointed that out, he responded that “Tao is a boy, so it does not matter as much.” I had more words to say but I did not know how to argue about sexism in Chinese. Plenty of people find partners later in life, and if it is children that you are concerned about, my eggs will not expire as quickly as you seem to think so.
“You’re going to sleep, the night before your final review?”
Yes. Yes I am. This is why I pulled the all-nighter last night, so I could sleep this night. It’s called planning. Also, I am useless at speaking if I have not slept, and that’s no good if I have to explain my thought process to a panel of reviewers.
“This is how it’s been for centuries.”
At a panel of architects and architecture alumni, a well-known architect responding to a query by a student about how we could prioritize mental health in studio instead of pressuring students to work themselves to the bone night after night for a grade. This is not how you improve society. Forever enforcing old pressures on young people only creates a vicious cycle of bad experiences. I’m sure anyone who’s ever facilitated progress has never thought that way.
“Oh, you got into MIT because you have good genes.”
At lunch with my mom and one of her clients, he said this after telling us in extensive detail about his Harvard-attending son who surpassed his devastating health issues – cancer, I think – to get to where he is now. It is only time I remember ever hearing my mother advocate for me. She told him I had worked hard to get to MIT and it had nothing to do with the genes she gave me. I was tempted to say that his son must have only gotten into Harvard because of his genes, but I am not cruel.
“I’m not racist, but I would never date an Asian man. I’m just not attracted to them.”
One of my roommates, after being surprised at how attractive her friend’s Vietnamese boyfriend was. Yes, you are being racist when you write off all Asian men as unattractive to you. They come in all shapes and sizes and appearances, since, you know, they make up approximately a fifth of the world’s population. 
“You should smile more.”
The uncomfortable moment when words I had heard yelled at me on the street was spoken to me at work, by a man I like and respect. I went silent in disbelief. I wanted to ask him if he said that to the male employees, but the awkward power dynamics stopped me. If my resting face makes you unhappy, that’s your problem, Also, never say that to a woman.
“Are the bathroom signs sexist, since the woman has a skirt?” “Yes. Someone should design new ones.”
Said by a client and my boss, when we walked by the bathrooms while we were working on a project in their office. The signs are sexist because you perceive the icon of the person wearing a skirt as a woman. New icons do exist – for example, the triangles – but that does not get to the root of the problem: that people fall into multiple gender identities and the perceived gender binary is ridiculous and antiquated. I propose, after some thoughts with my friend Caitlin, that we instead label bathrooms by functionality, like we do with every other space. Use a toilet icon. If you must have two bathrooms, use a toilet and a urinal icon. Simple, to the point.
“You’re not Chinese.”
My mother and her most recent offense, after asking me where else I would live other than the US and Canada if I were to move. After I said I would not want to live in China – I’m far too outspoken and have too many opinions about politics – she responded with those words. I lived in China for a quarter of my life and I have family – regardless of how much I like or dislike them – in China. I am consistently perceived as Chinese in the States, and I identify ethnically as Chinese. Besides, mom, you’re moving to D.C., and you sure as hell aren’t American.
“His jaw dropped. I’m having a proud boyfriend moment.”
You make me smile like an idiot.

“You’re perfect. I’m here for you.”

Words that Caitlin has said to me time and time again. Even though I always write it off and say that I’m not, every time you say them I feel a little better about myself. I must be doing okay if even just one person thinks that about me. I tear up every time those words show up in our conversations. I love you so much – and you are perfect too.

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