Letter to Myself in Elementary School

Dear Alan,

I’m sorry it’s been more than 10 years since we last spoke. I want to make sure I don’t say anything patronizing because I know how much you, and I still, despise that tone, especially from those who claim superior knowledge or experience. I won’t say that I know more than you, for how can we count all the shadows of thought we carry in our heads? I’m certain I’ve forgotten so many things that you still know, and that I have little hope of retrieving. I’ll instead say that I know different things, things that I wish you had found or been told earlier, things that might have helped you make sense of everything around you.

It’s strange to go to school amongst peers who are similar to you in so many ways, yet seem to share none of your feelings or experiences. You do, after all, spend a large part of your day with other children, many of whose parents immigrated here from various parts of East Asia. But despite the ostensible similarity, I’m sure you can still feel so many of the differences. You don’t seem to live in the places where everybody else lives, so you’re rarely invited over to a friend’s house. Your parents don’t have many friends in the school that you know of, so you don’t have any of the house gatherings that other kids sometimes mention. Maybe you are also a little ashamed that your parents don’t work high-income jobs, although I’m quite certain there were many other kids who were in similar situations. None of the others talked about how their parents would argue with each other, yell at them, or call them lazy or useless, but I want to tell you now that you weren’t the only one going through this hurt. All of your reactions to these events are valid. It’s not your fault. Growing up is hard when any adult, especially your parents, cannot relate, and when you find it difficult to communicate openly any emotions you’re having for fear of judgement or embarrassment. I can tell you that you’ll find a way to do this eventually, and it will be marvelous, but I’m sorry for the time left before that happens.

Shame is beginning to come into your life in too many ways. I can remember the feeling of innocence before attending kindergarten, seemingly living in an eternity of bliss. You cried before going to preschool because that meant being away from your family, pushed out into an unfamiliar world for the first time. Hiding behind your father’s jeans at the preschool, you didn’t suspect the alacrity with which you would acclimatize to your new surroundings. I say tenderly that you are quite shy about the world! Once, you were too shy even to go talk to a cashier at a McDonald’s to order and pay. If it helps you to know, you will come to love the world, and be unafraid to tell people what you think, especially when it is a matter of justice.

One moment of shame is seared into my mind, perhaps because it was the first moment where you would distance yourself from your heritage. This moment, intertwined with expectations of masculinity, was when you took off your jade anklet with red thread that ran like blood around your skin. Maybe it was a gift, but in any case you liked how the colour red blazed in the air. You still do. Red, however, didn’t seem to fit a boy, at least according to those you would call your friends at the time, but whom I would rather call schoolmates. Friendship, I have come to understand, requires more than mere presence in class. You didn’t tell your parents why you didn’t want to wear the anklet anymore, but I think they understood, even if they might have been a little hurt. You didn’t want to be called a girl–children reflect society and can therefore be bastards–and you hadn’t yet been given the tools to understand the emptiness of that criticism or to defend yourself, plus anybody else who didn’t want to conform to gender norms.

At some level, you sensed that it was wrong that they had insulted you as a girl, but you didn’t know what to do about it. Indeed, you internalized some of this sexism when, after a teacher was being particularly unreasonable about gym usage, you told them that your mother thought he looked like a girl. Another time, in the morning before school, two schoolmates who were walking to your house saw you put on clothes in the living room while watching Sailor Moon, as you usually did. There were probably other reasons why you stopped watching Sailor Moon eventually–you almost completely stopped watching television in junior high school–but their remarks about this incident likely had an effect. You also did not do enough to prevent a group of boys–you might even have joined in on some occasions–from insulting, slut-shaming, and otherwise harassing two girls. I’m not recalling this last incident to berate you; you’ve had enough of it for many lifetimes. Rather, I want to take a middle ground that I so ferevently wish you were able to know in your household. I want you to feel some guilt and responsibility not because I’m angry at you–I’m certainly not–but because others were hurt by what you contributed to and did not stop. You can use these feelings to grow and be a better person who adds more to others’ lives. In time, you’ll want to be this person because you already know so well the torment of pain with no succour.

The incident with the jade anklet was about gender conformity, but disconnection from your heritage will be a theme for years to come I’m afraid, with healing delayed until after a particularly formative trip you will make in university. In some ways, it was easier in elementary school. Because you live close to your school, you go home for lunch most of the time. Once, when you had to bring a lunch, you were afraid that others might judge you for the rice porridge that you brought, not to mention that it would be difficult to find an empty seat where everybody already had patterns of arrangement. In fact, you waited until you saw others eat, even though you were getting hungry, to see what types of meals they had. When you saw somebody also bring out a bowl of rice porridge and eat it seemingly without giving a damn, you were quite relieved that you didn’t have to starve yourself. Despite this immediate relief, you still don’t feel secure about your food–I sometimes still don’t–in a world structured around racism. Your healing will take place through food, however; food will become a large part of how you relate to your heritage, not to mention the world at large.

From the common knowledge that we still share, I remember that you were lost in the search for an identity. Everybody seemed either more popular than you, physically stronger than you, smarter than you, or more attractive than you. During one of the first times you walked into a kindergarten classroom, someone threw sand in your face. This person, and the one who watched, would spend more time with you in the future, but a distance always sat there, especially since you seemed to be a third wheel. You would always lose arm wrestles and not appear to have any of the muscle the other guys did. You never did the best in class, even though you did not do poorly, but all the other kids just seemed smarter and more capable. You felt you were made fun of for the mole on your face, you wished that it would just disappear, and you were disappointed when your parents told you about how your doctor suggested a cream to do just that when you were a baby, but they had declined. You might also be starting to be ashamed of the shape of your face, so different from the thin, angular jut of a European face. You envied the Asian kids that did have this sort of face, and even now I still find it difficult to shatter this Eurocentric view of beauty. This fear of appearance also manifested itself in a desire to appear skinny, rather than fat. You sucked in your stomach when standing up; you wore clothes that didn’t fit too tightly, so as to avoid showing the curves of your body. You are afraid, and still are to an extent, of being even more outcast for appearing conventionally undesirable.

Being an outcast is probably the most consistent experience you have. You were complicit in how those two girls were treated because you wanted to be a part of a group. You were always chosen last, or not chosen at all, for soccer. Once, you and a fellow outcast were pitted against the rest of the boys in a humiliating soccer match. You got so frustrated that you slammed your foot into the ball, careening it far out of the field. One of the boys on the other team said you could join the larger team now, and you did, despite the lone boy still on the other side. I believe those other kids thought you would never be strong enough, but your kick showed them, just as you will show all your doubters in the future. Because you couldn’t find stable companionship with other children, you sought it with some teachers. A principal was partially right when they remarked that you wanted so much attention from teachers because you didn’t get much attention at home. You were alienated in some way no matter where you were, with experiences that wouldn’t align with anybody you could talk to. The simplest thing was not to speak; it doesn’t seem plausible yet, but you’re waiting for a better day that will welcome your voice.

Feeling useless is another common emotion I recall. This feeling naturally develops when you’re not a part of any meaningful social circle at school, but you also can’t avoid having the word thrown at you when home. Asian immigrant culture, borne out of psychological, social, cultural, and economic pressures, can be incredibly damaging. There are certainly some things you could help with more in the house, but you’re never responsible for the level of verbal abuse you endure. That your parents raise you doesn’t mean they can’t do wrong. That your parents provide food and shelter doesn’t absolve them of also providing a nurturing emotional environment. That you’re young doesn’t mean you should be feeling useless.

You might have felt otherwise had your immediate family been larger. It does indeed take a village to raise a child, so we can imagine the enormous stresses placed on new parents, not to mention parents that don’t have a lot of money, have few technical skills, and don’t speak English well. Your uncle and aunts do live close by; you even loved visiting their place, which was always more interesting and welcoming, away from any arguments, tirades, or silence. I say loved, in the past tense, because your mother has her own traumas and was jealous of the time you spent there instead of at home. You had to watch as she hauled all your clothes in a garbage bag down the stairs, telling you to go live at your aunt’s place if you liked it so much. You stopped liking it.

Parenting doesn’t have to define you. The people in your vicinity right now don’t have to define you. Nothing has to define you. Everything certainly affects you, but you have the ability to channel your experiences into understanding and growth that you want. I know it’s hard on you, but I don’t wish to have never experienced what you are going through now; I only wish that I had had more support in positively integrating those experiences, which I hope I am helping you to do at this moment. In a future letter, I also hope to be able to tell you that I have completely integrated all of these scars. In the meantime, at some point in the future, you’ll come upon the term “chosen family”, which means family that you get to choose based on what you think is best for you. You will have worlds of choice in picking the members of this family, and you will end up choosing quite wisely.

You’ve lived barely a decade, but you’ve already been through so much. You feel like you’re never enough for anything or anybody, neither your school, your peers, nor your parents. Feeling insufficient mingles with feeling inferior and feeling lonely, accreting into a frightening monster that even I still combat often. It helps to know that many also fight the same creatures, and that no matter the blood that is drawn, you will survive.

In fact, you will do more than survive. You will thrive. You are enough. You’ve never been not enough. You will always be enough. No matter what anybody says or will say to you, you are more than sufficient for anything or anybody you face in this life. You will carve an identity. You will find meaning. You will be a friend, a writer, a reader, a scientist (your dream came true), a humanitarian, a citizen, a debater, a volunteer, a supporter, a critic, an adventurer, a cook, and so much more that even I can’t fathom yet.

We’ll speak again. I hope you remember that I will be here always, especially when no one else is.

Alan Chan
Alan Chan
PhD Student

I’m a PhD student at Mila, where I think about AI safety. I’d be happy to have a chat!