By Michelle Ng ’18. Art by Bonny Cai ’17.
“Why are all your friends white?”
I was asked this question out of nowhere by another Asian freshman at Brown during my first semester here. At that moment, I just answered something on the lines of “It just sort of happened.” It was not until later on that I started to think more about the question, or the fact that the person asking had given me a judging look.
“They asked me the same thing back then,” my cousin who studied in the UK told me over a meal last Christmas. My cousin, who studied in a British boarding school, unsurprisingly, had a close group of friends who happened to be white. She continued to hang out with them once she went to one of the London Universities, where another girl from Hong Kong asked her the same question.
After talking with them and looking around campus, it became clear to me that the question stemmed from an unexplained phenomenon found in most college campuses outside of Asia – the Asians, especially those from Asia, mostly just hang out with other Asians.
It is not like we are trying to avoid white people – we have classes with them and our freshman roommate might even be one. But non-Asian students rarely have Asians in their close-best friend circles or the other way round.
Looking back on my elementary to high school years in Hong Kong, it was a similar situation. Although I lived in a megacity and went to an international school where German was a compulsory second language, all my best friends had been Asian. The few white kids I would consider as “close friends” were born and raised in Hong Kong, with just a lack a Cantonese fluency separating them from the locals.
The other white kids, mainly expatriate children and the minority, formed their own circle – always sitting at their own sofa cluster in the common room and paying little attention to us. They were the cool kids.
Growing up in Asia, there seemed to be some strange, unspoken rule that as long as you were white and not too socially awkward – you were guaranteed to be the “cool kid.” You were invited to all the social events and had a free pass to tease and bully other kids with little repercussions as long as no physical harm was caused. The most telling of this post-colonial hierarchy was a meme that circulated on various Hong Kong Facebook Pages a while back: a white kid crouching on the subway was deemed a “badass,” while a Chinese kid who did the same was labeled a “hobo/peasant.”
I am not saying that all white kids who come to Asia are total jerks. But what is true is that this problematic culture of revering white people in Asia, and letting them get away with even questionable behavior created an environment that encourages young kids, still susceptible to societal views, to become bullies and borderline racists because their skin color allows them to do so – something they could have never gotten away in the West. In other cases, some kids become silent victims because their society tells them the white kids will get away with it anyways.
I am certain that there may also be a simpler explanation to why Asian kids band together. As a minority abroad, Asian students are definitely more comfortable being around folks who share the same background, language, culture, etc. It gives us a sense of home away from home.
But we must also remember that besides the already looming barriers in terms of cultural differences and a wish to bond with those who share similar experiences, the less than favorable image of the “white kids” back home will possibly deter some Asian students from attempting a deep and meaningful friendship with white students in America.
You may be wondering then, why did my best friends in freshmen year end up being predominantly white, even though I grew up in the same system?
I was one of those kids who became best friends with my roommate. Living together and having a similar brand of quirkiness helped, and it quickly made me realize that white people at Brown are very different from those at home. They may not know too much about my culture but they are also not rude about it. They also appreciate the fact I can converse in English fluently, which is very ironic considering one of my greatest issues growing up was being taunted by white kids in Hong Kong for not speaking good enough English. Any negative perceptions of white people I had growing up were quickly erased by how they just appreciated me for who I am.
We all have had our own experiences with race, religion and gender, which without a doubt, shaped the way we view the world. However, these should not be the barriers and limitations to our experiences at Brown and in life, whether it is who we choose to be friends with or who chooses to be friends with us. There is so much more to a person than the things they are born with and the cultures they have experienced.
Next time, don’t ask why I have that many white friends.
We just all happened to like hunting for good food, and cheering loudly for Annalise Keating together while watching “How To Get Away With Murder.”