Your Story Here: Friday Morning at the P.O.

One thing’s for certain: Mawrters have a lot to say. This issue features four alumnae/i voices from the ’60s to the present decade.

“Ni hao.”

These were the first words I heard inside the post office. They came from a man standing at a table as I walked toward the middle of the post office floor. It was about 7:50 a.m. on a Friday.  I was heading toward a large mailbox to drop off a package.

“How dare I?” I thought for a few seconds before replying.

When I finally composed a response, I was eerily calm.

“You shouldn’t say that. You sound racist.”

Looking incredulous, as if my reply had come from outer space, he protested, “Why are you so upset?”

I said, “Everybody here speaks English. A ‘good morning’ would have been fine. How would you like it if someone said ‘Hola’ to you and you aren’t a Spanish-speaking person?”

After the encounter, I realized—as an afterthought—that he was trying to be friendly. I’m sure he thought he was being nice, but I couldn’t erase his blatant ignorance from my mind. Why should he assume I am of Chinese descent? Why didn’t he greet me in English as he did with the gentleman who entered the post office before me?

This was just one of many encounters I’ve faced since my move to Newark, New Jersey. Prejudice and discrimination appeared almost every day—usually from males of all ages—and the comments and catcalls hurt every time. Recently, I decided I should speak up politely. If I wasn’t going to, who would?

Some phrases I heard this year:  “Asian people are really smart.”  “Ching chong.”  “Hola, chica.”

Sometimes, it would just be stares as soon as I stepped outside my apartment. Stares on the way to work. Stares on my way to the grocery store. Stares walking to the public library.

My father once told me that I had two strikes I would need to work against: I am female and a Korean-American. He said I would be successful, but it would take a lot more effort. He wished that he could change reality to make things fair, but that is not the world we live in today.

In the beginning of the school year, the comments that stung came from my middle-school students. At the all-male school where I worked, students would randomly ask me if I spoke “Asian” or if I was born in China. They sounded more curious than malicious, and I used their words to initiate a conversation about race and gender. I would politely ask why they asked, and I would throw their responses back on them. Sometimes, I told them what they might say instead or explain what their phrases meant. Other times, the students would ask me what they should say instead or why it was wrong. Race should not be ignored, but rather discussed constructively to break down barriers of judgment or assumptions about other cultures.

I fought every day to make sure my students understood how their words related to current events such as Ferguson. Hopefully, I left a lasting impression. It is okay to ask questions, but know what the words mean when you say them. I teach them to respect a person no matter their race or gender.

I contemplated for years whether speaking up is worth my time. Now, when I do, I feel a wave of relief. I resolve the situation immediately instead of holding the hurt inside and bottling it up only to have it explode later. Though admittedly a little over the top, my protest this morning was necessary because those past encounters rushed out and overwhelmed this man’s words.

Would I repeat my actions again? Yes, indeed I would.

Alisha Park originally hails from Cambridge, Mass. At Bryn Mawr, she lived in only two dorms, Denbigh and Erdman Hall. The year she graduated, she worked as an AmeriCorps Teaching Fellow with Citizen Schools in Newark, NJ. 

All alumnae/i—undergraduate and graduate alike—are invited to submit essays to Being Bryn Mawr, a column that will reflect the broad range of experiences typical of a Mawrter’s life. Check out the submission guidelines.

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