This is the story of who I am.
Once upon an adolescence, I partook in an esoteric, largely misunderstood, yet life-changing extracurricular known as high school speech and debate.
For anyone who doesn’t know or hasn’t heard of speech and debate, it’s an activity and a national organization grounded in the ambitious task of giving teenagers a platform to speak their mind, perform, and cultivate their public speaking abilities. The actual specifics differ from school to school, but in my high school we did almost everything the National Speech and Debate Association recognized as a competitive event. There are the interpretation events: Dramatic, Humorous, Duo, Oral, and Programmed Oral, which are about performing published works by other authors. There are the platform events: Original Oratory, Informative Speaking, and Extemporaneous Speaking, which focus on delivering student-written content on anything from racism to barbecue grills to the nuclear program in Iran. Then there are the debate events: Public Forum, Lincoln-Douglas, Policy, and Congressional Debate. I’m leaving out a few, but for the most part these were the complete package.
When I was in the eleventh grade, I had just begun to come into my own as an actor. My first musical, a middle-school production of Annie in which I played the (uncharacteristically short) Oliver Warbucks, was a huge hit amongst parents and peers, and the subsequent years followed my journey from mediocrity to slightly less embarrassing mediocrity. Naturally, on the dawn of my fourth year as an actor, I felt ready to use my newfound skills to deliver high-stakes, powerful performances in speech and debate. So, for the first time, I decided to pick a piece and compete an interpretation event.
I started with oral interpretation. Oral interpretation is a category in which a student chooses a work of prose and a work (or works) of poetry, usually thematically linked, and performs them while “reading” the pieces out of a six-inch black binder. In hindsight, absurd, but I would be lying if I denied still sometimes pretending to hold a tiny binder in my right hand as I have casual conversations. With hunger and gusto, I began browsing bookstores and websites for potential performance-worthy pieces.
The moment I started looking for pieces was also the moment I was confronted with a predicament I had essentially been repressing for the past fifteen years.
A friend of mine, an alumnus who had graduated two years before, reached out to me when he heard about my search and referred me to a short story he had read. It was published in a science-fiction literary magazine, and only recently became available online. I checked it out—it was called The Paper Menagerie, and it was written by author Ken Liu. Like me, Liu is an Asian-American, the difference being he was born in China and I was not. Similarly, the protagonist in his short story is an Asian-American in a more literal sense, born to a Chinese mother and an American father. At first, these concentric worlds represented, to me, just the necessity of performing something audiences could associate with my face. However, I later came to realize there was a chord it struck that was probably the driving force behind any success I achieved.
In the story, a young boy named Jack grows up in the suburbs of Connecticut with a Chinese face but an American identity. After suffering teasing and abuse from classmates for his love of his mother’s origami and paper animals, he begins to resent his “otherness”. He ignores his mother’s efforts to connect him with Chinese culture, decides to learn French, exclusively eat American, and stops talking to her altogether. Years later, after his mother dies of cancer, he finds a note written to him from her in Chinese. It tells him of the hardship she went through growing up in the years of China’s cultural revolution, her search for a home in America, finally finding purpose in her son, only to have everything she’s ever worked for tossed resentfully right back in her face. The story ends with Jack wallowing in guilt and resolving to belatedly reconnect with the part of him he had deliberately sabotaged.
Perfect, I thought. What an emotionally manipulative piece with a satisfying ending that teaches us all an important lesson. The irony went right over my head.
The first person I showed my newfound piece to was my mother, who by the end was struggling to hold back sobs. I had only seen my mom cry twice in my life – the first time was when I had inadvertently told a family friend that the present we got them for a Christmas party was actually a re-gift. This was the second. She told me the piece was really impactful, and told me I had done a great job, which I took to be a good sign. It was, for competition—I ended up winning my first tournament in prose reading. But what she probably didn’t tell me was how much of herself she had seen in the mother, and how much of me she had seen in Jack.
A month later, another alumnus reached out to me and offered me a program of poetry that would complement The Paper Menagerie. This set of five poems – Alex Dang’s “What Kind of Asian are You”, George Yamazawa (and collaborators)’s “Unforgettable”, Sam Lai’s “Chinatown”, Franny Choi’s “All Look Same”, and Troy Osaki’s “Legacy” – was specifically constructed around the idea of the Asian-American identity, how an Asian face is so much more than the collective stereotypes surrounding it. Again, a piece that resonated with me long before I understood its implications on myself.
I performed these two pieces to relative competitive success, but the moment that left the most profound impact on me was not actually in performance.
One Tuesday night practice, the task finally presented itself to give my poetry program a title that wraps up its message. There were a few cliché suspects tossed out, such as “What Kind of Asian Are You” (which I eventually settled on), “Asian-American” (far too vague), and “Asian in America” (upsettingly reminiscent of Fresh Off the Boat). Then, someone came up with a title I had never considered, a concept that they had seen used before in another poetry piece regarding racial identity.
My Name is Richard Peng.
Nothing could have summed it up better. With a first name like Richard, the epitome of white America, and a last name like Peng, which screamed otherness, I was by definition the chimera that these poets were struggling to contain in one body. I didn’t choose that title, because it felt derivative considering the inspiration came from another speech piece, but I never let the idea depart from my memory.
Like Jack, and like many Asian-American and minority children, I was bullied at a young age because of my race. It didn’t strike me as bullying at the time– I wasn’t punched or kicked, I didn’t go home with bruises on my face every day. I was ashamed to even call it bullying until I had the chance to reflect on the emotional toll it eventually took on me. Mostly, I was called names, intentionally provoked, usually on the bus when there was no adult supervision but often right under the noses of teachers too. One instance I’ll always remember is when a girl began calling me worthless at lunch one day, citing my face and my Asianness as the culprit. I told her I would throw an animal cracker at her if she didn’t stop, and she immediately jumped out of her seat, reporting me to the teacher for making such an audacious threat. I ended up getting a serious warning from the teacher that day, permanently reminding me to stand down.
An essential part of a Chinese upbringing is having respect. This stems partly from the ideology of figures such as Confucius, who remind us to respect our family, our peers, and our elders above all. However, in the midst of all these teachings, perhaps the most important respect is glossed over, which is respect for yourself. Self-respect isn’t an issue for many American families– there is an implied entitlement in the American dream, and children are raised to recognize their own value. This is purely from a cultural standpoint, of course; the game changes when you factor in family dynamics and wealth. But for me, this cultural disparity made all the difference in the world. Instead of defending myself when I was put down, I shrunk into myself and quietly took the abuse. Over time, it began to color how I saw people like me.
I was playing a game freshman year of high school with a few friends of mine, where you go around a circle and ask each other questions. Unsurprisingly, someone eventually asked, “Who do you want to date?” Everyone began chattering. “Well, I think Emily–”, “I know who Johnny would want to–”, “I’ve always wanted to ask Amelia–”, etc. The first thought that came to my mind? “Nobody Asian”. I said it out loud, and the room went quiet. There was a discomfort settling in the space as it dawned on me that I had said something so fundamentally more messed-up than anything anyone else could have conjured. Finally, a good friend of mine broke the tension by giving me a quizzical look and simply saying, “Richard, what?”.
“Richard, what?” is the same reaction I got when I performed my poetry for the first time to my coach. “Is that really how you feel?” Almost instinctively, I recoiled with, “No! No, I’m not angry. It’s just a piece.”
I wasn’t angry; that part was true. I was and continue to be immensely thankful for every opportunity that came my way because of the privileges I enjoy as an American citizen. My life would be very, very different had I grown up in China with the rest of my extended family. But I did resent the lack of flexibility the world I lived in created for someone like me. I didn’t want to just be known as “that kid who’s good at math”, or “that Asian kid”, and have people refer to me as “ching chong” instead of my name. I didn’t want Jackie Chan to be the only role model I was allowed to have, or to play exclusively in the school orchestra. In fact, every move I made could be seen as deliberately thwarting the stereotypes associated with my Asianness. I preferred to excel in English as opposed to math and science. I played drums in the school band. I took up choir and theater and hung out almost exclusively with white kids. I was so insecure and set in my mental hierarchy that I even sometimes looked down on my own sisters, who appeared so much more comfortable living the lives our parents intended for us.
I had come to associate my Chinese-ness with hate, ugliness, and a condemnation to failure. Exactly the way Jack did in The Paper Menagerie. I even believed for the longest time that I would never find someone who loves me because this simple feature would stand in the way. I still have trouble shaking the thought now.
Something changed, however, when I got to college.
I will never forget a presentation on diversity my freshman orientation at Princeton University. Our speaker, a prominent and incredibly inspiring African-American man whose name I cannot remember, to my own detriment, played a game where students stood if they identified with certain labels he projected on a screen. This was not the first time I had done this activity, so I knew what to expect. Man, woman, heterosexual, homosexual, African-American, Latino, Asian, international, liberal, conservative, rich, poor, and so on. I watched as group after group of students literally stood up unabashedly for who they were. I stood too, but tentatively. Then, a category I hadn’t expected was called– stand up if you are in an interracial relationship. Instinctively, I got to my feet. I was in a long-distance relationship with a girl from high school, and she was not Asian. That was all there was to it for me. But as I looked around at the fifty-or-so standing kids out of a class of thirteen-hundred, something amazing happened. There was a huge, spontaneous round of applause. Students cheered for what this signified, the ability not just to look past race and cross unprecedented borders, but also to fully accept and love each other for our differences. They loved that I was loved, that my face and skin color did not stand in the way of the fundamental recognition of my humanity. I was stunned.
I was also fortunate to encounter and befriend an arsenal of people who saw value in my heritage. Friends who dedicated themselves to learning mandarin, who were endlessly fascinated by Chinese culture, politics and literature, and who envied me for the resources I possessed as a member of both the American and the Chinese community. Crazy as it sounds, I was beginning to get out-Chinese’d by people who didn’t even start learning the language until that year! These same friends also insisted on the acquisition of whole plethora of languages, and recognized the value of cultural proficiency and fluency. I became pretty indignant, probably for the wrong reasons, but ultimately began to hone my mandarin skills again.
Having spent a lifetime apologizing for my race, it felt startling heretical to suddenly be proud of it. In an act of reconciliation, I began reaching out to my parents in an attempt to understand their upbringing. I also began taking action to create spaces within the communities I had joined, like theater, that focused on tolerating and welcoming different identities instead of institutionally homogenizing all of its members. I began seeing myself as a liaison between two worlds instead of being forced to choose one at the cost of the other. It was, and still is, a huge breath of fresh air.
That leads us to now.
I wish I could end this essay with a satisfying conclusion that ties everything up with a neat little ribbon and proves I’ve grown, but I can’t. I’m barely out of my teens, and the scars of my youth are still ever-present in the way I carry myself and regard Asianness. But what I can say is the world is changing, and so is the way that I think about who I am: a shining example of the power of both nature and nurture. I am my parents’ son, and I can never forget the ancestors that bestowed my family name upon me. But I am also who I make myself to be, which is embodied by the name I call myself. This is true of everyone, regardless of race. It may have only been a recent epiphany, but I am immensely grateful that, unlike Jack, I did not wait until it was too late to come to terms with my identity.
My name is Richard Peng.