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Davis, California

Saturday, October 16, 2021

The Middle: Putting on the mask of ignorance

MATTHEW E. SEMRAU / COURTESY
MATTHEW E. SEMRAU / COURTESY

 

Since I was 10, my mom taught me an important lesson: to be conservative and stay safe. At that age, 4 foot 10 in height and still missing my front left tooth, I simply thought that meant not talking to strangers and going straight home after school. I come from an immigrant family and have gone to school in three different countries before finally moving to California. But I’ve never thought of myself as a permanent resident of these places, so I never took the time to integrate myself to whatever culture I lived in.

In eighth grade, three Caucasian teachers from my junior high made fun of my lunch dumplings. They called them “smelly” and “awful,” and their comments made me afraid to eat dumplings for the next five years. Every time I saw them, I felt like an inferior person because I didn’t adjust to the PB and J culture. Yet at the same time, I was content with being the one who didn’t fit in. Going back to what my mom had said: stay safe. And It’s much safer to be in the middle: between a culture I grew up in and a culture that I am living in. I’d be within society’s expectations of my ignorance. Because I am not a true American, society holds me to a different kind of standard. It became my comfort zone. I wasn’t asked to be super opinionated because I knew at the end of the day, my stance didn’t matter.

A couple weeks ago, my housemates were discussing the replacement of a media center with a new cultural center. I innocuously blurted out, “Wow, we have that many students who require an entirely new facility built for them?” My housemates gave me incredulous looks, and I suddenly felt like the oxygen got sucked out of the room. I didn’t mean this question to be offensive. I simply was wondering if there’s one cultural center built for one group, why should other groups be excluded?

Thinking back, I felt like that was my natural reaction because I’ve never been exposed to the full extent of California’s cultural diversity. Though it’s prevalent, I never bothered getting myself directly involved with it because it’s been ingrained in me that I should just keep to myself. Over the years, this reserved behavior led to a protective mechanism that could be even labeled as ignorance. It’s not within my own expectations to understand this Californian macrocosm because I don’t truly believe this is my home. Now that I’m an adult, I’m fully aware that I should be well-educated of my surroundings, but it’s not exactly my default to care for something that may not directly affect me. As long as I can happily wear this mask of ignorance, I don’t have to live up to any expectations. I’m simply just passing by another culture.

You can reach SANDY CHEN at sichen@ucdavis.edu

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