In the fall term of my junior year in college, I studied abroad through a language-intensive program in Nanjing, China. I opted to stay with a host family not only to further strengthen my language skills but also because I wanted to experience what it might have been like had I grown up in China. I was adopted at ten-months-old from the province of Jiangxi and grew up in the New England area. During my semester abroad, I was able to get a snapshot of societal expectations for living as a young Chinese woman in Nanjing.
Having spent a lot of time enjoying the summer weather prior to starting the fall semester, when my host family first saw me, my skin was darker than usual. I remember standing in the kitchen with my host grandmother and her commenting on my skin tone. What she said translated to “dark skin is unbecoming.” The word choice of unbecoming was telling because it implied that having darker skin, especially as a young woman, was considered less desirable and less attractive to society as a whole. I wonder what my host grandmother would have thought had I responded that looking sun-kissed or tan was actually a very desirable trait in the US. This moment was one of many where I saw a contrast between the American culture I grew up in and the current culture I was experiencing.
Over the next few months, I noticed trends and statements that further supported my host grandmother’s comment. Often while walking around the city, I would see locals carrying an umbrella. The purpose of the umbrella was not to be shielded from the rain, but rather to prevent exposure from the sun that would darken the skin. Every time I saw a young woman carrying an umbrella on a sunny day, I thought back to the sentiment my host grandmother shared with me at the beginning of the semester.
The term colorism, referring to the prejudice that favors people with lighter skin over those with darker skin, was a term coined in the early 1980s. However, it is important to note that this phenomenon existed long before Alice Walker coined the term. Given I had grown up in predominantly white environments in New England, the time I most frequently experienced colorism was when living abroad in Nanjing. For example, on nearly a daily basis, I was asked, “你是韩国人吗?/Are you Korean?” or where my “故乡/homeland” was. I felt that due to my relatively darker complexion and not looking like the majority Han Chinese group—in addition to not speaking fluent Mandarin—my ethnic identity was consistently scrutinized. No matter my answer to the question, oftentimes, the inquisitor left the conversation in disbelief since my answer of “American” or “adopted” challenged their way of thinking of what an American student looked like or the stigma adoption carries. Only when I told them I was from the province of Jiangxi did they partially accept the conversation.
Reflecting on this repeated scenario, I cannot help but think of the familiar microaggression many Asian Americans face as the perpetual foreigner in the US when asked, “No, where are you really from?” Colorism is not a phenomenon limited to Nanjing but rather exists throughout the world as a multi-layered entity that is intertwined with other isms such as class, gender, language, and race. As conversations about racism and anti-racism become more prevalent amongst family, friends, and in the community at large, it is imperative to also address the role colorism plays within the context of experiences of prejudice for people of color.
Overachiever Magazine was started by Rehana Paul in October of 2018 to give a platform to all Asian women, non-binary people, and other gender minorities.
Our name is poking fun at the stereotype that all Asians are overachievers, especially Asian women, non-binary people, and other gender minorities. It’s also in recognition of all of us who have had no choice but to be overachievers: managing societal expectations, family obligations, and educational opportunities, all while fighting the patriarchy.
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