Facing My Childhood Bully

By Rupinder Singh

This post was originally published on The Mash-Up Americans. The Mash-Up Americans explores culture, race, and identity in America and what makes us who we are. Check out The Mash-Up Americans website, subscribe to their podcast, and sign up for their weekly newsletter.

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Compassion is contagious.

Every day we celebrate the raucous diversity that is Mash-Up America. One of our greatest joys is meeting people whose stories are foreign to us, whose cultures and traditions we know nothing about, and learning from them and sharing our own.But it takes strength to celebrate our differences, and sometimes, being mashy can be tough, especially for a kid. Bullying is real. Even years later, you can find yourself vulnerable to the same anger and fear you felt as a child. Our Sikh-American Mash-Up Rupinder Singh shares with us what happened when he faced his childhood nemesis, and the choice he made. [Editor’s note: It was a good one.Oh, and have you seen Rupinder’s best tips for turning anger into hope

Without warning, a routine trip to the bank threw me back to my childhood, and dropped me at an emotional crossroads.

Growing up, I was smaller than most boys my age. I was shy, introverted, and a bit nerdy. As a child of immigrants, I was constantly playing catch up with my peers in terms of understanding western culture, having to figure out for myself what that even was. I had brown skin, long hair, and wore a patka, a Sikh article of faith worn by children to cover our hair. Needless to say, I stood out.

The author and his patka.

The author and his patka.

My appearance didn’t do me a lot of favors at school. I dreaded walking the hallways, because that was when other students, at best, would call me all kinds of names as I passed by them, or at worst, would grab at my turban and sometimes even try to pull it off.  Given my size, I would try to silently ignore these kids instead of confront them, but that wasn’t entirely successful. I could only block so many hands, and my resolve could only be so strong in the face of constant harassment. I remember one day in the ninth grade when, in the midst of going through this torment in the middle of a class, I simply broke down and wept in front of my tormentors, who then lost interest in continuing to toy with their prey.

Fast forward to me as a grown man, walking into the bank for a simple errand. When it was my turn in line, I approached the teller. The instant I saw his name tag, I knew who he was. Let’s call him “Joe.”

I had a flashback to Joe grabbing my patka, and laughing. I remembered the shame and powerlessness I felt when he mocked me in front of my classmates. Joe never let an opportunity to bully me pass him by. As a kid, I was resigned to the fact that he would humiliate me any time he got a chance. And he did, every time. In fact, on his last day in our school, he made it a point to find me so he could grab my turban one last time. Shaming me was that important to him.

Now I stood in front of him in the bank, and he was serving me. I was taller than him. I wore a man’s full turban now, a beard and mustache.

As he helped me with my transaction, I could feel myself filling with anger.  I looked him straight in the eye.

I wanted to say something, but I also was curious to see if he would recognize me and say something first. Would he apologize for what he did to me as a teen? Would he laugh it off? Perhaps he thought so little of what he did to that boy so many years ago, that he wouldn’t even remember.  The thought made me more furious, and as Joe began stamping deposit slips, I felt my temperature rising.

I wanted Joe to know that despite how demeaned and humiliated I felt because of his actions back in school, I stood before him that day with my identity intact.  He, and all the others like him, did not break me.

And I admit: There was also a part of me that wanted to dare him to touch my turban now. I wanted him to try so I could grab him and pull him over the counter by the collar, and humiliate him as he did to me all those many years.

However, as the minutes flew by, I did nothing and said nothing.  I politely completed my transaction with him and left. I could have caused a confrontation, but what would that have even meant to him? I would have been the crazy guy with a turban who attacked him randomly in the bank and had to be thrown out by security. And what would it have meant to me? It would have changed nothing about our past. Even as I write this now, I can feel that anger welling up inside me. Joe’s bullying is probably not something he’s needed to come to terms with in his life, but for me, that damage was done, and indeed, it clearly lingers.

Whenever I see a Sikh child in this country, especially one wearing a patka as I did, I wonder about what that child might be going through in school. Is there a Joe in that child’s life? Are they facing what I did when I was their age? It’s enough to dampen my eyes.

Selfie-ing and campaigning against bullying in the nation’s capitol.

Selfie-ing and campaigning against bullying in the nation’s capitol.

And yet, I’m actually thankful that I went through the bullying. When as a child, I felt threatened to go to school, faced all kinds of abuse and yet still maintained my religious articles of faith without question, I know that today there is nothing I can’t face. Those experiences have made me a stronger, more confident Sikh, and a stronger, more compassionate man.

I can’t change the past. But I’ve learned to accept my own experiences and be constructive. I free myself from my anger by advocating for anti-bullying policies and laws, educating teachers and school administrators about Sikh children and the issues we face in their schools, and mentoring Sikh youth. I have found allies in these issues, and I hope that many find an ally in me. In some ways, my anger has empowered me to do what I couldn’t as a child, and has given me hope that together, we’re creating a safer, kinder world for our kids.

Love wins. We promise.

This post was originally published on The Mash-Up Americans. The Mash-Up Americans explores culture, race, and identity in America and what makes us who we are. Check out The Mash-Up Americans website, subscribe to their podcast, and sign up for their weekly newsletter.

A Good Hmong Man

By Kham Moua

In 2013, I was asked to be the keynote speaker at a Hmong college student leadership conference. It was an incredible opportunity, especially considering that I was only 23 and in the audience were state senators and individuals who have dedicated their lives to helping my community. Below is my speech in full. Of course, I ad-libbed during the actual speech and made it a bit funnier, but none-the-less, my speech: 

What makes a good Hmong man? As the oldest son of six children, I am expected to be the pillar of my family’s heritage and lineage and name. My role includes finishing college, obtaining a job, marrying a Hmong woman (or failing that, any woman), having children, and becoming the unifying chain that would hold my family together and bond us with other families within the Moua clan.

However, at 16, I came to the realization that I do not neatly fit this Hmong ideal. At 16, I realized that I am gay. But I didn’t know how conflicting my gay and my Hmong identities were.

During the 2004 presidential elections, I heard my mother scream at the television and say (in Hmong) “that gays are more vile and disgusting than dogs and should never be allowed to get married.” This was the first time I can remember anyone talking about lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer people.

At the time, I didn’t know how to react. But her words stayed with me through my adolescence. On the day that I admitted my sexuality to myself, her statement was the first thought that popped into my head. The next thought was how I had failed as a son. I locked myself in my room, closed all the curtains, turned off all the lights, and cried. And I felt like she was right, I felt like I was no better than a dog.

I am gay. It is something that I cannot change about myself. I can never marry a woman nor have children the way my parents envisioned. I felt that instead of upholding my parents’ ideal of a perfect Hmong man, I had unknowingly tarnished my family’s name, lineage, and heritage; unwillingly disregarded cultural norms; and unintentionally broken traditional practices. I thought that no matter what I did, nor how hard I tried, I would never gain my parents’, my relatives’ or my community’s acknowledgment or respect. I felt that to them, I would never succeed. I was different, a failure. I was no good.

At 17, I realized that I could not change my sexuality, and I hated myself. I thought myself better dead. And because of that, I tried to kill myself by drinking a bottle of Pine-Sol. But I couldn’t go through with it. I was scared. Although I hated who I was, I didn’t want to die. After sitting in my bathroom for two hours, holding that toxic bottle in my hands and contemplating suicide, I promised myself that I would live my life. I wanted to show them that different can be good – that despite the fact that I am gay, I would be successful.

I chose to live – in spite of my differences, in spite of my family, my community, and my society telling me that who I am may be wrong.

When I was 20 – my aunt married her partner of seven years. My aunt is a lesbian, and she wed. My extended family was furious. They conducted a witch hunt to out all the gays and lesbians. And it was during this time that my cousin decided to tell her parents about me – the only one who was remotely comfortable with his or her identity. In her words, she thought that by disclosing my sexuality to her parents, my family would come to better understand, accept, and love the other potentially queer people in our family. She martyred me when I was only beginning to come to terms with my identity.

I found out about this when my aunt called me at work and said, “Kham, your parents know about you.” My heart plummeted as soon as I heard her utter those words. I couldn’t continue the rest of my shift. I was so scared – all my fears suddenly came to fruition. I thought that I would lose my family. I thought that I would be disowned – alone with nowhere to go.

At the time,  I was working as an intern in the morning and as a community organizer during the afternoon and early evenings. For a week, I hid from parents. I lived out of my car and showered at my friend’s house when I could find the time. Eventually, my brother told me that my parents were leaving for a camping trip with my other aunts and uncles. As soon as I heard that they had left, I went home, packed everything I owned and left for my apartment at college.

When I came back home, my parents had returned. They stayed up all night to talk with me. The first thing my dad said to me was, “Kham, do you know what’s worse than murder? Being gay. At least when you kill someone, you serve your time. You can change. But gay? What do you do about that?” He said “Do you know how embarrassed we were when we found out one of our children is gay? We thought it was your brother. But to find out that it was you, our oldest, that was the most the most disappointing part.”

My dad said that my mother wanted to throw me out. She had piled up all my clothes and belongings, but he stopped her. I didn’t sleep for a week because every night, I would come home from work and argue, scream, and yell  at my mother. And my dad, he would just sit on the couch and wait it out. Every night, a relative stopped by to lecture me on the consequences of my identity. My uncles, my aunts, even my grandmother stopped by to tell me that I – the oldest; the son that my parents put all their hopes on; the grandson and the nephew that my family thought would be most successful; the only one that everyone knew was gay – was the biggest disappoint to my family.

My mother said, “Kham, you are perfect in every way. You are smart; you do well in school; you are handsome. But you are gay. And I will never accept you. You will never be successful to me or your family. If you become a lawyer, I will try my hardest to make sure no one visits your practice. I will tell everyone what a shame you are and ruin you. When I die, I do not want you at my funeral.”

I didn’t know how to reply because I while I was grappling with my sexuality, I was also finally beginning to accept my heritage. For two years, I spent hours working in my community in order to learn about my identity and about people. I wanted to help my community, but more importantly, I wanted my mom and my dad to be proud of me, to love me despite the fact that I am gay. I made the Dean’s every semester in college because I wanted to prove that I could be successful, that I would be the most established man in my extended family in spite of my sexuality, that I could be good. And in that moment, in that conversation with her, I realized how fruitless all my actions had been. All I wanted to do was to prove to my parents I was worth something, and in the end, I was still seen as worthless – less than a dog, less than dirt, less than the gum on the bottom of their shoes.

A couple of weeks later, my parents took me to a shaman to fix me. I went because my dad pleaded to me. He said, “Son, if you let us do whatever we feel necessary, and if nothing works, then we have no choice but to accept you as you are. Let us do this.” So I went. The shaman had requested a bottle of water. When I got there, he took the water, waved it over a fire, and gave it back to me.

“Have you ever tossed a pebble in a body of water?” He asked me. I nodded, of course. “When you did that, a water spirit entered your body. And its the reason why you’re like this.” He then instructed to wash my face with the water every morning and every evening in order to cleanse myself. It didn’t work. But I pretended it did. My parents wanted to take me to temple – $300 for a bottle of my water from the shaman and $1000 to be fixed at the Buddhist temple. And that number would just keep increasing. I didn’t want to be a financial burden, so I lied.

Three years later, and I finally understand. My parents were just as trapped in the idea of good and bad as I was – this was just as much a process for my mom and my dad as it was for me. My parents had given up everything to come to the United States. My dad was an orphan, all he had was my mother, my siblings, and me. In us lived all his hopes and his dreams – we were his American dream. I, his oldest son, was where placed all those ideals. My mom came from an affluent family and lost her title, her wealth, and her sister in the war. Her upbringing had taught her to place her future on her children, on me. And when they realized that I could not have children the way that our culture desired, that I would not marry a woman, and that I would never become a full fledged man in my community – they lost all those hopes and all those dreams.

I may never be accepted as a good person by my parents but that’s okay. I’ve come to learn that Hmong culture is fluid – it changes with the youth. Our culture looks different now than it did 50 years ago, a hundred 100 years ago even. In fact, you might even be able to argue that it looks different now that it did just last year. I may not good man by the standards that my parents know, but I am a good Hmong man by the definition set forth by myself, by my peers, and by my generation.

Hmong culture has changed as we have migrated and moved. Our language has adopted phrases, idioms, and sounds originating from the mountains of China to the hills of Laos and the plains of the American Midwest. Our culture, like our community, is dynamic, not static. And we should not be afraid to call out the wrongs in our culture, in our tradition, and in our stories. We are not be defined solely by our culture; rather, our culture is reflection of who we are. And it should liberate us from oppression, not act as a chain around our necks.

I’ve been taught my entire life that being a Hmong man meant living a certain way, acting a certain way, loving a certain way. And how I should have been has chained me for a long time, made me hate myself for a long time. I was caught in an idea of what it meant to be good, even when I realized that I didn’t fit that definition – I ached to be recognized as such by my parents and their perception of good.

I am now 23 years old, and I am a proud, gay, Hmong man. My parents are not entirely okay with my sexuality. But they have come terms with the fact that I am gay. Sometimes, my mom will unknowingly mention my sexuality or one of my “friends,” before she quickly recognizes her language and corrects herself. Its a process, and the three of us are going through it together.

I am no longer the pillar of my family, nor am I the adhesive for my family within our clan. I cannot change my sexuality, nor would I change my sexuality if given the chance. It is as much a part of me as my name, my lineage, and my heritage. What makes me different is also what has given me perspective and a lens for social justice. Through my experiences as a gay Hmong man, I have witnessed and experienced firsthand the way that rigid cultural norms have led to depression, heartache, and the brink of suicide for many Hmong youth.

This is what lead me to social justice, to question what I have always believed to be right, and to demand and fight for change within our community, to make sure that we and those that come after us have a brighter future.

Don’t be afraid to be different. Don’t be afraid to challenge the status quo, to question what we’ve been taught growing up – who to be, how to be, what to be.

So what makes a good Hmong man? Well, a good Hmong man, a good Hmong person is whatever we decide.

Kham Moua is Senior Policy and Communications Manager of OCA – Asian Pacific American Advocates, a civil rights organization dedicated to advancing the social, political, and economic well-being of Asian Pacific Americans. OCA is one of the supporters of #ActToChange. 

This blog post is part of ActToChange.org’s features of voices against bullying. “Act To Change” is a public awareness campaign to address bullying, including in the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community. For more information, visit www.ActToChange.org.

The Power of Sharing Asian LGBTQ Anti-Bullying Stories

This #SpiritDay, we welcome GLAAD as a new supporter of #ActToChange AND STAND TOGETHER AGAINST BULLYING IN LGBTQ AND AAPI COMMUNITIES!

This post was originally posted on glaad.org.  

By Holly Wang, GLAAD Programs Intern

amazin“As a transracial adoptee, I suffered a double layer of bullying because I was Asian, especially as an Asian in an all-white background….Being constantly bullied as a child into young adulthood didn’t give me the confidence to dare to stand out and be different as it stripped away my sense of self. Without a mirror image of myself in the media, I had to create my own narrative as a child. As an adult, this helped me stand in my own truth: to be brave and unapologetically Asian.”

Amazin LeThi, the founder of the Amazin LeThi Foundation which is an international charity organization to end LGBTQ bullying and HIV/AIDS discrimination in the Asian community, wrote in her blog posted on Act To Change. As the first Asian Athlete Ally Ambassador and a fearless fighter for anti-bullying in Asian LGBTQ community, LeThi has come a long way and realized how Asians stereotypes portrayed in media, the lack of exposure of Asians in media, and the short of support systems and a mirror image deepen the stigma for Asian LGBTQ community.

“Asian youth are bullied the most out of all ethnic groups, yet nobody talks about it. In the U.S., I’ve never felt so invisible, because we (Asians) are portrayed as this non-threatening, invisible model minority community that ‘nothing have ever happened to us,’” LeThi said when asked about what makes Asians anti-bullying issues so important and urgent. The invisibility of Asian community in day-to-day conversations and those in politics and media frustrated LeThi. Therefore, she decided to collaborate with the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPIs). When Act To Change, a public awareness campaign working to address AAPI community bullying problems, was launched last year in October, she came on board as a supporting partner to share her stories with oppressed Asians.

“What lots of people don’t realize is that if you’re Asian LGBTQ, you’re suffered from racism and homophobia,” she said. These two layers, sexuality and racial minority, put Asian under double pressures. For example, Asian men are desexualized and demasculinized, while Asian women are seen as subservient. Then there comes the more known stereotypes people have on LGBTQ community. When one multiply those discriminations, Asian LGBTQ people are very susceptible to be bullied. What’s more? “Because of the racial stereotype”, LeThi said, “Asian LGBTQ are the victims of bullying within the LGBTQ community. They are not fully respected nor treated equally even in the community they belong to.”

“When I think of Act To Change and the issue of bullying in the Asian community, talking about coming out is not enough. We need to talk about the intersection as well because it’s so much about our culture, who we are as a person, how the media portrays Asian people, and how people see us.” — Amazin LeThi

When talking about other Asian cultures, LeThi said, “Because we are brought up to think about what kind of job we are going to have and if it is going to be a good job at the end of life to be able to support the family, the idea of coming out obviously brings on a lot of shame and pressure from our own community that encourages people to conform.” Because she sees Asians are conformists and such picture can be changed, LeThi wants to use more digital platforms to share the stories of Asians who can be the mirror images for those suffering from bullying or their intersectional identities. “We need to speak up,” as LeThi mentioned more than 3 times during the interview.

The problem that causes bullying can also be seen in Asian athlete community. Many Asians youth love to go into sports. However, due to the stereotype that “Asians are weak,” many have been discouraged and more so for Asian LGBTQ. LeThi said that we need more Asian athletes to come out or, at the very least, to publicly become an ally. “We need the support from both inside and outside of the Asian community,” she said.

Amazin LeThi has never given up, and she is still forging ahead. With Act To Change and Amazin LeThi Foundation, Asian LGBTQ’s voices have started to be heard. Nevertheless, we still have a long way to go. Go to Act To change (https://ActToChange.org/#about) and Amazin LeThi Foundation (http://www.amazinlethifoundation.org/) to learn about how to become an ally for and contribute to Asian LGBTQ community.

Youth Voice: Growing Up Muslim in America

This post was originally published on StopBullying.gov.

“During the 23 years that my family has lived in America, my parents and I never faced verbal abuse or harassment until recently. I remember my dad coming home angry one day. When I asked about what happened, he responded with a pain in his voice that a lady asked him if he was Muslim. He said yes to the woman, only to see her start ranting about how Muslims are invading and destroying this country. She insulted him about his faith, nationality, and immigrant background. My dad tried to be respectful to the woman and tell her how this country is his family’s home. He also told her he immigrated here to give his daughter the best chance at life. But it was clear that these words meant nothing to her.

“What disturbs me even more is how the current climate is affecting young children. As an educator, it hurts me to hear a sixth grade student say that she didn’t think she could be the first American Muslim president because she thought too many people hated Muslims. I believe children and adolescents are constantly accepting the information they hear and read through various forms of media.

“Educators need to support their Muslim students in a time when people are judging and blaming the Muslim community. My favorite teachers were always those who respected my Muslim identity and encouraged open discussions in the classroom. As an educator, my students deserve a classroom culture where their diverse experiences and backgrounds are valued. This is exactly the kind of mindset that needs to extend beyond the classroom doors and into other spaces.”

To learn more about what schools and communities can do to help protect children from different ethnicities and faiths against bullying, please visit StopBullying.gov Who is at Risk and Consideration for Specific Groups sections. Additionally, you may want to read the AAPI Bullying Prevention Task Force Report, developed by the Asian American and Pacific Islander Bullying Prevention Task Force.

This blog post is part of ActToChange.org’s features of voices against bullying. “Act To Change” is a public awareness campaign to address bullying, including in the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community. For more information, visit www.ActToChange.org.

#ActToChange During Bullying Prevention Awareness Month

Among those who have taken the #ActToChange pledge are: Forrest Wheeler, actor (ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat); Hudson Yang, actor (ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat); Albert Tsai, actor (ABC’s Dr. Ken); Parvesh Cheena, actor/comedian (My Crazy Ex-Girlfriend); Jon Jon Briones, actor/singer (Miss Saigon); Ai Goeku Cheung, actor/singer (Miss Saigon); Deedee Magno Hall, actor/singer (Steven Universe, Miss Saigon); DAN aka DAN, alternative hip hop artist; The Filharmonic, a capella sensation (Pitch Perfect 2 and NBC’s Sing Off); Jennie Kwan, actor/singer (Avenue Q, Avatar: The Last Airbender); Megan Lee, actor/singer (Nickelodeon’s Make it Pop); The Poreotics (MTV’s America’s Best Dance Crew); AJ Rafael, singer/songwriter, YouTube star; SETI X, rapper; Beau Sia, Tony Award-winning spoken word artist (Def Poetry Jam); Sam Futerman, actor/filmmaker (Twinsters); Perry & Danielle, singing duo; Minji Chang, Kollaboration Executive Director/actor; Mike Bow, actor (The Maze Runner, Comfort); Matt Almodiel, singer; and Lance Lim, actor (Independence Day, School of Rock).

 

This week during Bullying Prevention Awareness Month, join #ActToChange and take a stand against bullying!

One year ago, the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, in partnership with the Sikh Coalition and the Coalition of Asian Pacifics in Entertainment (CAPE), launched the #ActToChange public awareness campaign to address bullying, including in the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community. Backed by a diverse coalition of now more than 60 supporters including media platforms and national organizations, #ActToChange aims to empower AAPI youth, educators, and communities with information and tools to address and prevent bullying. Check out ActToChange.org, which features video and music empowerment playlists, translated resources, an organizing toolkit, and more!

This week, join us in spreading the word about #ActToChange:

 

(1) Take the pledge against bullying

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(2) And share this special-edition badge on social media using #ActToChange

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Join the movement by visiting ActToChange.org.