My parents were thrilled when I decided to attend UC Berkeley.
“You won’t have to deal with this,” my father said, pushing up his nose with one finger. I raised an eyebrow.
“White people looking down on you.”
But when I looked at the ethnic make-up of the incoming graduate class, I cringed. At 42%, Asians were by far the dominant ethnic group. But that was the last thing I wanted. I didn’t want to go all the way to America to hang out with other Asians.
When I got to Berkeley, Asian people were everywhere. My roommate was a 5th generation Chinese American whose great grandfather had been in San Francisco since the gold rush. At freshman orientation, I counted more than a dozen Asian-related clubs. I signed up for a few, studiously avoiding the Singapore Malaysian Student Association, and met a cute Taiwanese American boy, let’s call him D, at a Haas Business School booth. He was from Southern California, which I learned was “Socal”, and the only person at the booth interested in talking to me. He invited me to join an event they were holding a few days later.
The event was a mixer for incoming freshmen to meet older business majors, and the room was full of confident, good-looking Asians who all seemed to already know each other. I swallowed and summoned my courage to introduce myself.
“Hi, I’m W, a freshman from Singapore.”
They smiled, shook my hand, then moved on. There was another awkward looking girl in the room, wearing round glasses and a plaid shirt. “EEKs”, I thought to myself immediately. EEKs was the word we used for students in the Electrical Engineering & Computer Science program, also known as the path to a six-figure Silicon Valley job and consequently one of the most elite engineering programs in the US.
“She’s so fobby.” I turned to see Miss California glancing at Miss Eeks. The California girl, I had come to realise, had long straight hair, sun-kissed skin, and lots of eyeliner. Miss Eeks had none of the above, and neither did I.
“What’s fobby?” I asked D when he came by later.
“Oh, it’s just, you know.” D avoided my eyes. “You know, like FOB?”
I shook my head. He hesitated, but I asked him again.
“When the Vietnamese first came, they arrived in boats. So people called them the boat people.”
“Yeah, so that’s what it means.”
Somehow, I didn’t think that was all. I decided to ask my roommate, E.
“It means you’re uncool.”
She sighed. Then she began describing the people on our floor. “You know Y and W? They’re FOBs. Fresh off the Boat.”
“Because they came here as kids. They weren’t born here.”
“And you’re cool because you were?”
“No, that’s not what I mean. I mean, some people think that way. You know, to distinguish themselves from new immigrants.”
“And how are they different?”
“Well, they think they’re more American.”
I thought about Y and W. I didn’t think they were cool either, after all, they were EEKs. But it was fun hanging out with them. We liked to eat instant ramen late at night and although their room was full of posters of Britney Spears and other blonde singers, they weren’t averse to listening to my Jay Chou CDs. And when Y and W’s parents brought them noodles and fried dumplings (which I learned were called “pot stickers”). Was this the reason other Asian Americans looked down on them? Didn’t that mean they looked down on me too?
That’s when the realisation hit me. The other Asian kids at the event didn’t want to hang out with me not because I wasn’t cool enough, but because I reminded them of their Asian-ness. The part of their identity they hated most.
I reminded them that no matter how American they felt inside, to most Americans, they would look no different from someone like myself, a Singaporean Chinese girl who had just arrived in America. That no matter how hard they tried, there would always be Americans who thought they looked Un-American.
And the more they realised that, the more they tried to differentiate themselves, to erect barriers from FOBs like myself, Y and W, who made them feel ashamed of their skin colour.
“So, do you think I’m FOB?” I asked D later over AOL messenger. He took a long time to reply.
I stared at his reply. Then I closed the chat screen.