Growing up, there were not many other Asian families in the town I lived in, and so I easily stood out anytime I walked out of the house. All the teachers knew me because I was one of five Chinese students in the elementary school I went to, and all the other students knew my name. It was weird, to say the least, when a person I didn’t know would come up to me and greet me by my name. It took forever for my five-year-old brain to realize that I hadn’t forgotten people I met and that these were strangers coming up to me.
One huge disadvantage to having so few Chinese families in town was that other people could not distinguish us apart from each other. My friend and I were a prime example of this. Every time in class, whenever our teachers would call on either one of us, it was as if they were trying to identify a twin in a pair of identical ones. It didn’t really matter to me whenever our names were switched—in fact, I got used to it after some time—but it did take a toll on our friendship.
You see, this friend (I’ll refer to her as HK from now on) bears quite a resemblance to me, not only in appearance but in traits too. Chubby and short but also stubborn and smart. We were always friendly to each other, but we could only tolerate each other’s existence for a given amount of time, due to our obvious differences. We were similar, yes, but whenever we had our differences, those differences were the complete opposite of each other. She focused more on herself in conversation and in her actions while I spent more time on altruistic goals, helping my sisters or enjoying time with my friends. She was pure Chinese while I was an eighth Malay, a fact she pointed out whenever she criticized my Mandarin.
Our tolerance only further shortened when even our parents began comparing us. Love-hate, that’s what her and my relationship is like, even to this day. We’re both trying to outdo each other, never letting the other win at anything, but we both lend a listening ear whenever the other needs comfort. Once the hour’s up, though, we both can’t stand each other.
All that talk we’re given as kids to be kind to one another, that talk was overridden by a competiveness I only feel around her. And in a conversation I had with her, HK also admitted to the same fault. Though we feel guilty about it, we can’t help it. Whether it’s the drilled-in “Be better than everyone else” speech from our parents or just an innate desire to stand out and to not be just another Chinese girl, we both just can’t move on past this childish instinct.
Despite it all, I still call her my twin, my estranged twin and a mirror of things I strive to be and a mirror of things I strive not to be. She’s the standard I hold myself to, and sometimes I wonder just how many people compare us and just how many times they do. Do they see two Chinese-American girls drowning in a culture our parents throw on us? Or two faceless girls who don’t belong in their world?