After I go through how there was never any traffic and how we’d sometimes get freak snowstorms that would result in snow days, I eventually have to decide whether to tackle the inherent quasi-white elephant in the question: growing up Asian-American in Michigan.
Although my memories in the Tri-Cities are generally positive, I also experienced heavy feelings of marginalization. It’s true that almost everyone confronts that period in middle school of desperately wanting to fit in, but this is something different from wearing the latest pair of stylish jeans or feeling popular.
There was that time when a classmate in sixth grade told me during a lesson on ancient civilizations that I must be related to Mayans, because they used stones to flatten their babies’ faces, and I had such a flat face. A year later, a classmate during a lunchtime dispute called me “a good-for-nothing Chinese boy” and told me to “go back to China.”
Kids can say mean things about anything, but perhaps the worst part in those character-defining moments of middle school was looking around and finding nothing in my surroundings that could comfort me.
In hindsight, what the seventh-grade version of me would have appreciated the most was a sense of belonging. The sense of belonging is created with an active awareness that not everyone’s experiences — even in a community as small as ours — are the same as yours.
Creating and supporting programs that promote diversity in our schools, a place where kids spend a significant amount of time, further cultivates this sense of belonging.
The responsibility, however, does not remain solely in our schools. It extends to other areas of our everyday life, like places of worship and local businesses. Even grocery store greeters can do their part.
I wish I could say that, in 2014, West Michigan has changed dramatically. Unfortunately, events in Grand Haven in the past several years show that there remains tremendous work to do.
Let’s start by building a community that appreciates and supports difference.
— By Denny Chan, who grew up in Grand Haven and graduated from Grand Haven High School in 2004. He is also a graduate of the University of Michigan and the University of California, Irvine School of Law. He is writing on behalf of the Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance.