noun: a group or member of a group that is perceived as different, foreign, strange, etc:
Prejudice comes from fear of the other.
verb: to perceive or treat (a group or member of a group) as different, foreign, strange, etc.
--"other". Dictionary.com Unabridged. Random House, Inc. 28 Jun. 2017.<Dictionary.com http://www.dictionary.com/browse/other>.
(AKA, THAT KID)
Reasons people are othered: race, gender, color, sexual orientation, religion, politics, socio-economics, appearance (weight, height, development/lack of development, etc), clothing, alcoholic parents, disabilities, speech impediments, intelligence/lack of intelligence...no real reason at all.
GOOD reasons people are othered: ZERO.
There's a warmth and kindness--a heart--to all of Charlene Chua's illustrations. She's an amazing Canadian-based illustrator, represented by Tracy Marchini at BookEnds Literary and has quite an impressive resume. But more than that, she's a woman I'm willing to bet her younger self would be proud to have become. And she did it without losing any of the sensitivity and intelligence that her childhood peers missed out on. I'm honored to have Charlene as a guest.
KC: When did kids (and/or adults) make you feel negatively different?
Charlene: I think for most of my early life, I felt that I didn't quite fit in. I didn't really like playing with other kids; I remember that from when I was back in kindergarten. I preferred trying to help the teachers in the class instead. I don't really recall but I don't think I was teased or scolded for it back then. On the other hand, it got kind of lonely. I wasn't interested in games and activities with other kids, and so I ended up playing by myself a lot. It eventually bothered me as I got older, but back then, it was ok, just me and my imaginary friends and stories.
Things probably took a turn for the worse as I got a bit older, as we all grew up a bit and started to grasp the concept of personal identity and social hierachy.
KC: What was it that they singled out?
Charlene: Usually my skin color and my hair. I am, technically, of mixed heritage: my mother is Eurasian and my father is Chinese. However, due to the particular structure of Singapore society, I was often classified as Chinese. Chinese girls, at the time, were expected to have smooth, straight black hair, and a light tan on their skin. My hair was always too thick and wavy, and when tied up it never fell into a graceful ponytail. I think I recall it being referred to a horse-tail, or horse brush, or something to that effect.
KC: What were some of the things they said and did to emphasize that (in their opinion) you didn't belong?
Charlene: The other kids would comment on how thick my hair was, and not in a good way. Hairdressers hated me. They'd always say 'why is your hair so thick?' when I went for a haircut, or suggest that I aggressively thin my hair to a more acceptable volume.
Same thing for my skin tone. I was more tanned than the other Chinese girls, yet not quite as tanned as the Malay or Indian (South Asian) girls at my school. My features, being mixed, are somewhat ambiguous as well. But, since my last name was an identifiably Chinese one, I would just be expected to look Chinese. So I'd usually get asked 'why are you so dark (tanned)'. Occasionally, particulary when I took a cab, I would get asked by drivers if I was sure I was not, in fact, Malay or Filipino.
I grew up with these things and it was pretty normal for me, but it did make me hate being 'Chinese'. It was basically reinforced all the way that, paradoxically, I WAS Chinese (nevermind my Eurasian heritage) and at the same time, a bad Chinese (for having awful hair and being too tanned).
KC: What was your initial reaction to being othered?
Charlene: There wasn't much I could do about it really, since it was pretty much institutionalized prejudice. I tried to manage or hide my hair, but I didn't have the resources to really alter it greatly at the time. I never bothered trying to change my skin tone though - all the methods available seemed expensive and dubious (there are numerous skin-lightening treatments in Singapore and, I suspect, the rest of Asia). Besides even if I somehow managed to bleach my skin, my features were still distinctly not-Chinese-enough.
I tried to pretend that it was a small matter and it didn't bother me. But of course it did hurt a lot, and it still does when I think deeply about it. On the plus side, I think that I concentrated on my studies more because of this. I felt that if I didn't have the right looks, I at least would have the right brain, which seemed to be more highly valued in the long run.
KC: Did you have anyone you looked to, a place that helped you get away, or activity that took your mind off the negative things?
Charlene: Books, probably. I remember reading a lot of a choose-your-own-adventure series called Fighting Fantasy (I cheated on all the fights and automatically won them though). I read Roald Dahl novels like Matilda and The B.F.G. I liked stories that took place in different places - didn't matter if it was a fantasy kingdom or London. Anywhere that was not Southeast Asia seemed good to me.
I also liked drawing; I think there was a period where I was obsessively trying to draw horses. There were few books on horses at the library, so I remember collecting pictures of racehorses from the newspapers. That was the only part of the Sports section I ever had any interest in.
Then I started reading comic books, and got really sucked into that for a while. I wanted to write and draw my own stories, and those helped take my mind off the various problems that I was having in my young life.
KC: When did things start to change for you?
Charlene: Things probably started changing for me once I left school and entered the work force. I got to know more people from various backgrounds; some were local and some were from other countries. Some were just starting out in their careers, others were already well-established. While there were new challenges and barriers, there were also new ways to connect with new people, and establish an identity that was not as focused on what ethnicity I was supposed to be.
KC: What is your life like now that you're an adult?
Charlene: I think in general, it's better for me now. But it's also a bit strange sometimes. I grew up feeling like an outsider in my own community, like I was grudgingly accepted as part of the family yet constantly reminded that I didn't fit in. Now I live in Canada, where I will forever be an immigrant (in my opinion... you're never fully integrated into a new culture unless you move when you're still very young). There will always be some form of 'otherness' hanging over my head here. But most days it doesn't feel bad. Canada has been good to me, and people in Toronto and Hamilton have generally been welcoming and accepting. That's not to say I haven't faced racism or sexism here - I have, but my experiences in Canada have been isolated events, rather than an ongoing state of being.
(I would like to clarify that this is my personal experience. I do like Canada a lot, and I think, to its credit, the government and people have tried hard to create an accepting and tolerant environment for Canadians and immigrants alike. Unfortunately, that doesn't mean that discrimination does not exist. Certain groups of people face heavy discrimination here, moreso than back in Singapore.)
I think that I have also had to slowly come to terms with defining myself for myself. Otherness, in a way, is a determination given by other people. Someone else determines that you do not fit in, thus you become the 'other'. However, if one defines their place for themselves, it is impossible to be the 'other' except by choice. (KC interrupting: These are SUCH WISE words, and I totally wanted to high-five Charlene when she articulated them) It takes an extraordinary amount of time and effort to get society to change the way it sees you. It still takes effort, but you can change the way you see yourself more easily.
It is massively hard, I think, for teens to be empowered or to take control over their identity. But perhaps if they can feel like they can reject the identities projected upon them, and not be punished for it, that would be good. It's a huge question really - Who am I? Maybe the key is help kids understand that it takes time to figure that one out, and there aren't any template answers despite what other people may claim.
Thank you, Charlene!
5 Random Facts About Me:
1. I like cats.
2. I don't really like watching TV or movies...
3. But I do like David Attenborough documentaries.
4. People have a hard time figuring out where I'm from when I speak (my accent is, admittedly, strange).
5. I don't wear nice, dressy shoes. They hurt my feet.
My Secret Talent:
Urm... I once was the top Vocalist on the Rockband leaderboard? It's all a lie though because I just hummed my way through the songs instead of singing the real lyrics!
(In my not so humble opinion, this makes Charlene even more of a rockstar.)
What Younger Me Would Tell Adult Me:
'I really hate being here - somone, get me out (of Singapore)!'
What Adult Me Would Tell Younger Me:
Oh boy. I'd tell me wayyyy too many things.
But perhaps in response to the above... 'Hang in there, you'll get out eventually!'
And maybe 'Don't throw away your toys... one day you'll waste a ton of money buying them back off eBay.'
Other Places to Find Me
KidLit411 Interview: http://www.kidlit411.com/2017/09/Kidlit411-Illustrator-Charlene-Chua.html