Once upon a time, when I was 7 years old, I left Taiwan where I was born and went to live in Saudi Arabia.
Back in the 1970s there were many foreigners from all over the world, helping build the country’s infrastructure. Unlike the British and American immigrants, we didn’t live in a compound. Instead, we lived in apartments, and later, rented houses with generous yard space.
Even when difference was all around me, at this age, I wasn’t looking and judging these as differences that would somehow affect my life. The language barrier was immediate, as was climate and culture, but I didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about it. To a 7 year old, Riyadh was just a new place, a new environment. As long as I was with my family, I held no judgment or feelings toward where I lived.
For the first few months my parents didn’t know where to send my brother and me to school. They first sent us to a local school, where boys and girls are segregated. I went to an all-girl school and my brother an all-boy school.
At the school was my first taste of “being a stranger” and specifically, “being a foreigner.” Some of the girls were curious and would chase after me or poked at my arm as if I was a strange creature. I suppose I was. They may never have seen an Asian person before. Back in the 1970s Saudi Arabia was still sheltered from the world. I didn’t feel strange until I was made to feel strange, by the natives.
My parents decided that the local school wasn’t ideal. For one, I could not read Arabic, and a major part of the school curriculum was recitation of the Koran. I was unable to memorize passages of a book I did not understand in a language I had not yet learned. My parents then sent me to an international school. My parents heard that the British school was more academically rigorous than the American international school, and sent me to the British school.
Even though we were all immigrants, these British children and me, it was immediately apparent that they were white, and I — and other children who came from Kenya or Sri Lanka or Lebanon — were not.
The language barrier was still there, I was learning English as a second language. I was teased by the British children for the shape of my eyes and the sound of my native tongue… But how would they know that I should sound like “Ching Chang Chong” when I barely said a word to any of them?
Still. This paled against the bullying I experienced at the hands of my own kind — two Taiwanese children: a sister and brother our age.
We knew these Taiwanese kids. My father doted on them when he missed us before we came to Saudi Arabia to join him. These kids were taught by their parents that I was their academic competitor and therefore their enemy.
I learned that I could be made fun of because of my race, but it was harder for me to reconcile how these two Taiwanese kids could bully their own kind. They were smart about it, too: they didn’t do their own dirty work, instead, they recruited two Italian children to chase us all over the playground and call us names while they stood smiling at the far side of the playground.
[And no, of course we didn't tell our parents about what these Taiwanese kids were doing. Honestly, I think all the parents knew, these kids made themselves leaders given the small size of the Taiwanese community.]
Soon our families stopped the polite facade. This other family tried to get us deported because they felt that my mother starting up her own food business was a shame to the Taiwanese community — you know, she shouldn’t be working like a laborer of the lower/poverty class; instead she should be doing higher-level labor work sewing clothes like these children’s mother.
Well, my parents needed to pay for our expensive British education and my mom did what she knew how to do. She “kicked ass” with her business the first few years and people were envious.
I learned that envy and jealousy are incredible motivators to inflict psychological harm among children.
I never felt strange, or a stranger
Until I was made to feel strange by natives
But that didn’t really bother me as much as
How I was made to feel by the very strangers who looked like me.