The Yellow Uncle Tom

Under the hot Californian sun, I sweated profusely… I had worn long sleeves and pants under the orders of my mom, who told me it would probably protect me from the sun. Keyword: Probably. I thought about the week and how exhausting it had been. Coming from an Asian family, it was mandatory for any vacation to include lots and lots of hiking and even more pictures. In an ocean of white, we stuck out like a sore thumb.

As if out of nowhere, a tall-figured man walked past us, spitting in our direction before leaving us behind. I was immediately jolted out of my daydreaming as I processed what had just happened. Everyone in my family stopped, silently watching as the man walked out of sight. My brother was the first to break the silence, asking if the man had just spit at us. Immediately, I said no, insisting the man had only done so coincidentally. My brother tells me that I’m nothing but a “Yellow Uncle Tom” and we start to argue before my parents finally drag us apart. For the rest of the trip home, I can’t help but feel resentment at my brother for accusing me of being an “Uncle Tom”. Was that really me? All I did was refuse to admit someone spat at us. I felt hollow and conflicted. On one hand, I was ashamed at having forsaken my Asian heritage. On the other, this was simply how I was raised.

At a young age, I was taught to live and let live, to keep my head down, to not cause trouble, all of which are hallmarks of Asian culture. In elementary school, whenever I was teased about reading during recess, I laughed it off. In middle school, whenever I was teased for bringing out my big clumsy thermos for lunch, I laughed it off. Even in high school, whenever anyone made a dog-eating or small-eyed joke, I laughed it off. Why? Because I truly believed if I allowed such harassment to continue, at some point it had to stop. Surely, they would appreciate me one day if I let them laugh at me. And so I hoped and hoped, day by day, laughing at myself in hopes that they would come to love me.

In retrospect, this was nothing but plain ignorance on my end. Blinded by the teachings of my culture, I actively participated in the defacing of my own heritage, never realizing the true damage it had done to me. I didn’t snap out of my delusions until I returned from my 1 week trip to LA.

During my first week back, I was met with a barrage of harassing questions. Some, obviously malicious:
“Mr. Yuan, how would you respond to the allegations that you have the bat virus?”
“Yo, shouldn’t you be deported if you eat dogs?”
Others, less malicious, but in a way, even more hurtful:
“You went hiking? I always thought you were more of an indoors kind of person.”
“Honestly I thought you’d be practicing piano all break”

Ironically, the least assuming comment became the one that would hurt me the most; when one of my “friends” asked me in precalculus if I had gone to China over break. Awkwardly, I laughed, thinking at the ludicrousy of such a statement. Everyone knew I came back from LA, and all the planes travelling between China and the United States were banned. Thinking it was nothing but a joke, I played along and agreed, saying China was especially beautiful this time of year. Everyone in class laughed and I even felt proud of having everyone like me, if only for a class period.

Throughout the rest of the week, I was overjoyed as suddenly everyone wanted to talk to me, asking me about my trip. The entire time, I was ecstatic. It seemed that my “hard work” had finally paid off, everyone accepted me now.

I was riding this high all the way until lunch, when suddenly, the hall monitor tells me to meet the principal in her office. I’m confused as I know I’m a good student who never causes trouble in my class. When I finally sit down in the principal’s office, a feeling of realization and doom settles within me. She starts talking about the severity of the Coronavirus, how jokes during this time should not be taken lightly, how I could be suspended for playing such a vicious prank.

I am stunned.

I stammer that it isn’t my fault, that I was just trying to fit in and be funny. This seems to anger the principal even more. She lets me off with a harsh warning, but calls my parents and keeps a permanent record of the incident. The rest of the day, I feel sick. I barely pay attention, and when I finally get home, I am once again punished by my parents, banished to my room without any access to technology. The next few days I contemplate my life and where I went wrong. I eventually fell into a deep depression.

While talking to my brother, he tells me all about the struggles of Asian Americans centuries ago, and the oppression they had to face. At the time, they were only trying to survive, and took the harsh treatment without complaint. Now, he tells me it is time to change. Eventually, I mature as a person and realize that this kind of treatment is unacceptable. I pick up journalism as a way to highlight API issues, and I get more and more involved in volunteering at events and protests. In this way, I finally learn what it truly means to be myself. To be strong, to have a voice, but most importantly, to remain true to my identity. I am not a Yellow Uncle Tom, I am a proud Asian American.

DISCLAIMER: The content of this essay does not represent the views of the contest organizer CAPA NOVA.
3 thoughts on “The Yellow Uncle Tom”
  1. Evan,

    “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” What others make fun of you and your heritage makes you more pride of yourself and your heritage. Life is full of paradox. The other people’s shallow makes you deep. Be yourself, not be a self in other people’s eyes.


  2. The narrative of this essay makes it very relatable and makes readers feel as though they share this experience. Very well written.

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