Wednesday, August 4, 2021

Local Voices: Growing Up Vietnamese-Chinese in Coronado; 2017 Grad Says Ethnic Studies Key to Fighting Racism

This article is part of a series that focuses on different viewpoints and race relations in Coronado in the wake of the George Floyd tragedy.

Mia Skelton is her name. She doesn’t sound Chinese, but she is.

Adopted by a white family when she was young, Mia moved to Coronado from North Carolina with her parents when she was in elementary school. Mia says it felt a little weird to grow up in Coronado, which she calls a “white bubble.”

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“It feels strange being one of the only minorities, yet alone Asians, in my friend groups, class, work and activities,” says Mia, who is now a legal studies major at University of La Verne, with a minor in ethnic studies. “In those instances, some Caucasian pals either see you as a ‘token’ Asian, and not in the same light as their other white friends, or equal but not Asian, as in you’re not seen as a person of color whose relationship with white society is just as complex as those who are black and brown.”

Mia at graduation, with her parents.

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Although she says she hasn’t suffered any major racist incidents living on the island, she attributes this to the widely-held stereotype that Asians are a “model minority.”

“My personal experience living here has been fine, probably due to the fact that I’m Vietnamese-Chinese American, and Asians fall into the ‘model minority’ myth,” says Mia. “I have not experienced any overtly racist incidents that my fellow black or brown community members have possibly experienced.”

Even so, Mia says she’s been subjected to some mindless behaviors in regards to her race.

“What I’ve mostly dealt with are ignorant comments by my Caucasian peers at school,” explains Mia. “I’ve had people ask me, ‘where are you really from?’ As if they expect all Asians not to be from the U.S., regardless of the fact that Chinese immigrants came to America in the 1850s.”

Mia as a child at Halloween.

She’s also been questioned about her language, and her last name.

“People have asked me unprompted, ‘why don’t you speak Chinese? Or, why isn’t my last name ‘Ching Chong?’” says Mia.

Not even the Asian teachers at school were safe from these behaviors. Mia recalls one incident where someone anonymously printed out a racist meme, and gave it to one of the Asian teachers.

Luckily, Mia says most offenses were rare.

“(These incidences) mostly occurred because of ignorant, young kids who haven’t stepped off the island and met kids that don’t look like them,” says Mia.

Mia with friends before the Coronado High School Prom.

Somewhat surprising to Mia was that–although there were very few Asian students at her school–she was perpetually confused with another Asian girl by her teachers and peers.

“Throughout my entire school career, there was only one other Asian girl in my class, that had been there as long as I had,” says Mia. “She had darker skin than me and was also taller by a lot (I am 4’11 she is 5’9?ish.) Kids and teachers would often mix our names up, despite the fact that there are so few Asian kids at the school, and that we look literally nothing alike.”

Mia at ChalkWalk with her friends.

Fortunately for Mia, she took delight in studying with two Asian teachers at Coronado High School. In particular, she enjoyed studying with Mr. Hoang, who she names as one of the best teachers she’s ever had.

“It was comforting to see another Vietnamese human being who could share a mutual understanding with me, that we were the only few non-white people around, and understood the biases pushed unto us by society,” explains Mia. “He was such an inspirational teacher, not just because we shared the same face and differences, but because his classes tried to implement the very beginning teachings of ethnic studies, gender studies, and basic philosophy.”

Mia says the Asian-American experience is just as complex and valid as those of its black, brown and native counterparts, but perhaps not always regarded as such. Mia says she found a common ground with her Mexican friends, who seemed to also share unique challenges surrounding their ethnicity.

“I’ve honestly found that my Mexican pals truly understand this strange position we are in,” says Mia. “There is also a strong sense of pride within the Hispanic identity that assures people like me that you don’t need to be white, or pretend to be white to fit into a largely white community.”

From a local standpoint, Mia didn’t find many Asian business owners or coworkers on the island. She says she remembers only one Asian coworker working at a restaurant uptown in Coronado.

The only place she found more than a few Asians was at the Navy exchange and commissary on North Island. Mia’s grandmother—who is Spanish and Filipino—speaks Tagalog, and she always brought Mia with her to the store. Many of the older women who worked there were Filipino, Japanese, and Chinese.

Mia with her parents, sister and grandparents, who live with her.

“Early on, my grandma formed a relationship with these women, speaking Tagalog and gossiping about current affairs,” said Mia. “Fortunately, because I used to go with my grandma to the store, I was able to develop this type of relationship with this community.”

Although Mia was grateful for this interaction, she said it seemed a bit odd that the only time she engaged with other Asians–while living in a white community–was with the Asian women working in grocery stores.

“It’s weird to see ‘your people’ in strictly that manner, but I am thankful for having met and formed relationships with all of these caring women,” says Mia.

Mia believes that racism is a complicated thing, and we need to remember that we are all connected. Especially now, in the wake of the George Floyd tragedy.

“You can’t tackle black oppression without seeing how it’s all interconnected to the historically-perpetuated racial hierarchy theories and tactics pushed onto minorities,” says Mia.

Mia, like many, says she felt a lot of anger in the wake of Floyd’s murder.

“The cycle of injustice has gone on for far too long,” says Mia. “This issue encompasses all people residing in America. We all want justice for those in the black community wrongly accused or even killed by the broken policing and justice system.”

Mia says that, when it comes being a good ally, sometimes it’s best to not jump on Facebook, Snapchat or Instagram to rant. She says we need to let BLM organizations be the loudest voices, and the most heard.

“Pointing and yelling, ‘cops are racists’ will definitely grab media attention and awareness, but this is not enough to instigate a real change,” says Mia. “Change comes with time and tons of effort.”

Mia believes that new legislation will play a major role in ending racism. That, and encouraging more “good-hearted” people—those with a moral obligation to protect the people–to work as police, pro bono lawyers, and public administrators.

“We also need to place a higher value on these positions and pay more, or value more as a society,” says Mia. “We should make (these jobs) desirable and reward those already within those positions that are trying to encourage and implement change.”

Mia also advocates for more ethnic studies requirements or content within English or history courses.

“Ethnic studies is like history for those who were kicked out of the ‘winners’ glorious portraits,” says Mia. “It’s important for kids to see their own, and their friends’ history, reflected directly in school.”

Mia says she herself was filled with pride when she learned new facts about her ancestors in her ethnic studies classes.

“I didn’t even know old Filipino men started the Delano grape strike,” says Mia. “Knowing this instills communal and ancestral pride within me.”

She says its meaningful to read books like No No Boy–which tells the story of a Japanese-American in the aftermath of the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II–as opposed to forgettable footnotes about minorities against a backdrop of white heroes.

“It feels more empowering to…read books like No No Boy, than it is to read a sub-paragraph about how the Chinese washed clothes for miners during the Gold Rush,” says Mia.

She hopes we will see more teachers like Mr. Hoang who will include more engaging texts from authors of color in their coursework.

“It shows us what America looks like, and how the once silent people of our past used to think,” says Mia.

Mia says very it’s important to remember that white people need to know that racism has affected everyone, for a very long time.

“They need to act like allies—not just for the black community—but for all communities, because all communities are a part of their community,” says Mia.

Mia says we need to try to teach one another about topics we may not know much about, or be uncomfortable with. Mia suggests asking for the perspectives of different minorities when it comes to current events.

“For example, if you want to hear an Asian American’s perspective on COVID attacks, or anti-Chinese sentiments from the Hong Kong protests, maybe say something along the lines of, ‘this event has been happening, what’s your opinion? Or, I heard people have been doing this. Have you experienced any of it?’” suggests Mia. “Listening is the most important aspect out of all of this.”

Speaking of COVID-19, Mia says she has definitely felt a sense of unease in the wake of the outbreak, and has worried about public backlash because of her ethnicity.

“I’ve been afraid,” admits Mia.

Mia’s sister, who works in Coronado, experienced a racist encounter first-hand.

“She heard a customer mumbling something along the lines of, ‘f–king Chinese bring their corona,’ behind a Korean woman while he was waiting in line,” says Mia. “My sister stepped up and told him what he was saying was racist and rude.”

Mia says it’s up to all of us to do better, and support all of those that encompass our community, whether they are Asian, Native American, African American or Latin.

“We have to support all of our neighbors,” says Mia. “The Asian community needs to wake up and fight against all types of oppression, because it affects us all the same.”

These days, Mia is busy pursuing her degree, and hopes to explore a legal career.

“I hope to go into a career path that will help people who don’t understand the law, or can’t easily help themselves,” says Mia. “Food justice, animal rights, civil rights and criminal law are areas of interest I want to explore.”

Mia says she is grateful to have grown up in Coronado, and attended a high school that offers so many educational opportunities. She says she loves Spiro’s Gyros, surfing, paddle boarding, walking her dog on the beach, playing the ukulele and cooking.

“I also love my family, as they fully support me in all my endeavors, and my parents love both of their adopted children, regardless of what they look like,” says Mia. “I am also grateful for how ‘woke’ they are, and pro-BLM, as ‘boomers’ are seen to typically not be.”

When all is said and done, Mia believes that– as a collective people–we can work together to end racism.

“It won’t be an instantaneous solution, but we can definitely work on uplifting one another,” says Mia. “Raising up others will raise society as a whole.”

Mia walking her dog at Moro Bay.

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Christine Van Tuyl
Christine was born and raised in Texas, but moved to Coronado with her family as a teen in 1993. Although initially horrified by surfers, flannels and skateboards, she ultimately grew to love all things So-Cal. A graduate of UCSD, Christine got her first writing job on the KUSI ten o’clock news while simultaneously juggling a reporter position at the San Diego Community News Group. She worked as a public relations professional, a book editor, real estate professional, and a freelance writer before eventually succumbing to motherhood in 2008.A decade later, Christine resurfaced to start the Island Girl Blog, a Coronado lifestyle blog. In addition, she writes a monthly page for Crown City Magazine. Christine loves hanging out with her husband, Ian, and their two spirited daughters, Holland and Marley, who attend Village Elementary and Coronado Middle School. When she’s not working, you’ll find her practicing yoga, spilling coffee at school drop off, meeting friends for sushi, or sailing the Bay with her family and English Bulldog, Moshi. Have news to share? Send tips, story ideas or letters to the editor to:
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