“You are so different from other _______!”

has been one of the most common compliments I receive. The blank could be anything like women, Asians, Chinese, immigrants, nerds… I used to thrive on this compliment—of course I am not one of THOSE women who are shallow and stupid and soft and don’t know how to drive or THOSE Chinese who spend 70 (sex-less) hours a week in the lab while others go out and have fun. But you know what, I AM a Chinese woman. Back in China, I had never been singled out for being different from other Chinese (or more precisely, Han) people (well, I cannot think of a place where I am not singled out for being a SPECIAL, i.e. independent, intelligent, rational, strong…, woman—hurray!). Turns out only in a world where I am inferior does it matter whether I am unique. And my uniqueness only counts positively when I also conform to other not so unique expectations—I have to be pretty and thin and sexy to be a good bitch/weirdo, otherwise, I am just a bitch/weirdo (which I claimed in the first draft of this blog is fine by me but in reality, may make me quite uneasy and I doubt in that case the opening sentence of this blog would have contained the word “compliment”). (I can probably discuss my internal contradiction of transgressing certain [middle-class] social norms while conforming to others in another blog, so let’s focus on the point of being “different” in this one.)

Sociologically, this probably isn’t that surprising: we are all measured against standards set up to fit the dominant groups and hierarchy is most effectively maintained when members of disadvantaged groups internalize such standards and strive to single themselves out as exceptional individuals (and of course the power to define which exceptional individuals are the worthy ones still lies beyond their control). My awareness to this tendency is probably a result of years of training in questioning the status quo and numerous conversations with friends who are equally if not more critical. I write these “unsurprising” facts down because however much I theorize them, they continue to exist and disturb me every day. My struggle in this case lies in how I and other “unique” individuals who have gained a place in a system that is not designed for us maintain our places without losing ourselves to the game. Or is it just a fantasy to stay and not be co-opted and become one of the token Asian faces (or worse, one of those who trample on those underneath her to get up)? Is my concern over livelihood only a coward excuse for not giving up my privileges and embracing the real fight? How should I guide my students from disadvantaged backgrounds without either making them into parts of a monstrous machine that chews up people like them or leading them into a bloody battleground where they are doomed to lose?

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