From the day I was born, like many other little girls, I learned how to be good.
I said Thank you too much, too eagerly and apologized when outcomes were not my fault. I did not complain when I felt sad and I did not complain when I felt mad.
Frankly, there is nothing inherently wrong with the idea of being good. To be good means you’re polite. Kids like you and grownups like you. You dress to impress. You’re invited to exclusive spaces where you pretend you’re part of that world. At the end of the night, you lie on your bed, your cheeks sore from smiling at any and all jokes, but happy that you’re liked. More importantly, you’re happy that you’re welcomed back.
When you’re a good girl, American society rewards you, but when you’re a good Asian girl, American society forgets you and Asian society doesn’t want anything to do with you.
I was lucky though.
Being third generation, my family was supposedly past all this “good girl, bad girl” bullshit. In my family, there were girls who went to school and graduated with the highest honors. They rebelled against bound feet and ran away from arranged marriages. They lived longer than their husbands. They fixed their own floors and car engines. Anyone who has met the girls in my family knows that they’re a force to be reckoned with because while most stand at an average of 5 feet, they demand to be seen and they demand to be heard. In fact, they are so above the “good girl” title that they want to be the “best girl.”
And when you have a family striving to fill the “best girl” role, even “good girl” becomes a low hanging fruit.
As a child, I participated in numerous sports, art classes, summer camps, and tutoring sessions. My mother drove me from practice to practice, our commute taking us all around the city. Every day started at 8AM and ended at 6PM. Excelling was a job within itself.
By twelve, my parents saw that I was no Einstein. Not even close. Unlike my 4.0 younger sister, my GPA hovered around a 2.9 and my grades depended on extra credit and good relationships to get me into high school. When our teacher called for students with honors, 95% of the class stood up while a handful of us sunk low into our seats.
In sports, I lined my participation trophies, medals, and ribbons by the window. Volleyball, basketball, tee-ball, swimming, gymnastics, and soccer. My mom called me the one hit wonder for all the one year commitments.
It took a bit of stumbl
but I eventually found my stride.
I’m sprinting an endless race.
Three. Good girls don’t rest, they stretch.
Two. Good girls jog and they stay focused.
One. Best girls focus and then, they run.
The gun goes off.
My feet are sore, calluses hardened at the touch. My arms limp at the side of my body. My breathing is ragged, hot and there’s tightening in my stomach. My legs, though, keep running and running. They are numb to the pain. They know no end.
In only the past two years have I begun to take breaks and drink water. I’ve made boundaries a priority and worked to keep a solid group of friends around me. There are days I feel lighter and other days where my shoulders sag from the weight.
Still, I must throw my teachings and values against the wall again and again until they’ve been glued and taped again and again. In the mirror, I watch tears stream down my face uncontrollably, allowing my sobs to evolve into hiccups. The pieces shatter onto my beautiful wooden floors like the start of a Picasso.
I’m left searching for pieces under couches and rugs. I crouch down on the floor and a large “Ugh” escapes my lips. Sometimes, they’re so small that they blend in. It may take at least a week to vacuum this mess.
As I glue the pieces together to form this new version of my own values, I see that good girl holds nothing. It’s practically useless.
Best girl, too, holds nothing.
Reluctantly, both are tossed in the trash.
My arm stretches behind the couch towards the corner of the room. Covered in dust and other questionable particles is a small, oddly shaped piece. It’s been ignored for years. The piece belongs in the middle. I squint and hold it up to the light.
And it holds the world.
Born and raised in San Francisco, Katie Quan (she/her) is a third generation Chinese American. She is an illustrator, comic artist, educator, and artivist. As a descendent of a paper, doctor, grocery store owner, and librarian, her life work centers around Asian American narratives, moments, and spaces. Her comic web series, GenerAsian, has been exhibited at SF Zinefest, Kearny Street Workshop, and Chinese Historical Society of America. She founded REALSOUL, a curriculum-based organization, aimed to make Asian American history accessible and intersectional.