“Yell-oh Girls!” break the silence


Wong and Chung show off copies of their book at a recent reading at the Penn Bookstore.

Photo by Candace diCarlo

Growing up, Olivia Chung (C’03) felt unattractive because her eyes lacked the fold which many Caucasians have. At school, kids teased her, calling her names like “ching-chong” while pulling their eyes upward.

Reflecting back, Chung said she felt alone in dealing with these issues. She didn’t know that other Asian-American girls, like Alaina Wong (C’02), also shared her insecurities.

“I remember as a kid just feeling a confused hurt because it hurt to be humiliated for something that I couldn’t change [and] control. It should have been something that I embraced, but everyone else is making fun of you so you become ashamed of it,” said Chung. And it didn’t help that her mother suggested eye surgery as a solution.

Years later Chung and Wong have come to terms with their self-doubts. But more than that, they want to break the silence on what it means to be an Asian-American girl. Both have contributed pieces to Vickie Nam’s anthology, “Yell-oh Girls!: Emerging Voices Explore Culture, Identity, and Growing Up Asian American.” The book, which gathers stories from 68 Asian-American girls between the ages of 14 and 21 from across the nation, tackles the issues of growing up Asian-American and female.

Similar to Chung, Wong recalls being fixated with a particular idea of beauty which she knew she could never achieve given her natural hair and eye coloring. She shares this in “China Dolls,” a semi-autobiographical short story.

“When you’re little [and] you get Barbie dolls, you want the most popular ones—the one with blond hair and blue eyes, the ones you see on TV. My mom tried to get me one that looked Asian. She wanted to instill in me that it wasn’t all about being blond and blue eyes and Caucasian. So when I got the Asian doll, I was kind of disappointed,” said Wong.

Wong, who answered Nam’s call for submissions last summer, said she doesn’t mind laying bare her personal experiences. “I think a lot of people are reluctant to talk directly about themselves and to share so much of themselves. [But] I think it’s important to write stories that people can relate to and connect to something in someone else. In that way, I don’t mind sharing parts of myself,” she said.

Chung agrees. She said the process of both writing and reading “Yell-oh Girls!” built solidarity. In her short story “Finding My Eyedentity,” Chung isn’t afraid to make what once was personal, public. The piece documents the conflicts she had with her mom over getting the eye surgery. Yet the story hasn’t damaged their relationship. If anything, a new understanding has been reached.

“She still jokingly asks me, ‘Do you want to get the surgery done?’ I’m like, ‘No!’ [But] she’s supportive. She sees the point to it [the story]. She knows that I don’t need that to be self-confident,” said Chung.

While the anthology aims to give Asian-American females a larger voice, Chung said it’s a book everyone should read. The two short stories she and Wong have contributed, along with her untitled spoken-word poem and Chung’s piece on activism titled “Tip of the Iceberg: Letter to the Director,” also seek a larger audience.

Chung said, “Yell-oh Girls!” is a lesson in cultural sensitivity that can benefit everyone.

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Originally published on October 11, 2001