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When I was six years old, a pretty blue butterfly died on my school’s playground. I remember watching my friends kneel down and pray for it, without having any idea myself of what to do. I had never prayed before. I had never been taught to. So, I did what any conforming six-year-old would do: I knelt down, too. It was the first time I felt different from everyone else.
I grew up Buddhist in a Christian-focused school system. And while I now know that most of the people around me are mature enough (or don’t really care enough) not to treat me differently because of my religion, from kindergarten to almost the end of elementary school, it was something that I was scared to tell others. It was this enormous secret that no one but me could know. I thought people would make fun of me or think I was weird. For so many years, my religion was something I was ashamed about. Everyone seemed similar to me, and yet I was different.
One time in elementary school, one of my teachers wanted to compare her church’s traditions to our church’s traditions, so she asked which of us went to church. Almost every hand in the classroom went up — so I raised my hand, too. Had I ever gone to church a single day in my life? No. But I wanted to fit in; I wanted to be liked. And some part of me told myself that I couldn’t be liked if I was viewed as different.
“So what?” you might be thinking. “You felt a bit different from your peers. That’s not that big of a deal. Everyone feels that way. You still had your parents who understood you, or who could at least listen to you. Right?” But that wasn’t the case either. My parents are from Japan, where Buddhism is much more widespread. Where Christianity isn’t the norm. Therefore, the way they felt about our religion greatly differed from how I felt.
Nothing showed this to me more clearly than what happened during the month of December when I was in first grade. One of my teachers had us write down what our families do for the holidays and then read it aloud to the class. Almost all my classmates said that they went to church, or that they at least prayed. So I wrote down that I went to church, too. How could I tell the truth and say that I didn’t go to church? That I didn’t pray? That while I celebrated Christmas, it wasn’t for any religious reason — it was just for fun? I still remember when my parents saw my paper as I brought it home. They just laughed and asked me why I had lied.
How could I tell them that I was ashamed? That I was afraid of being ridiculed? How could they understand? They had both grown up in the majority, while I hadn’t. How could they understand that, while being Buddhist wasn’t a big deal to them, it definitely was to me?
To be honest, I never thought I’d ever tell anyone about all of this. It’s so far in the past now; it felt, back then, like something I’d always keep to myself. But when my friend asked me if I would like to write about my experiences, I jumped at the chance. Because I want to get this out there. I want to find people who went through what I did, and I want others to realize how growing up as a minority, like Buddhist, feels.
But, most importantly, I want adults to realize that if you create a society where one religion or one race — or one anything, really — is highlighted, you’re creating an isolating environment. That by focusing on one thing, you’re teaching some young people to believe that they’re not normal. You’re teaching them to be ashamed of themselves because of how they were born. Or how they were raised. And, honestly? That’s one of the worst emotions you can feel.
This story about growing up Buddhist in Kentucky was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.
Karen Matsui is a freshman at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School in Lexington, Kentucky.