Growing up in New Orleans East with a Cuban mother and Chinese father, Shawn Gee learned early on to let rude comments roll off his back.
“People would say, ‘Get Ling-Ling,’ or something like that when we would play basketball, and you just brush it off. You clique up a lot [in grade school] because…we were kind of expecting to be made fun of,” he reflects. “You think nothing of it until you’re older and realize, hey, that was pretty rough.”
The gregarious Mr. Gee, band director at Northwestern Middle School, says that questions like “Where are you from,” get tiring after a while–especially since his answer is Slidell, Louisiana. “When approaching anything about race or ethnicity, there’s nothing wrong with being curious – just try not to make someone feel like an exhibit at a museum or a petting zoo,” he said with a laugh. “Be respectful and try to build a relationship before jumping in. Approach them like you would any other person and ask normal conversation starters.”
Gee grew up feeling more in touch with his Cuban side than his Chinese side, and his parents had completely different ways of showing their love. While his mom and her side of the family is very outwardly affectionate with kissing on both cheeks and big hugs, his dad was “uncomfortable with affection,” mostly showing his love for his family through his elaborate cooking. Gee’s parents met at his dad’s Chinese restaurant in New Orleans, and many of his earliest memories are set there.
While Gee, who is often mistaken for being Filipino, says he’s “so American it hurts!” he can’t help but laugh at all of the examples in his childhood that played into stereotypes of Asian Americans, including helping clean at the restaurant at an early age. “My dad tried for a long time to get me into karate, and used to give me Rosetta Stone when I was little to make me learn Cantonese,” he laughs. “And they were big on good grades and studying. They were new to the country and they knew that school was the ticket to become something,” he says.
Asian Americans are still targets of hate, dealing with discrimination and racism on a daily basis, particularly after Covid, Gee says, though thankfully he hasn’t experienced it personally in his adult life. “AAPI is a smaller population here in Zachary. People that don’t know much about other cultures… they don’t have to understand it, but they should be respectful of it,” Gee says.