Life Beyond Pale—As Told By Vincent Guan

Life Beyond Pale—As Told By Vincent Guan

We’re privileged to live in such a place as the Bay Area. The different stories one shares amongst each other and this story is no different.

We sat down with Vincent Guan, a native San Franciscan, who recants his life from age 5 until now on being full-blooded Chinese, Albino, and the growings of growing up in a place like San Francisco.


On growing up:

The biggest life lesson I’ve experienced as an Asian American Albino is to be comfortable in my own skin and to have a strong sense of personal identity. In my opinion, my identity consist of my background, my passions, and my dreams.

Early on, my self-identity was shallow and skin-deep. As a child, I have always wished to be “normal,” like the other Chinese boys that I’ve grown up with. I didn’t enjoy the attention I got from strangers. I always had a chip on my shoulder when it came to comments about my hair, my skin tone, the length of my eyelashes, or my favorite: my ethnicity. Hearing other people's comments and opinions about my looks made me feel as if their preconceived notions was what actually defined me and who I should be.

I had yet to realized that my identity was not up to others to define. As I’ve matured and grown, I’ve learned to embrace myself and my albinism. While it is still my defining feature, it is something to be proud of, and there is more to me than my pale features.

On reflecting:

If I had a chance to speak with my younger self, I would tell him to be a better child to my parents. I wish I sympathized with their struggles more, was  more patient with them, and understood the sacrifices they have made for me. I grew up thinking loving parents was exclusively a “white” phenomenon. My mom was the stereotypical “tiger mom”. I was scolded and berated for anything and everything. I remember vividly being three years old and about to go to preschool for the first time. My parents wanted me to be prepared; imagine that, needing to be prepared for preschool. At that point I knew not a lick of English, Chinese being my first and only, language. My parents had the ABC’s, upper and lowercase, taped on the wall in our living room. They wanted me to be able to recite all twenty-six of those colorful letters, but you know... at three years old, I was only interested in TV and my toys.

 Portrait of Vincent Guan

Portrait of Vincent Guan

Because I didn’t want to learn my alphabet, my parents went straight for corporal punishment. My parents had the usual selection of disciplinary tools, from sandals to tv remotes, and the unorthodox miniature American flag. They had the Stars and Stripes on a six inch plastic stick from the Independence Day decorations they sold at Walgreens. The irony went unnoticed by them and me at the time, as I had my bare-ass whipped with the old Red, White, and Blue. I continually  think back to that moment fondly and it is easily one of my favorite stories from my childhood. My childhood was sprinkled with moments like these. They were vividly burned into my brain as being traumatizing, but had also opened windows into my parent’s frame of mind that I can only now come to understand.

Imagine leaving behind a comfortable way of life in your home country where you have everything taken care of, (communism worked for my parents, at least that’s what my dad always said) and moving across the globe to a foreign country, where you didn’t speak the language, didn’t know anyone, and could no longer work a comfortable white collared job. Instead, they worked a blue collared job in San Francisco, where they tried their best to obtain the American Dream by buying a house where they could barely afford.

Now imagine three year old me, their literal blood, sweat, and tears, say no to learning the basics to the language they couldn’t speak well enough to work a better paying job. Put in their shoes I would have done the same, I too have tried to beat the alphabet into the cheeks of my first born, which is totally not acceptable nowadays ahem.

On Compliments:

My favorite compliment had always came from elderly Chinese folks. I love when it when they reaffirm how Chinese I am. Let me explain, I was born here in America, but raised with traditional Chinese values, as do many other children from immigrant families. Many Chinese American kids grow up to embrace their parents’ culture and some turn their backs from the Chinese culture and become “whitewashed”. I noticed an infinite variation of both. I see myself as not only Chinese or an American, but somewhere in-between.

China itself is changing too where more and more young people there are turning their backs to traditional Chinese values, and instead are more worried about material possessions. This is apparent with a lot of the Chinese international students in America who live off of their parents’ fortunes and drive Lambos or ‘Rrari’s. Culturally, Chinese kids are supposed to be conservative and modest.

Being complimented on how it’s apparent my values are traditionally Chinese reaffirms that my parents raised me properly. I’m honoring my poh-poh (grandma) everyday with the way I carry myself. It confirms the identity I chose for myself.  I can thank my poh-poh for my cultural identity.

On Hopes and Dreams:

My hopes and dreams are a mix of Chinese and American influences. Short term, I want to finish school and get my first job in the engineering field. Then I want to spend my first paycheck on a banquet for my family to symbolically show that all my parent’s sacrifices were worth it and to make them proud. I think most children of immigrants strive for this moment. Long term, I hope to buy my parents a home and allow them to retire and enjoy life to the fullest. I wish to pay them back for all they have done for me. Then I’d love to live the American dream of owning house in the suburbs with a big yard so I could grill in the summer, grow my own veggies, and tend to a garden to remember my poh-poh by, who had a huge green thumb. I want to one day have kids, two maybe three. I think I would make an amazing father because. I know all the excuses and lies the way a bad kid would think because I was that terrible kid.

Universally, I dream of a world less dependent on fossil fuels, more equal in rights, and more help for the less fortunate, the typical millennial delusion. (sarcasm)

On Albinism Education:

Growing up I hated being asked about my albinism. I wished I didn’t get the extra attention, and occasionally the comments were rude or people would try to assume something about me. Comments from Chinese people were the worst because they sometimes try to be straight forward, but end up coming off as rude.

Anywhere I would go, people were surprised that I spoke their language and would ask me where I learned to speak so fluently. When I tell them that my parents had taught me, they would ask which one was Chinese, and almost always assumed that it was my mom. The best way to respond to these types of questions, as I’ve learned from countless similar encounters, is to tell them that both my parents were from Kaiping. Kaiping is a city in the Guangzhou province of China and this is often the most satisfactory response I can provide.

In the past if I answered both my parents were Chinese I would be accused of lying, because in their minds, no way could I be telling the truth, my father had to be white; I hated that.

Eventually the attention grew on me and now love pleasantly surprising people with my ability to speak Chinese. I feel no obligation to tell people about myself, but I have learned to enjoy talking about myself more openly and candidly when curious people ask. On the other hand, I take rude comments on the chin and move on.

On meeting others with Albinism:

I’ve only ever met one other person with albinism. We briefly spoke my freshman year in high school and I didn’t have much contact with her the rest of my high school career. I went to a fairly large school with a graduating class of about 2,400 people and without making an effort to stay in touch it seemed like we went to different schools.

Simultaneously, it irked me that another Albino Asian attended the same school as me.  To me, until that point that was my niche, being the only albino what made me unique and stood out. And not being the only albino student at my school actually forced me to further develop myself and leave my comfort zone. This helped me realized that I wanted to become a more accountable person in my community. I wanted to give people a reason to be interested in me outside of me being the first albino person they have met.

After going through many hardships of growing up albino, I am actually very interested in potentially learning more about other albino’s experiences and would love to share my story with them as well.

On Relationships and Love:

Albinism has been a factor in all my relationships regardless of it being romantic or not. Physical attraction is always the first stage of any romantic relationship. Though, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

In high school, I have always wondered if I was handsome enough to attract girls. I used to see my uniqueness as disadvantage because I didn’t feel like I fit in and I desperately wanted to. But now I see my unique looks as a strength and embrace it. I am dealt my hand, and it’s up to me to play the cards I see fit.

Social media had definitely played a role in what is considered beauty and I most definitely had insecurities about my physical appearance. But honestly these insecurities were self defeating and pointless. As I previously mentioned, I wanted to give people a reason to be interested in me outside of me being the first albino person they have met. To me, having a charming and charismatic personality is what makes my relationships.

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On disadvantages in life:

Something I have an advantage of over a “normal” Asian-American male in this country is the fact that I assume white privilege. People automatically presume that I am a white male and I get all perks that come with it.

I think that if I perceived the looks of a normal Chinese make, people normally assume that I cannot speak English, which seems like an absurd concept being from the Bay Area. The reason I’m saying this is because I had a brief memory of being at our nation’s capital in the 8th grade. While watching a ceremony, I was surrounded by my fellow classmates who were mostly Asian. I overheard some people who came to the tour imply that my fellow classmates and my Asian teachers could not speak English, “Hey ask that white kid what’s going on.”

With my distinct pale features and bright blond hair, I’m very memorable, easy to find in a crowd. It’s a double edged sword. In this world with increasingly less privacy, caught between the something of both worlds idkGrowing up albino—now that you're in your twenties, what is your biggest life lesson learned?

The biggest life lesson I’ve experienced as an Asian American Albino is to be comfortable in my own skin and to have a strong sense of personal identity. In my opinion, my identity consist of my background, my passions, and my dreams.

Early on, my self-identity was shallow and skin-deep. As a child, I have always wished to be “normal,” like the other Chinese boys that I’ve grown up with. I didn’t enjoy the attention I got from strangers. I always had a chip on my shoulder when it came to comments about my hair, my skin tone, the length of my eyelashes, or my favorite: my ethnicity. Hearing other people's comments and opinions about my looks made me feel as if their preconceived notions was what actually defined me and who I should be.

I had yet to realized that my identity was not up to others to define. As I’ve matured and grown, I’ve learned to embrace myself and my albinism. While it is still my defining feature, it is something to be proud of, and there is more to me than my pale features.

// Photography by Anthony Rogers at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco.



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