Both my parents are diaspora Chinese, making me a second-generation immigrant. What does that leave me besides a slightly contrived identity and a whole lot of hyphens?
Well, it leaves me a sense of culture that looks more like a juxtaposition of East versus West than it does either of my American or Chinese identities. From the time I entered public school to my sophomore year in high school, I wanted nothing more than to be the perfect white American.
I wanted Christmas under glowing trees and eyeliner that doesn’t disappear under the skin.
But in recent years, I’ve undergone a radical transformation that involves reclaiming a culture that I risked losing completely.
As a self-identified Chinese-American activist, my biggest embarrassments are as listed:
I’ve forgotten so much of my Chinese that I can’t have a conversation with my grandparents.
I’m scared to wear a qipao on Chinese New Years, in fear of garishness. In fear of fetishizing my own culture.
I don’t even know what dialect of Cantonese my mom’s father speaks, consigned to watching as he lies dying in bed.
But white people can still butcher my language, then turn around and make fun of it, right? It’s a-ok to wear bastardized versions of qipao because the mainlanders get a kick out of seeing silly Westerners parade around in ignorance, right?
Regardless of universal European beauty standards or westernization, people living in China are living amongst other Chinese people. There is no doubt: mainland purists running authenticity politics benefit from living in a space where they are the majority.
I, however, exist in a minority space in America.
I cannot wear my qipao, speak my language, or even walk down the street without being reminded that holding onto my culture doesn’t fit the “good, integrated immigrant child” narrative.
Here is where it gets tricky for all second-generation immigrants: I am too Asian to be American, but too American to be Asian.
In China, I am undoubtedly American.
They speak English to me, scorn my clumsy tongue, and claim that my face is somehow different. That America molded it. But the America I know molded me to be like magazine covers and billboard ads, only to discard me.
To people here, I am Asian.
I am “Where are you from?” and “I love sushi!” My face is quaint and pale, a chimera of Japan, Korea, and China.
In past years, I’ve been taught to shun the Chinese value of “family” and value individualism. I was the typical Western teenager, rebelling and extracting tears from my parents like jewels.
This year, however, I celebrated Chinese New Year with my mom’s family for the first time in what seemed like a decade. I did what I had refused to do in the past, trying to drag along a part of my bruised and forgotten upbringing with me. I did as I should by calling everyone by their titles and tried my best to greet all my āyí (aunties).
Then, the food came.
My cousins mocked me, pointing out that I must not be accustomed to real Chinese food, putting me just a step above my cousin’s white boyfriend who was refusing to try any of it. Chopsticks felt dead in my hand for the first time since I was a little girl, and I hoped I could somehow teleport all the fish and poached chicken on my plate. Contrarily, I can’t go to any generic Asian restaurant with white families or friends without having to inevitably choose our entire meal.
To be ostracized by both of my cultures is discouraging, but I doubt that it’d be possible for me to choose one or the other.
For now, I’ll learn to find peace with the way my tongue struggles against the sounds it made when I was young.
I’ll clench my fist next time someone tells me to return to a homeland that I’ve barely stepped foot in, and that may not want me to.