Editor’s Note: This English article was first published by the electronic ELM magazine on November 1, 2009.
Ten years ago, if people asked me what I was, I had a default answer, “I dunno; I’m from New Jersey.” Today, if people ask me what I am, I respond “I’m Chinese, born in New Jersey.” This path to self-discovery and identity formation has not been an easy one; not to mention that it is still an ongoing journey that will most likely end, only after I have passed on, with my children or my children’s children.
Growing up as an American Born Chinese (ABC), living in an affluent neighborhood is not as glorious as some would think. Mandarin being our first, primary language made it that much harder. My parents love to tell a story of how my brother came home from daycare one day announcing that he had found the “only person in the whole group who can ‘talk’.” My parents thought that was the strangest phenomenon, as most kids being sent to daycare already had language skills by then. They later came to find out that he had met the one other child who knew how to speak Chinese.
When we first started primary school, both my brother and I were taken out of our normal classes periodically (I cannot remember whether it was once a week or more than that) to receive tutoring in English as a Second Language (ESL). Now that I think back upon it, I am actually surprised that we even had ESL at that school; for, walking in the door, one would see only a sea of white, with smatterings of color mixed in. I never really thought much about it at the time; I just knew we weren’t the same as everyone else.
When others ask whether I’ve been prejudiced against by my schoolmates, I would respond with a “no.” However, sometimes I wonder if that was true and I was only too carefree to notice it or take offence to what was said. After I grew up a bit, my friends would call me the derogatory “chink,” and I would think nothing of it and play along, thinking it was a joke; keep in mind, my friends were majority Caucasian. To this day, I still believe they were just messing around; however, I cannot help but wonder whether events would have taken a different turn if I was nott so laid back and actually took offence to the banter.
I believe the hardest time for me as an Asian-American would have to be when I became a bit more self-aware, and self-conscious in high school. By this time, we had moved from one affluent White town in New Jersey to another in San Diego. I had one Korean friend and a few Vietnamese friends who were as “White” as I was, if not more so. The only Chinese friends I ever really had were those I met in the Chinese School that I was forced to attend every Sunday. Even with my Chinese friends, I would speak English as we were all mostly ABCs.
During high school, it was as if I experienced culture shock every day – going from the English environment of daily school life and hanging out with my friends, to home where it was a predominantly Chinese environment where my parents had Chinese values and cultures that I was not instilled with and/or did not agree with. During that time, I would watch my friends and see the freedom that they had to roam about town as well as the relationships they had with their parents where it seemed like they were actual friends as opposed to parents. I could not help but feel the jealousy grow inside me. For the life of me, I could not figure out why my family was not like that. I so deeply wanted my family to be “American,” so that I could go out and play with my friends and have that kind of lateral, not hierarchal, relationship with my parents.
This jealousy turned into bitterness against my culture and my background, which, later on, brought an onslaught of clinical depression. The depression carried me into my freshman year of college at UC Davis. If anybody knows the UC system, they would understand that within any UC school, there are multitudes of Asians. This being said, I didn’t meet my Asian friends until the end of my freshman year to the beginning of my sophomore year. Before I met them, I had a great disdain for anything Asian because I so wanted to be “American.” However, after hanging out with them, I realized there are many great virtues that Chinese culture offers. They have helped me grow in my identity as a Chinese-American and really have a truer understanding of what that means.
I have come to learn that being a Chinese-American is exactly that. I can take aspects of the Chinese culture as well as the American culture and meld them into who I am and what I believe and stand for. For example, I have tried to incorporate the American tradition of developing relationships with my parents and seeing them as friends and not parents. That in itself is quite a feat, as I become very flippant and sarcastic when I am joking around with my friends and really should not be taken seriously, as they all know. However, joking around with my parents, I forget they take me a lot more seriously than my friends do and I cannot be as nonchalant. I have come to embrace the work ethic imparted upon me from my Chinese culture. This trait, in itself, took a long time to develop as anyone who knows me knows that I barely scraped by in college because I was having too much fun in the later years; however, after entering the working world, I have nurtured and sharpened this attribute to help me become the successful candidate for anything I put my mind to.
My dad once said to me, “You think you are American, but the Americans do not see you as that; you think you are Chinese, but the Asians will not see you as that.” Four years later, he added onto that comment with, “It is up to you to figure out who and what you are.” I am on a path of shaping and forming my identity; of developing what values I want to instill upon future generations. Most importantly, this course is one of developing an awareness of what it means to be Chinese-American. This path has been hard, and I do not expect it to get any easier; however, it is a necessary journey to embark on for any American Born Chinese.