“I would’ve hated you.”
“You were a ‘banana,’ pretending to be something that you weren’t.”
When I think back to high school, I’d say my friend was right on target. I always kind of pretended to be something that I wasn’t. I never really knew much about my Chinese roots and I never really cared to learn about them either. In my mind, I was just an American girl, and I made sure that I embraced that half of my culture and those attitudes in hopes of fitting in with my classmates.
We all try to figure out who we are as we age, and even when we do become older, we meet various people, endure aggravating situations, or see things happen that continue to alter us. Raised in a small, predominantly Caucasian, upper-middle class town, I never really saw the side of myself that was there all along. Because of the lack of diversity, I was the token “Asian girl” sitting at the lunch table. I accepted it for what it was – an oversimplification. I even made lots of jokes about myself, about Chinese people, and about general Asian stereotypes. The last thing I wanted to do in a town like that was to stand out.
Growing up, I never really had the opportunity get to know my Dad’s parents; they would fly back and forth from their home in Taipei to the Bronx where they raised my father and my uncle for most of their lives. Other than a few handfuls of times, I never really saw my Chinese grandparents too much. When we did see them, we’d go out to eat at Chinese restaurants and get a chance to practice our chopstick skills. My brother and I would get calls on our “Chinese birthdays” as well as a little red envelope in the mail with a sum of money that any young kid would have gone crazy over – $100 USD! But all of these things meant very little in my mind and these things didn’t make me feel close to them the way I felt close with my Mom’s parents.
The summer before my senior year of college, I lived in Taipei for 8 weeks. During that time, I fell in love – with the city, with the language, with my background and of course, with the Grandparents that I never really knew…it was the first time I began to learn more about myself and what had been missing from my childhood.
Living with my grandmother (who I hadn’t really seen since I was about 12) was as exasperating as it was rewarding. Through living with her, I started to understand that who I was had so much more depth than I had given myself credit for. There was a whole other side of me that I had never really been comfortable with, never wanted to connect with, and never had any genuine interest in. The time I lived there felt brief, but it greatly impacted my self-perception and the pieces of my background that I am continually trying to assemble.
Last year, I taught at a University in Southern China. I thought that since I am mixed, I would certainly fit in and go about unnoticed. This was not entirely the case.
Because I am somewhat “Asian-looking”, a lot of people would always begin speaking to me in Mandarin. The little Chinese I knew helped me out in the beginning. I have been asked every form of the question “What is your ethnicity?” at least 200 times and counting. “I’m American,” or “My Dad is Chinese and my Mom is American,” are the most frequent sentences that have left my mouth in the past year.
Hence, the dilemma of my self-identity continues to linger in my mind. In the U.S., I would also be asked this question and the answer was always simple – “I’m Chinese-American.” I never really had to explain too much behind it, other than my dad is Chinese and my Mom is American.
It seems that people see me as a foreigner, no matter where I am: in China, I am not Chinese, but a foreigner who looks Chinese. In the United States, I am not American, but Chinese-American.
So, where do I belong?
Now, after being here for over a year, I still don’t feel as if I am one or the other. Sometimes I feel incredible patriotism and pride for the United States – the place where I was born, where I grew up, where I was educated, the place I know the best and that knows me the best, the place I still think of as home.
However, there are other times where I cannot stand being associated with Americans. Once, a girl that I worked with from the U.K. asked me, “Are you Canadian?” I said no, that I was from the States and asked why she assumed I was from Canada. “Canadians are more laid back,” she said. Her blatant, contentious backhanded “compliment” was followed by her saying something along the lines of: “You can always tell who the Americans are when you go out – loud, obnoxious, oblivious other cultures, drunk, etc.” Now, when I walk around and hear the American accent, I sometimes cringe at the things they say, the way they act and sound, and I turn the other way. I don’t like the general stereotypes connoted with Americans and I dislike even more that some continue to perpetuate those generalizations.
On the flip-side, I love learning more about my Chinese heritage and my family members living in Taiwan and Mainland China. Even though I’ve lived in both places and now that I am currently residing and working in Hong Kong, I can’t help but state the simple fact that I am clearly not from here. When I try not to seem like an outsider and “embrace the culture” as best as I can, people are not fooled: foreigners assume I’m a local, but locals know I’m a foreigner.
Additionally, I can no longer say that I am simply ‘American’ –nor do I want to. For now, I just see my nationality as a description on a piece of paper; an official document – a passport or a birth certificate. Other than what has been stated in writing, I’m living off the page and leaving a trail of blurred ink as I go.