tbt: a puzzled banana
Originally written and posted on September 20, 2011.
“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 felt like I was pretending. I never really knew much about my Chinese roots, nor did I care to learn about them. In my mind, I was just an American girl, and I made sure to predominantly embrace 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 community, I didn't let myself embrace one-half of who I was for so long. Because of the lack of diversity in this suburban Massachusetts town, people viewed me as the “Asian girl” sitting at the lunch table. I accepted this oversimplification and went along with other people's jokes, making fun of myself and of Asian stereotypes in general. The last thing I wanted to do in a town like that was to stand out.
I never really had the opportunity get to know my Dad’s parents growing up; 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 summers, 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 small amount of cash. These moments and gestures meant very little in my mind at the time, and didn’t make me feel close to my dad's parents as I did with my mom's.
The summer before my senior year of college, I lived in Taipei for eight 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 in my childhood.
Living with my grandmother (who I hadn’t really seen since I was about 12) was equally challenging and rewarding. Through living with her, I started to understand more about Chinese culture, and in turn, myself. 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 (2010-2011), I taught at a university in Southern China. I thought that since I am mixed, I would 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 I can now speak in near-perfect Mandarin. (Just don't ask me to explain Chinese history, the theory of relatively, or anything super complex and I'm good.)
The dilemma of my self-identity continues to linger. In the U.S., I would also be asked this question and the answer was always simple–“I’m Chinese-American.” Not much explanation is needed for that statement.
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.
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 patriotic and prideful of my home country: the United States. It's 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 see 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 and locals know I’m a foreigner.
Last, 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 such as a passport or a birth certificate. For now, I’m living off the page and leaving a trail of blurred ink as I go...