How I Lost My Identity

Although ethnically Asian, I stick out like a sore thumb in Asia. When I visited China last summer, my mother told me that everyone could tell I wasn’t raised in China. Perhaps it was the way I dressed, or my heavy American accent every time I made an attempt at Chinese, or how my mannerisms simply were not the same as theirs. However, I wasn’t fully aware of how different I was from everyone else until my grandmother commented, in Mandarin, “A Chinese person, a ‘zhong guo ren’ who can’t speak Chinese; that’s just not right.” And my reaction surprised me. I felt somewhat repulsed and thought to myself: But I’m not really a “zhong guo ren,” the translation of which is literally “person from China.” I’m a “mei guo ren.” I’m a person from America.

But, at the same time, I knew even I couldn’t fully attest to that. Although I was born in the U.S., I’m often still seen as a foreigner here; after all, I have yellow skin, black hair, and “narrow” eyes. However, I wasn’t always cognizant of this reality, and because I come from an area relatively well-populated by Asians and go to a university with a sizeable number of Asians, I’m probably still ignorant to its full extent.

I still remember the first time I grappled with the possibility that I was seen as an alien in my own country.  I was in my violin teacher’s living room, waiting for my appointed lesson time. Sitting next to me was the mother of the kid going before me, watching over her other, younger son as he worked on his homework. She looked like all the other parents of my violin teacher’s mostly Asian clientele – put together, strict, no-nonsense, and of course, Asian. Immediately, my thoughts were abound with stereotypes: she’s a tiger mother. Look at the way she supervises her kid so closely. Immigrant, too; I can just tell from looking at her. I wonder when she came here; I wonder why. Was she a poor grad student at the beginning, like my parents were? I wonder what kind of problems may arise in the future as a result of the cultural gap she has with her kids.

That’s when she spoke, in perfect, non-accented English: “Johnny, focus on your work. Matt’ll be done any second now, and you have to finish this before we leave. Stop fooling around.”

Confusion flooded my mind. But I thought she was an immigrant…? All my pre-conceived ideas about her were instantly shattered. I knew that, to have English speaking abilities like hers, she had to have been raised in the U.S., at least starting from a very young age. There was also the possibility that she went to an international school in Asia; but even then, it meant she had grown up with significant exposure to American customs. In other words, culturally, she was exactly like me – an Asian-American.

Wonderment at having finally encountered an Asian-American in adult form was quickly followed by fear. If I, an Asian-American myself, had so quickly assumed that she was an immigrant, who was to say the same thing wouldn’t happen to me when I grew up? I was well aware of the obstacles in the adult world that came with being seen as a foreigner – misunderstandings, exclusion, intolerance, missed opportunities; all of these were problems I had seen my parents deal with before. If I became a foreigner in my own country, where would I go? Not Asia; although I looked like everyone there, I would never blend in. But then, where would home be? Not wanting to deal with this question, I shoved my concerns into the back of my mind.

However, they became increasingly unavoidable as I grew older and began to step outside of my bubble. One summer, while I was returning to Houston from LAX, a ticket checker said to me, “Sank yu,” in what was clearly a mock Asian accent. Inside, I seethed, wanting to give him a piece of my mind. Who was he to make fun of Asian immigrants? Was he aware of the pain and suffering their accents gave them? And, most importantly, how dare he assume that I was a foreigner merely because I was Asian.

“I’m every bit as American as you are!” I screamed at him, as my mom dragged me away.

Another time, I came across an article titled, “8 Things That You Already Forgot About 2012.” Amongst American Idol and the woman who put her 6-year-old in a tanning bed was Jeremy Lin, an Asian-American from California who had become a pop culture sensation after several spectacular performances in basketball. Hardly a fan, I was not bothered at all by his inclusion in the list; however, I was deeply disturbed by the description the author wrote of him: “He make much good at the basketsballs!” Infuriated, I sent the article to my best friend, who was also a Chinese-American, ranting, “He’s just as American as that stupid author! And, given the fact that he went to Harvard and this dumb writer doesn’t even know proper grammar, he’s probably better at English too!” She responded with amusement; that was not the reaction I was looking for. Wanting to find another Asian-American to rally with against this blatant racism, I went to the comments section of the article. Nothing.

I began to wonder why there weren’t any other Asian-Americans crying out against the cruel position society had put them in, stuck between two different cultures, neither of which would accept them. I remembered a time in middle school, when all of my Asian-American friends went through a phase of intense “Asian pride” – even songs written and performed by Asian artists, such as “Fairytale” and “River Flows In You,” became immensely popular. And yet, when we went to high school, this phase quickly died. Soon, it was shameful that we ever listened to Asian music, shameful to be “too Asian;” the more “white” you were, the more you assimilated, the better.

When I wished my friends on Facebook a “happy Lunar New Year” in Chinese, an Asian-American friend asked me, “Why are you so Asian?” as if it was something to be ashamed of; as if being Asian was something that could be quantified, and the more Asian you were, the more “cool points” you lost. As if we needed to prove that we were American by some qualification other than the fact that we lived in the U.S. As if America were something other than a land of immigrants and their descendants.

But recently, I’ve observed a new trend emerging. I see the Asian-American community rising up as a whole to cast off the label of “model minority,” a term that trivializes many of our other problems. ABC is casting for a sitcom about an Asian-American family – and actually casting Asians actors who are not kung fu masters in it. And, every once in a while, an Asian-American breaks past the passive, non-confrontational culture that we were raised in to write an article about his plural identity, and how lonely, confused, defensive, yet unique, perceptive, and, most importantly, proud it has made him.

Yes, I still feel lost and sometimes I still feel despair. But I believe that things are getting better, even if I can’t see it at the moment. As the world becomes increasingly globalized and interconnected, progress is inevitable. I have faith that one day, someday, I will find my identity again. And then I’ll be home.

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