My mom has always told me I’m Chinese. Not American despite being born here. I have always rebutted her assertion with the fact that I am actually Chinese-American. She usually thinks about it for a few seconds, and then gives me this dismissive look of disapproval before agreeing to accept it. I guess it’s better that Chinese is still a part of me.
But when I tell her it’s too hard to speak Mandarin to my kids all the time when my husband doesn’t speak it, she turns into a raging Chinese mom, reminding me that I am Chinese! Do I not know that? She has once said, "if you cannot teach your kids Chinese language, then you have failed as a mom." Ummm, excuse me? So, it's not enough that I love them and nurture them, cook for them, take them out, do fun things with them, because well, if they don't speak Chinese, then I have somehow failed regardless of any other efforts?! It's infuriating!
I just don't understand her sometimes. Is she saying this stuff because she hasn't thought it through and she thinks her threats of failure still mean something to me even though I'm an adult with my own opinions now? Does she still think I'm a teenager refusing to agree with her, only to tell her she was right later on? I'm not sure! "Well, I did it, so why can't you?!" I mean... honestly, this is not my first time hearing that (because unsolicited parenthood advice is so popular), but STILL! Come on!!! It is not apples to apples, both my parents spoke Chinese first, English second. Both my parents lived in America while still holding onto their Chinese identity, culture, and traditions, refusing to fully assimilate with the American culture. It's so different for them and for me. The challenges we face may be similar, but at the same time, they're also different! I appreciate my parents sacrificing all that the did to come here, to this foreign land of too much cheese, but I wish they would realize, along the way, I kind of became American.
Of course, all the strangers who stop to ask me where I’m from would suggest otherwise. Why can’t people just say, “what is your ethnicity?” Is that so hard? You don’t really care where I am from and if you want to know where my ancestors are from so you can figure out what I am ethnically, just ask what my ethnicity is! The next time someone asks me where I’m from or what I am, I’ll tell them I’m from my mom’s tummy and I am a human.
In reality, I guess it's safe to say I’m lost somewhere between American and Chinese. I learned to speak Chinese before I learned English, but I was never in ESL. I ate Chinese food before I ate American food, but I am a sucker for both now. I even watched Chinese soap operas before I watched American ones, though it's rare that I'd watch a Chinese movie or show these days.
The good news is I’m not alone. There are a bunch of us ABC kids who were raised by our Tiger Moms, sent to Chinese school, taken to dim sum every weekend, and taught that we were Chinese, not American. The symptoms of such classifications consist of large Chinglish speaking abilities, ridicule by anyone in Taiwan about how ABC dark and large we are, harsh judgment from white people in the 90’s about the Chinese food we consume whilst in America (because these days, all Chinese food, fusion or not, seems to be trending and hip), and belittled laughter from Chinese people about our weak stomachs when we can’t quite hang with the authentic street food when we visited Taiwan.
It took quite some time for me to fully realize we just didn’t celebrate American holidays like true Americans. In school, I was taught about how the Indians and Pilgrims celebrated that momentous meal that began the tradition for all future Thanksgiving meals. This meant a meal full of corn, mashed potatoes, gravy, turkey, stuffing, and cranberry sauce would make everyone giddy with excitement. We had turkey just like everyone else, but ours was always stuffed with sticky oily rice and our sides were always stir fried bok choy, noodles, mushrooms, and lettuce wraps. Cranberry sauce or stuffing? That was a myth in our household. I never had either with turkey until I was in college. Meatloaf? What the heck is that? I didn't have my first meatloaf until I was married and having dinner with my husband's family a few years ago.
I remember spending weeks on end during our designated craft time at school carefully using a pencil to stick brown tissue paper all over a newspaper filled paper bag to make a grand master turkey centerpiece. I remember taking it home to my mom, telling her it was supposed to be a used for our Thanksgiving dinner, and then coming home one day and finding out she had thrown it away. I remember another elaborate craft project tying red and green tissue paper around a wire hanger that we had molded into a circle to make a red and green and very festive wreath for our front door. I remember the excitement of bringing it home to my mom who told me it was cute but that it wouldn’t fit on our door. I wasn’t devasted. I wasn’t even sad. I just accepted it as a reasonable explanation and moved on. And then, when we used 6 pack can plastic ring to make another wreath, I did it with very little effort, knowing my Chinese mother would just throw it away afterwards. It didn't bother me, at least I don't think it did... just holding onto these memories might suggest otherwise.... but on the onset, I don't think it bugged me, I just knew this was life, and made a mental note to be a bit different with my own kids' future crafts.
As a Chinese immigrant child, I didn’t have anyone reconcile the American and Chinese traditions to me, I just appreciated what we did have. Chinese New Year. Lucky red envelopes with money in them. Chinese fireworks to scare off the monster, Nian. Grand dancing lions and dragons. Burnt incense and food offerings for the ancestors who had passed before me. I eventually stopped wondering when Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny would come, and started to focus on what mattered – grades.
While American mothers were teaching their kids how to make chocolate chip cookies, I was rolling glutinous rice balls for our red bean soup. I don’t recall ever baking chocolate chip cookies with my mom. We always purchased baked goods from the American grocery stores for bake sale donations. Sometimes, we even stuffed them into ziploc bags to look more authentic and homemade. When I first discovered cake box mix and learned that those scrumptious cupcakes room mothers brought to us for holiday parties was easy to make at home, I was in pure heaven. I could not believe my lucky stars, and began making boxed cake mix ALL. THE. TIME. I even bought the little sugar crystals and store packaged frosting to go with it, so I could relive my favorite part of the elementary school holiday parties: the cake box mix made cupcakes the room moms brought us!
There were just a lot of things my mother didn’t care to adapt to when it came to the American culture. She never said I couldn’t do what the white kids were doing, she just didn’t bring it up if I didn’t. Girl scouts. Soccer. Pretty much any sport for that matter, which is a shame, because I am one tall girl! And because she didn’t really understand the American pop culture of the time, we were essentially fresh off the boat (“FOBs”). I looked like I was a byproduct of Taiwan, not America. My mom dressed me in shirts with awkward improper English phrases, and blouses and skirts adorned with unfamiliar Chinese cartoon characters. My mom put my hair in pigtails with big fluffy balls instead of neon shoelaces and anything of American trend in the 80’s. I longed for crimped hair, curled hair, or big bangs. Instead, I had flat straight Chinese hair tied up with fobby hair ties. And yet I had a fantastic childhood… one filled with Chinese expectations and American struggles and Chinese American happiness and success.