My Personal Narrative
Beijing, China—entering a local convenience store, I ask where the chocolate milk is located; their eyes widen in surprise at my accent, this Chinese-looking girl whose tone is loaded with American inflections. Where are you from? they ask, curious to know how it came to be that I was butchering their language. America never seems to be the right answer. They don’t see America in my small mono-lidded eyes and my black hair, my fresh-cut bangs lightly sweeping over my eyebrows. You’re not American, they say, which sounds surprisingly like what two drunk men told me outside a bar in the Bronx once, a statement that lives in the same neighborhood as “where are you really from?” A question for which the answer America would never be sufficient.
Sometimes at night, when the dim room is lit only by a few fluorescent light bulbs, my skin radiates a jaundiced yellow, and I pull my knitted cardigan closer to my chest to warm my cold arms. It is this skin and face, which my younger self had always loathed to claim is mine, that is the free ticket which invites people to tell me, as if it is I who am blind: you are not American. No, America resides in the suburbia of Norman Rockwell paintings. His brushstrokes famously captured the zeitgeist of Americana: white workers marching on with true American grit, white mothers with their white schoolchildren, cheeks red and round as they hold up a can of soup or toothpaste or soda or candy, selling the American way For Only $4.99! In other words, his oeuvre had no space for the children of immigrants who pulled apart the letters of A-m-e-r-i-c-a-n to see if they could cram themselves in between the first “A” and the second “a.” The American life, as he defined it, could never include us.
Growing up, I went to Chinese school every Saturday, scrambling to finish the rest of my homework on the car ride there; every time we drove over a speed bump, my Chinese characters would morph and bleed into each other. 用 (yong4: use) might turn into 目(mu4: eye) or 田 (tian2: field) into 由 (you2: reason). Mandarin, which I learned in Chinese school and then again during my study abroad, has four tones. The first (1) is like an em dash, like the flatline on an EKG monitor. You drag out vowels like they are the tow truck pulling the consonants out of a dash. The second tone (2) is a lilt in the voice, a blushing lotus blossoming in sewage water, a water strider gliding across the pond, four legs splayed out, pressing the surface but never breaking it. The third tone (3) is an echo in the valley, it bounces back, it is falling and it is rising, it is plunging off a cliff and waking up with a jolt and a sigh on your mouth. Begin the fourth tone (4) like a sprint, calf muscles tense, listening for the starting pistol. It’s the staccato of knives dicing onions. Ni(3)hao(3), qiao(3)ke(4)li(4) niu(2)nai(3) zai(4) na(3)li(3)? (in English: Hello, where is the chocolate milk?) But I pronounce it as: 23, 324, 22, 4, 23. It’s like flagrantly ignoring the instructions of a recipe, haphazardly throwing in the ingredients closest to me, which is to say, my Mandarin, though passable (just as a food can be edible but not enjoyable), is atrocious and instantly belies the Chineseness of my face.
It’s not the first time I’ve been asked this question in China. Their confusion and subsequent disbelief suspends me in a similar nebula, pushing me into the San Francisco foggy nights of my childhood. Refusing to speak Chinese in public with my parents, distancing myself from Chinese tourists, their cameras hanging around their necks like a scarlet letter, craving the ham-and-cheese sandwiches my friends ate at lunch, their Wonder Bread dripping with too much slathered mayonnaise—I could never disassociate myself enough from my heritage, therefore, I could never prove I was American enough. I was like a bird, trying to pluck out all my feathers, but with or without plumage, I’d still be an avian. So, my heightened awareness of my perceived Asianess, my need to assimilate into American culture, led me to disown the slender, precise aim of chopsticks for the more assertive, brutal stab of the fork, substitute rice grains, which was also what my classmates coincidentally compared my eyes to, with medium-rare steak. Yet, in China, I was not Chinese to them either. You are not American did not equal you are Chinese. It was a blunt refusal to believe I was American, but it was also a refusal to believe I was really one of them. Korean, Japanese, Vietnamese or Malaysian was the answer they expected. No matter the amount of vocabulary or sentence patterns I memorized, or how much I looked like them, I would never feel fully native in a country where I frowned in confusion every five minutes someone spoke, was largely illiterate and completely unaware of any customs and traditions I’d butchered.
I learned that saying “wo(3) shi(4) hua(2)yi(4) mei(3)guo(2)ren(2)” (I am an American citizen of Chinese origin) appeased people. They would nod and sigh—a sound that was as graceless as letting go of the lip of a balloon after just having blown it full of air—placated by my admission that I wasn’t really American before they had the chance to correct me. Inevitably, they’d ask me whether I grew up speaking Chinese in the household, which was a thinly veiled code for: why is your Chinese so atrocious? No, I would answer, I didn’t really speak it growing up, which was thickly veiled code for: I thought not knowing Chinese would make me more American; I was hyper-conscious of any accent I might have so I spoke softly at first as to avoid ridicule and then later, loudly and quickly to prove my fluency; even in college, I doubted the solidity of the first language I learned when my professor asked whether English was my native language. Your syntax structure, he had said, seems to mirror that of another language.
It seems like I am destined for a life of hyphens because I will never be fully American or Chinese in anyone’s eyes. I raise “Chinese-American” as a white flag, unrooted, unmoored, perpetual foreigner. Chinese hyphen American: part American, not fully American. American by compromise. (Only recently did I learn of another option: Asian American, “Asian” thus modifying “American,” Asian as a type of American.)
On the train, going from Beijing to Datong, my teacher tells me that it doesn’t matter what people say, only what label I ascribe to myself. We’re in a sleeping train, two bunk-beds per row, three beds stacked on top of each other. The train’s a little bumpy and the spicy-and-sour beef ramen I just ate sloshes in my stomach. My friend sitting across from me had just said you’re not American. I knew she didn’t mean it in the way that it had affected me. Still, the phrase, traditionally laden with accusations of otherness, wormed inside the rotten, fly-infested wound of my conflicted identity where my old fears, like a microbial petri dish, cultured and multiplied the heaviness of that phrase.
I tell my teacher how it’s not something I can just brush off, as if it were just nettle caught on a sweater but how it’s warped my entire mindset of the self. Still, she doesn’t understand, and I can’t tell her how not being fluent in Chinese is one of the greatest regrets of my life, how I notice things like being the only Asian in a yoga class full of white girls, how even after years of accepting my culture when I rejected it all of my childhood, I still struggle to define who I am. I can’t tell her because I’m still struggling to explain it to myself, why I feel this tumultuous upheaval burning acid in my insides as our train moves past the grassy farmlands or this inexplicable beginning bite of tears. What the teacher didn’t understand was, these questions begin to wear you down, that defending yourself does not make you stronger but more confused, that after a hundred times, saying, Yes, I’m American, I was born in America sounds increasingly like a question rather than an affirmative declaration.
(Them: Where are you from? Me: America?)
I can say that I am Chinese, or that I am American, and truthfully, it doesn’t really matter, and it shouldn’t (though it is, of course, trite to say things should not matter when they clearly do). The passport I hold is from the United States. My ethnicity is Chinese. But it will never be as easy as saying it doesn’t matter. My Americanness, or lack of, is something I’ve clung onto my entire childhood just so I could feel like I could fit in with all the other Girl Scouts in my grade, and labels, to me, have always mattered because they’ve always separated the haves and have-nots.
As my friend and I push past all the tourists in the Hu(2)tong(4), Beijing’s traditional “alleys,” we walk past a small, glowing bakery, moaning at the scent of warm, sweet pineapple bread that wafts onto the street, and I realize that I am both a have and have-not. Somehow, this epiphany in the midst of ren(2)shan(1)ren(2)hai(3) (人山人海) allows me to breathe a little more freely; in this sea of people (人山人海) shoving up and down the street on a humid summer day, in which I am clinging tightly onto my friend’s arm so we won’t be separated, I see a mostly homogenous crowd, who look like me, and I know, with certainty, that this identity issue will always reside in me like black ice. I will never be able to block the flow of people’s questions and assumptions, but I can scrub away at the mildew of self-loathing that resides in the crevices of these questions.
In San Francisco, as my mother and I crossed the street on our way to watch The Nutcracker at the Opera House, she held my hand tightly and called the city “People mountain people sea” (人=people, 山=mountain, 海=sea), and I didn’t react because I didn’t want to begin a conversation in Chinese, especially a week from Christmas. In Beijing, with people surging all around me, I think of that wintry night and my obstinate refusal to bring an extra coat, how these two countries and cultures constantly interweave through my memories and my head, and I turn to my friend, who is also studying abroad with me, and say: People mountain people sea.