“I blamed my ethnicity, being Chinese limited me”
By Phoenix Tso
There are several ways for ethnic Chinese people who were born in or grew up in America to describe themselves, or be described by others. From a young age, my mom would tell me that I was “Chinese-American”. When I studied abroad in China two years ago, I learned to refer to myself as a 华裔 (hua yi, foreign citizen of Chinese origin) or “American-Born Chinese” to those who asked where I was from. Yet, for many years I refused to refer to myself as both American and Chinese. Instead, I was just “American”.
I grew up outside of Boston, learned English first, and am most familiar with American (or at least Western) music, books, movies, politics, fashion, religion, etc. It was jarring therefore to find myself in situations where being from a Chinese family was a limitation to how comfortably I could fit in with other people in this country. When I was four or five years old and playing with my first best friend, she started talking about how excited she was to celebrate Hanukkah, as someone who is Jewish.
“I’m Jewish too,” I said, wanting to be whatever she was.
“No you’re not. You’re Christian,” she replied.
Sure, as far as I know, there are very few Chinese Jews in the world, but the implication that being Chinese limited me from exploring different aspects of what American society had to offer, or that I could not try on different identities as easily as other people, stayed with me. This was reinforced by other incidents: When we played Power Rangers at recess, I could never be the Pink Ranger. In sixth grade, my classmates were surprised I knew something about their favorite rappers. Strangers, when they met me, would often assume that I was smart, even when I offered no evidence to support that theory.
Above all, I could never get rid of this niggling feeling that I would be more “fun” or “cool”, that I would have more friends, if I weren’t saddled with the “Chinese people are studious” stereotype. In retrospect, there were many other good reasons for any social exclusion I faced, but at the time, I blamed most of it on my ethnicity.
So I consciously stopped speaking Chinese at home, or even with my grandmother when she would call from Taiwan. I engaged very little with the people around me or with the sites we visited on our trips to China. I ignored the Qing Dynasty soap operas; the CDs of Taiwanese pop music, and other relics of that bygone culture that my parents kept in the house. When others would ask me where I was from, I would defensively tell them the hospital in Connecticut that I was born in. When people referred to me as Chinese-American, I would tell them to cut off the “Chinese-” part.
I started rethinking this choice though when I traveled back to China the summer before I entered college, and found myself unable to communicate with my relatives in Shanghai. I realized that I was cutting myself off from a culture that had shaped me so much, from my eating habits (namely my preference for pig ears and fermented bean curd) to my experimentation with religion (I first embraced Christianity through my town’s Chinese Gospel Church, and then rejected it in line with my family’s religious history). And after being known as a “good student,” who never actually did her homework, I embraced academic achievement as the best way to attain success, mindful of my mom’s history, of how pursuing an education in America was her second chance after being denied the opportunity because of the Cultural Revolution.
Now I take pride in the fact that being Chinese is an inextricable part of identity, and completely enjoy deepening that part of myself. I will always feel more American than Chinese, which is why I will never identify with being an ABC. But I’ll never be just American either.