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  • Millie Liao

The Asian American Paradox: Chinese, but not really Chinese

On a recent drive with my dad, we were discussing some of his favorite stories from Chinese history. As a big history buff, he recalled to me the lives of great heroes in legendary battles and wars, the betrayals of the royal family as they fought amongst each other for the throne. After he told me of Emperor Qin’s uniting of the seven warring states, I exclaimed, “I can’t believe I’m Chinese, and come from a place with so much history.”


But at that moment, he had looked at me, and said calmly, “you aren’t Chinese.”

I was taken aback, and stunned into silence by his words. How could that possibly be true?

Although I was born in the US, I grew up speaking Mandarin Chinese exclusively in my household, with none of my family members speaking English. When I began attending school, I slowly learned the language in order to communicate, however, it was a very painful way to enter a class that I would remain with until middle school, setting me apart in a very small town where everyone knew each other.


My mom always tells me her biggest regret is not being able to teach me English, and for a while, I too wished to deny my inherent Chinese identity, because of the barrier that remained even after I was proficient with the English language.


But now, I take pride in my parents’ slightly broken English, because it is a testament to their hard work and practice. And since kindergarten, I’ve dedicated myself to continue learning Chinese, both spoken and written, in order to master the language and be able to communicate with the rest of my extended family.


So for all of these things that made me undeniably Chinese, I couldn’t even fathom the idea that anyone would perceive as not Chinese, especially not my Chinese father.


But he then clarified: “you’re not Chinese, you’re Chinese American. And those two things are very different.”


As an Asian American, I’ve realized that my life has been spent balancing between two words: Chinese and American. Suddenly, either word does not seem to be a good enough fit for me. Since growing up and speaking more and more English, my Chinese skills have definitely worsened. Imagining traveling to China, where everyone might look like me, but also where I couldn’t even eloquently communicate beyond my basic living needs, would not strike me as particularly appealing. On the other hand, being surrounded by people who don’t look like me, and my skin color and where I come from always being a barrier to certain achievements and goals isn’t the perfect picture of the American dream either.


At the end of the day, I know that while I’m not fully Chinese, I’m also not fully American either. The only thing that can accurately describe who I am is Chinese American - a combination of two words that has only recently come into use as people like me sprang into existence.

This is the ultimate paradox of being an Asian American: not fully belonging to the place where you are, but not fully belonging to the place where you come from. Yet, there isn’t any singular solution that works for every Asian American individual; in fact, every situation is a little bit different for every person. For some of my friends, it seems that they are clearly much more tied to the country their parents come from, despite being born in the US. It might be because they visit the country more often, or their parents raise them in a certain way that falls more in line with the parenting in Asia. But, I wonder whether they also struggle like any other Asian American when visiting their home country, wondering whether they truly belong there and if they too feel like a foreigner, just as much as they do in the US.


Me in middle school, visiting the Great Wall of China. I haven't visited since, but I hope to go this summer.

Others might romanticize the country they come from, as they may view it as an escape from the hardships we face here. Asian American discrimination is very real, and the impact of constantly having a glass ceiling hanging over you eventually takes a toll. Sometimes, it’s clear that because of your ethnicity or the way you look, opportunities will not come to you. For example, as an actress, I’ve had my fair share of not being casted in productions that I felt I could’ve fit into and performed well in, and I can’t help but wonder if it’s not because of my own acting ability but rather an extraneous factor like my race and my skin color.

Sometimes, casting directors look for diversity, but even then it could be diversity in the background, while main characters still must maintain some vision of the director, and someone who doesn’t fit into that vision is immediately taken out of consideration.


But on the other hand, imagining that I could escape to China, I don’t feel like my experience would have been any more blissful. If anything, having everyone look similar to me makes me feel like there are other toxic, unfair ways that worthy actors and actresses are kept from roles, and I have the hunch that at the end of the day I would not make it because I don’t even fit the Chinese beauty standard well.


There are also other people who might try to escape their Asian heritage completely, and attempt to conform more to where they are currently - the US. Growing up in suburban Michigan, this was more common of a sight, as many of the Asian American teens my age were not at all in touch with their culture and heritage. Many had never learned their parents’ language, or visited their parents’ home, and they had no interest to. Nor did they really have the responsibility to do so- when I was younger, I felt some sort of hostility towards these types of Asian American teens, as I felt that they were setting us back by actively ignoring this instrumental part of their identity, yet now I can see that they have no obligation to have to learn about a country oceans away from them that doesn’t necessarily have a care for them, when all they’ve known for their entire lives is what is right in front of them.

I guess this kind of lack of understanding might come from how I’ve been raised - very traditionally Chinese, with my grandmother visiting often. I spent a lot of time with her, and learned the cultural norms of where my family comes from, and to this day it still influences who I am and how I act. But I cannot expect every single Asian American to have access to the same resources in understanding and carrying on their culture, and furthermore I cannot tell them what is their culture and what isn’t. Being Asian American sometimes feels like a fro-yo shop, but you’re already made a mixture of two flavors and all you can really control is what toppings to immerse yourself in and cover up with. Everyone has a variety of different experiences, beliefs, and perspectives that goes into how connected they are with the part of them that is “Asian,“ and those that are less eager to acknowledge and study that part of their identity haven’t done anything wrong either.

And still, there are many who believe that their lives would be different if they lived in a place where racism wasn’t eminent, and they constantly felt like the “other.” Maybe there would be some surface-level relief in living in a country where everyone looked like you, where no one could tell you apart from the next person immediately for your race and label you as a foreigner. That is, until they had everyone speak and your tongue betrays you. I could only wonder to myself how long it would be until I would give myself away, how long until I eventually reveal to those around me that I am still a foreigner, still not from here, someone who grew up across the world and would never be the same as everyone else.

At the end of the day, I strangely feel even more akin to other Asian Americans than I do to Chinese people, even if they aren’t necessarily the same ethnicity as me. As my school does not have many Chinese American students, I’ve found that befriending Korean Americans, Japanese Americans, and Filipino Americans has been just as easy and wonderful. Many of my greatest friends are also children of immigrants who grew up here and speak different languages from me. I don’t understand their culture like they do, and they don’t share mine either. Yet, we have some sort of bond that goes beyond an ethnicity or the place that we come from- it’s an understanding of what it feels like to live between the cracks, between two worlds, stuck constantly in a limbo of being Asian and then American.

I wonder how different it would be if we all grew up in our parents’ home countries, and whether we would be able to find the relatability and deep bonds as easy as we do now. I wonder if the strange experience of feeling like outsiders everywhere, and not truly belonging anywhere, is what has united us and led us to each other.

So at the end of the day, who are we? Are we truly Asian, as many of our classmates in the US would say, or are we American, as many of the people from where our family comes from would say?

For now, the hyphenated Asian-American will have to do as a label that sufficiently describes that we are a combination, a mixture, a swirling together of two different things. But in what proportion these two things are distributed, and how they are presented or how they affect us is entirely up to us as individuals. So at the end of the day, being Asian American can feel like a barrier and a restriction, leaving us out of truly “belonging” anywhere, but at the same time, it gives us a sort of freedom that’s hard to come by, allowing us to choose for ourselves exactly what kind of person we want to be and what life we want to live without feeling severely limited by any restrictive cultural norms.

So in the best and worst way, we Asian Americans are a living paradox- constantly between two worlds, but free to take from both.

With love,

Millie.



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