Chinese-American Identity Essay

   Being born in the United States and growing up around fellow Americans has always led me to believe I was just like everyone else. But to my surprise, I discovered in my early childhood that I was very different. Yes, I was born on American soil. Yes, I am a U.S. citizen. Yes, I do go to an American high school. And yes, I can become the President of the United States one day. (Bill and Hillary, watch out.) But does that make me American? Maybe, maybe not. Who knows, and who can really define "American"? Anyhow, we have been taught to think of ourselves as Americans. In my own definition, I believe I am an American, but not only that, I am a "Chinese-American."

During my earlier, but fun-filled, days of childhood, I never fully realized the uniqueness that I, as well as others, possessed. I've always considered myself and everyone around me, including my family, "Americans," instead of "Chinese-American." I've never fully realized my rich heritage that makes me unique in my own way.

I've always known that I was Chinese, but this meant very little to me. Our weekly trips into Chinatown, Sunday Chinese school, and our fluency in the Chinese language have never influenced my way of thought. I've always considered myself and those around me all the same, in fact, duplicates of one another.

It wasn't until one day in the early years of elementary school that a difference became apparent to me. Some kids in my class had asked me if I knew or could read Chinese. It seemed strange to me that they would be interested in this facet of my life. I answered in a mundane "yes" and expected them to say nothing else about it. To my amazement, they eagerly wanted me to say something in Chinese. When I did say something, they answered back with an enthusiastic, "Wow, that's cool !" even though I didn't think there was anything cool about it. I had always thought of it as just a weird language that originated from China.

On the bus ride home, I thought about what had happened that day. For the first time, I felt different from the other kids on that bus. When I got home, I went into the bathroom to wash my hands as I usually did. As I was washing my hands, I looked at myself in the mirror. The same boyish face was there from that morning, but it didn't seem the same to me. For the first time I recognized, quite simply, that I didn't look the same as the others in my class. My eyes were thinner, my hair was straight and pure black, my skin was a bit more yellow, and a whole different culture existed behind these physical aspects. That day I discovered a whole new component of my life, like an element, a part of a whole molecule. This piece of my life was extremely different, filled with culture and tradition, from the one I was living.

Yes, I am an American. And yes, I am Chinese. And perhaps I am a Chinese-American who has discovered his identity. Each one of us has come from a different place, each unique and special. We must all remember our heritage and our roots. But we must also continue to explore, realizing that everyone is different, with distinct beliefs, points of view, traditions, and lifestyles. Therefore, being aware of these diverse cultures should lead to respect for one another and understanding of the things certain people do. Some, such as I, are in a transitional generation, the second generation. Our parents are from their native countries, coming to America in the hopes of living the "American Dream." They grew up in different environments from mine. Thus, teenagers from around the world actually act as bridges, which cross vast oceans to join separate cultures.

This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.

I am a Twinkie, perhaps a different type of Twinkie. But it hasn't always been this way. At a young age, I thought of myself as purely American, in fact, much more American than Chinese.

I was born in Evanston and grew up in Buffalo Grove. Both of my parents were born in Chicago. My maternal and paternal grandparents were born in Asia. When I was younger, my siblings and I didn't speak Chinese in our home as many of my Chinese-American friends did. My parents didn't teach us Chinese. Neither did they make us attend Chinese school. I didn’t mind this because my friends always complained about going since their parents forced them to go.

We did attend a Chinese church, whose services were in Mandarin, Cantonese or English. Occasionally my friends at church would tease my siblings and me because we only spoke English and they would call us bananas and Twinkies. To be funny, friends sometimes said Chinese words as a joke, knowing we didn't get it.

Throughout elementary school to the beginning of my high school years, my closest friends were white. By junior year, I had more Asian-American friends.  I felt like I could blend easily into both groups, but I felt more comfortable among my white friends.

In college, culture shock ensued. I attended Taylor University in a predominately white and rural Indiana community. For the first time, I felt like a minority. But, interestingly enough, while on campus, I met international students who had grown up in China and other parts of Asia and I began to compare their culture with my own.

One friend who grew up in Malaysia told me about how parishioners there were much more lively and animated during worship service. In my Chinese church here, worship was quite staid. I also met white students who had spent time in China and spoke so highly of the culture that it made me appreciate it more than I ever had. I realized that the American way of doing things—things I’d known all my life—was not necessarily the best way. There is value in learning from other cultures as well.

When I was a junior in college, I traveled to Poland for three weeks with a group of American students from my school. We went to teach English to high school students. While there, I identified myself as American, but that wasn't how the Poles perceived me. I was the only minority in the group and they said I didn't look like the "typical" American they had seen portrayed in the media. They hadn't seen Americans of different racial and ethnic backgrounds.

I walked around Poland feeling self conscious in a way that I hadn't in my community growing up or in college. It was the first time that I felt like there was no way I could blend in. It was the first time I felt totally aware of my Chinese heritage.

Then, last summer I went to China and there was another awakening. The Chinese saw me as a national even though I was a foreigner. Chinese people would try to talk to me but I couldn't understand Mandarin. When I told people I was an American, they didn't understand how I could be Chinese-American and not speak both languages. I left there determined to learn to speak Mandarin.

As I've grown older and spent more time with my Asian-American friends, I have gained a greater appreciation for my Chinese background. I am learning how to integrate some Chinese values and beliefs into my American culture in order to find a balance between the two.

I appreciate the respect the Chinese have for their elders and parents. I appreciate their work ethic. For many of my Asian friends, grades are so important. But I’m thankful that my parents didn't put that type of pressure on my siblings and me. "B" grades were fine and that made our family more Americanized.

So this is where I am at 23 years old. I'm happy to be more than American. I'm also Chinese-American. This is a unique cultural identity from which I won’t shy away. As I've gotten older, the Chinese part of me has grown more important.

Being a Twinkie is not necessarily a bad thing. It's my way of refusing to choose between either, while finding value in both. I may not be able to understand fully what it means to be completely American or completely Chinese, but I continue to gain a greater appreciation for both cultures as I cultivate and explore my Chinese-American heritage. This makes my brand of Twinkie pretty darn sweet.

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