“Where are you from” is a common conversation starter with random strangers, who, when I give them a true, but unsatisfactory answer, shake their heads and say “no, where are you REALLY from?” Sometimes, they skip this question all together and ask me why I don’t speak English tinged with an accent (preferably something ching-chongy). Otherwise, they just take one look and scream “NI HAO” or “KONNICHIWA” at me.
Hey guess what? I was born in America. I’m a Chinese American girl.
Yes, I do speak Mandarin, but no, I can’t tell you what that calligraphy says. Yes, my parents do value education and a good job, but no, they are not Amy Chua “tiger parents.” Yes, I am a good “Chinese” daughter and listen to my parents, but no, I don’t follow blindly. No, I will not give you a sensuous massage. No, my soul is not crushed from my “misogynistic heritage.”
I am not the exotic, petite Chinese girl you see on television (when they have Chinese people on television that is). I have huge feet. I am taller than the average white girl.
I am horrible at math. I’m allergic to pastels and most pop music. I pop the “fob sign” (the victory sign) facetiously. I use SAT words in my everyday conversations. I think in English (once in a while in Chinglish).
Amy Tan does not represent me, my experience, or any of my friends’ experience.
And definitely definitely, I am NOT a banana/twinkie, AZN, American Chinese, Chinese-American, or ABC (American Born Chinese), thank you very much.
What’s the difference you may ask? Let me break it down for you:
- Banana/Twinkie: This is the Chinese American who completely rejects his/her Chinese heritage. They pretend to be white. They only associate with whites. They dye their hair blond in some futile attempt to look white. They may even bleach their skin. They hate that they look “ethnic.” They are ashamed of themselves. We use this term derogatorily. No one, not even the banana would wear this label proudly.
- AZN: This is a Chinese (or Asian in general) American who is a little too proud of their Chinese heritage. They drive “rice rockets,” blasting their hip hop out of speakers too big for their souped up cars with giant spoilers. The boys tend to emulate hip hop artists; the girls the latest Asian pop star. They’re loud about their “Chinese-ness”, but more than likely have no idea what being “Chinese” means and are probably embarrassments to their family.
- American Chinese/ABC: A term given to Chinese Americans, usually by Chinese people. My parents called me American Chinese, because they thought that having the “American” before the “Chinese” meant I was American first. But grammatically speaking, American Chinese and ABC (American born Chinese) emphasize the fact that the person is first and foremost Chinese. American becomes the adjective that describes the Chinese noun. For those of us who were born in America, this term gives off the impression that we are not American. We are foreigners in the land that gave birth to us.
- Chinese-American: Peter Feng, in his essay “In Search of Asian American Cinema,” explains why Asian Americans, including Chinese Americans, decided to drop the hyphen: the hyphen represents a persistent discourse which suggests that Asians will never be fully accepted as Americans. Grammatically speaking, the hyphen makes ‘Asian’ and ‘American’ into two nouns, suggesting that Asian-Americans are caught between two distinctive cultures.
Again a question of grammar. In order for us to be accepted as Americans, we dropped the hyphen so that the Chinese became the adjective describing the American. In short, instead of being Chinese (noun) and American (noun), we are American who happen to be ethnically Chinese.
Of course, no one is actually conscious of these terms unless they really looked into it, so I’ll let it slide.
So I am a Chinese American girl. Apparently, we don’t get a good rep in many circles. Here are some of the things I’ve heard over the years:
- We only date other Asians (Asians from Asia and Asian Americans)
- We only date non-Asians
- We hate our Asian features and so dye our hair blonde and bleach our skin white
- We love our Asian features and so exploit them because it makes us exotic
- We are innocent lotus blossoms
- We are dragon ladies who will rip your heart out and eat it for breakfast (along with your little puppy dog too)
- Our parents wish we were boys
- Our parents want us to be submissive
- Our parents control every facet of our lives and have squashed out individuality
- We are quiet and timid
- We are loud and skanky
- We are virgins
- We know some secret Chinese sex act that supposed to be amazing
Quite frankly, if we were all these things I don’t know how we’re actually functional.
My favorite out of that partial list is the perception that being female and Chinese means that you are automatically treated as a second class citizen. A second class citizen in your family no less. It may have been true in the past. It may still be true in some Chinese families. But it is not true of all Chinese American families. The Chinese American families that I know, the Chinese American family that I grew up in, value their daughters. My female Chinese American friends with brothers tell me that their parents see their daughters as the success stories of the family. They are their parents’ pride. They, in one friend’s words, are ALPHA. I once asked my dad if he wished I were a boy or that he had a son. He told me that I was being stupid.
Maybe that’s just because after America lifted the immigration ban on Asians in 1965, more and more educated Chinese immigrants came to America, many of whom were from the cities. They may have brought a different mindset than their rural, apparently “backwards” predecessors (I honestly don’t know).
Then again, my parents were the product of the Cultural Revolution. Most of my friends’ parents never went to college or have almost illiterate grandparents. Our families all started out as working class, working their way up to a middle or upper middle class life.
But one thing’s for sure, they sure do love their daughters.
What does this all mean? I have no idea. Sometimes I wake up and feel like I’m a girl, or a metalhead, or a nerd. Sometimes I wake up feeling Chinese-American, forced to straddle two cultures by some invisible hand. Sometimes I wake up Chinese American, proud to say I’m an American and proud to have the adjective in front of it.
But usually I wake up feeling like me. I am a person. I am not, cannot, and will not, be lumped into a category because of what I look like. I am more than the color of my skin.
And I think that’s what all Chinese Americans want.