In reading Kelly Marie Tran’s op-ed in the New York Times today, I can’t help but think about my childhood as well. I was born and raised in the US, but I’m not sure I’ve ever felt comfortable saying I’m American because people have always put a qualifier in front of that. I’m Chinese American. I’m Asian American. I’m first generation American. I’ve never really been allowed to be American.
That didn’t really stop me from trying, though.
Tran mentioned that she completely stopped speaking Vietnamese when she was nine, and I think that was right around the time when I stopped wanting to speak Cantonese, too. I hated having to repeat everything in order to translate for my mom and wished she just understood English like everyone else. And I looked down on her and resented her for that. I feel ashamed of who I was back then. But I was also a child who wanted desperately to fit in and make friends, and being Chinese, speaking poor English, not fitting in to American culture seemed to be the biggest obstacle. I was chased around the playground with “Chinese” being spat at me like an insult, and I started believing it was.
Then I went to university, and the opposite happened.
Funny what happens when you stop seeing people who look like you around.
I was one of five Asians on campus, and suddenly being different wasn’t so bad. I took baby steps to reclaim that part of myself, but then I never felt Chinese enough. Especially when I had two overseas Chinese friends. I always found myself trying to “prove” my Chinese-ness, and I’m still working on it. Near the end of my very (very, very…) long uni life, I wrote my thesis paper on the effect of storytelling as a bridge between immigrant mothers and their American-born daughters. Obviously, this topic had a great importance to me. It clicked one day as I was writing this monstrous paper: I’d been trying to encompass all of China into my identity, and not even Chinese people from China can do this. They will be affected by their location as much as I am mine. Granted… mine is just a bit more extreme. 😅
I was also in counseling for my final year, and we discussed culture often. Somehow, she understood where I was coming from despite not being from my culture. I told her of the moment when a classmate said to me, “with Jesus, there is no culture,” and she cringed with me. That was… a pretty scarring memory. I was sharing what I was learning in my Minority Voices in American Literature class and how it applied to my life. I always knew that my mom and I weren’t quite on the same page, but I didn’t know how to voice it. At the time, we were reading The Joy Luck Club, and we discussed high-context and low-context cultures. I felt my mom was passive-aggressive, but it was actually that she was communicating from a high-context culture. In high-context culture, you don’t spell out everything for the other person because to do so is considered rude. By leaving space for them to deduce your meaning, they are basically saying you’re smart enough to glean what they are saying. Meanwhile, I actually am not smart enough to glean this. 😂 Part of it is that I’ve grown up immersed in low-context culture (where you do spell everything out for someone), and part of it is my personality type. But finally, I understood why we keep missing each other. We say the same words, but they mean different things when filtered through our own lenses of our own cultures.
I was super excited to be learning this and decided this classmate was a trustworthy enough person to share this with.
And then she said that.
“With Jesus, there is no culture.”
I immediately felt shut down. I feel like conversations about race and culture often get set aside because it makes people feel uncomfortable. Because they don’t have the same experience I do, somehow it becomes irrelevant that I have these experiences. But if we love and serve the same extremely creative God, why would we all be exactly the same? The same God that created hundreds of species of roses can make hundreds of cultures and ethnicities.
What I will counter is that with Jesus, there is perfect culture. We, as imperfect human beings, reflect God’s perfect culture imperfectly like a broken mirror. But if you and I are both created in the image of God, then there is something about my Chinese American-ness that reflects Him. We may reflect different aspects of who God is, but reflect Him, we do.
I started to understand what it meant to be Chinese American. We’re Schrodinger’s culture: both Chinese and American, and also neither Chinese nor American. I’m a twinkie in China, but I’m yellow peril in America. Randall Park said it best in Fresh Off the Boat: “We’re Patrick Swayze in Ghost: stuck between two worlds, part of both, belonging to neither.” This… would’ve been helpful as a child trying to navigate identity back in the day.
In the article, Tran also gave us her given name, which is actually a pretty powerful statement. Many of us with ethnic names take English names to make it easier for those around us to pronounce. I have never really gone by my Chinese name, even though it’s the name on all my legal documents. My English name is not listed anywhere except under “preferred name” in whatever forms I’ve filled out. My name means “the bearing or appearance of a phoenix,” which is a beautiful symbol for the bearing of a woman. The irony about my name is the two people who named me: my father and my uncle. Both of these men are the reason I live out the meaning of this name. A phoenix burns but is not overcome. From the ashes, it rises new. These two men have put me through hell, but the promise that God has given me with this name that He has given me is that I will always rise above the ashes.
Yet, I don’t allow non-Chinese people to use my name because they’ve reduced it to “it sounds like ‘fungus.'”
I have come to love all the complexities and frustrations of being Chinese American––only took a few decades. It seems often that those two sides clash, and both often also clash with me being a woman and a Christian as well. Still, it’s a strange mix, and it’s a struggle to learn where I fit and how to walk in those identities and more that together make me a child of God.