Last week’s post highlighted experiences I had as a child which shaped how I view myself, my race, and my community. Today’s post is a collection of thoughts on this same topic from my sister, Christina. Christina just completed her Bachelor of Arts in Intercultural Studies with a minor in applied linguistics, and she is currently working on her Master’s in Linguistics and Biblical Languages at Biola University. In this post she shares some of her unique childhood experiences and explains her take on walking the divide between Chinese culture and American culture, or in other words:
The Banana Split
By Christina Toy
For the past few months, Allison has been sending me some of her blog posts to proofread. When I proofread the last one, I had some time (okay, so I was procrastinating on homework), and I started typing a response to a couple of her follow-up questions. Almost an hour later, I concluded my email and realized that I had a lot more to say than I originally thought! This is an important topic to me, and I hope through discussions like this, it becomes important to many others too!
What I’ve Experienced
One time, I was in a vocal competition in high school, and my judge started giving me feedback after I sang my solo. She said, "I don't see many Asians in choir because they're usually all in orchestra." Then the expected, "Where are you from?" I was so nervous because I was competing, and I wanted to be polite, so I gave the answer I knew she was expecting and said, "China." Which is hilarious. We aren't from China. She also mentioned how many pianos families have in Japan and made some other broad, sweeping generalizations about Asians.
Another time, I was at a Wycliffe Bible Translators event in Dallas. It exposes people to linguistics so they can see if they're really interested or not. At the dinner table in the cafeteria, one of the other students asked me, "What's your real name?" I replied, "Christina." He said, "No, like what's your real name? Your Chinese name? I have a lot of Chinese friends where I'm from, so I was curious what your real name was." I shamefully told him that I don't even know my Chinese name (now I do because I asked Yin-Yin [paternal grandmother] last year). It was example of how I'd failed my Chinese heritage. I was so incensed that he would tell me what my culture was like. It's the tension of being Chinese American.
Sometimes, my friends in college (who are intercultural studies majors) will joke that I'm not really Chinese because I don't speak Chinese. Others, both students and professors, will ask me if I speak Chinese, and I have to shamefully tell them, "No. I never learned. My parents don't even speak Cantonese." I think to myself, “Ask me about Spanish. I've been studying Spanish since I was eleven years old. I grew up in Houston, where 40% of the population is Hispanic.”
Overseas, the discrimination can be even worse. I've gotten comments in almost every part of the world I've travelled (Eastern Europe, Central America, SE Asia, the Pacific), about my ethnicity. "You're not American," they say, based on the color of my skin, not the color of my passport or my Western worldview. "Are you Mestizo?" asked a woman in the middle of the jungle in PNG, because she'd heard me say that I was from Texas in my testimony earlier, and I definitely wasn't white. The kids in Panamá chanted, "China!" when they spotted me at a ministry site in the mountains. As I anticipate moving to Papua New Guinea in a year and a half, I'm bracing myself for the stereotypes or downright racism that I will probably experience because locals don't like the entrepreneurial Chinese who capitalize on the shaky economy.
“Can't I be both?”
These experiences shape my perception of self be telling me I'm not ____ enough. When I have to tell people that I don't speak Chinese or know my Chinese name or that I get tan because I don't care about having super pale skin, I feel like I'm not Chinese enough. It contravenes their expectations. People don't like ambiguity. We like clearly defined borders, and somehow Chinese American is like swirling the paints together and making the picture muddled. Often, people like the ones I mentioned want to see only one facet of who I am, making sweeping generalizations based on what they know about "Asians" or typical Americans, who in their minds are white. The question I've been asking myself since I was little is, “Can't I be both?”
Sometimes I think we get tired of the race issue. We don't like to keep rehashing the same questions or issues. As an Asian American, sometimes I feel like I can't complain about being a minority. Even though we have a history of racial oppression in the States (Japanese internment camps or the San Francisco railroad, anyone?), it pales in comparison to centuries of slavery. So I think we're afraid to speak up. Microaggressions can seem "micro," insignificant. If we're offended, we're making too big a deal about it. But even if it stems from ignorance, awareness can combat the ignorance.
A lot of times growing up, I didn't know what was "normal" American culture and what was Chinese. Sometimes I still catch myself and realize that, no, not everyone grew up eating tofu on a regular basis.
Little things, like the fact that we make a distinction in our kinship terms for our maternal and paternal grandparents, made me realize, growing up, that we were different. And I had to wrestle with the question, “Just because I'm different, does that make it bad?” Now, having just received a BA in Intercultural Studies, I can say with conviction that it doesn't make it bad. But to Christina of ten or fifteen years ago, these were very real questions with less clear-cut answers.
I live with a tension between the "Chinese" and "American" parts of my identity. They're both very present. I like to eat lasagna and apple pie, but when I ate at a Korean tofu house with some friends on Sunday, I'm also reminded of our tofu, ground beef, zucchini stir fry we ate every Monday growing up. And I wouldn't change that for the world.