For one reason or another, I’ve spent at least two days a week in Chinatown for the past three weeks. I didn’t try to make this happen, it was just happenstance. Chinatown is probably the neighborhood of Manhattan that I’ve been to the least. Looking back, I wonder if I did that unconsciously.
Chinatown is an assault on the senses. The sounds, the sights, the tastes, the smells (oh god the smells), it’s all a complete deviation from the norm of Manhattan. Those things actually feel familiar to me. So much of what informs me of my culture is based on food, because somewhere in our youth, the food that our families feed us becomes so intrinsically tied with our sense memory that you can’t help but be bound to it. In a manner of speaking, walking down Mott and breathing in the aromas wafting out of the restaurants reminds me of my childhood. In fact, most of my Mandarin speaking ability is tied to how many off-menu items I can order from a given establishment. However, I’m not Chinese. They can see it whenever I’m among them. I talk differently, I walk differently, and they know I’m not one of them.
I don’t belong.
Being Asian in America means that you’ll always be seen and classified as ‘other’. I was born in this country, and I’ve lived here for thirty-one years. The other day I was working with a girl who immigrated from Australia 4 years ago and we were talking about immigration issues. Some guy on the periphery of our conversation jumps in and asks me when I moved to New York. That’s the subtle sting of unconscious racism. Being Asian, I will never “pass” as an American in some people’s eyes, and I’ve gotten over that. I realize that it’s way less of an issue in New York City than in other places, but I still remember being spoken too more slowly and loudly as if that would help me understand English better. My usual response would be a stream of profanities strung together in a grammatically proficient way that would insult their intelligence, ignorance, and general inability to form complex thoughts. Other ethnicities can choose when to flaunt their pride. They can show that they’re Italian when they want to be, or they can be Polish when they’re celebrating. But, when they don’t feel the need to show their heritage, they are simply ‘American’. I don’t get that choice by virtue of my skin. I’m Asian, always, all the time.
I don’t belong.
I am proud of my heritage. My heritage informs me of who I am and what my family went through to get here. However, my heritage does not define me. That’s what people don’t understand. That’s why it’s not amusing when someone thinks they’re being cute and says “ni hao” to me. Thanks for bastardizing my heritage and believing I’d automatically think your patronizing bullshit would engender some sort of friendly reaction from me. At the same time Chinese people look at me and assume some sort of kinship. I don’t resent it, but I don’t confirm it either. They’ll approach me in the middle of the street and speak Mandarin to me as if somehow we’ll be connected by the virtue of being strangers in a strange land, but this is my home, and I don’t share that sentiment in the least.
It’s having a foot in both worlds, but not truly belonging in either. In a sense, you can’t be in service to two masters. We all search for a sense of belonging in our lives and when I looked for that in my formative years, I felt that I never really had a group to belong to completely. In order to fall in with being Chinese or being American, I had to submit, conform, or otherwise give up a part of myself. For many years I tried this, bending this way and that to try to fit what was expected of me, in both spheres. I couldn’t do it because there were parts of me that I just could not bear to lose.
I think there’s a sort of base tribalism that exists. Most people want to confirm someone as ‘same’ or ‘other’. I’ve been lucky enough in my life to meet people who seek to dive past that initial instinct and want to know the person behind the color of my skin or the circumstances of my birth. I think we all believe that we’re immune to that instinct to tribalism, but even I have to acknowledge that I feel it at times. But like I said, I’m surrounded and seek to surround myself with people who want to be with me for who I am. Or they can hate me for who I am too, as long as you hate the genuine me I guess there’s nothing I can do about it.
Through all of this, I came to the realization that in order to live your life on your own terms, you have to accept that if you don’t find a sense of belonging in one place or another, you have to create your own narrative, your own way of belonging, even if it’s only for you. It sounds incredibly simple, but in the beginning you realize that you have no footsteps to follow and for the first time in a while, you can blaze your own trail. Every mistake weighs heavily, but every triumph makes you feel as if the life you’re living is the only one worth living. And oh, the experiences you create, the stories you have, they’re yours, completely and wholly yours for better or worse.
There are Chinese stories, there are American stories, but I’ve found there are precious few Chinese-American stories. Stories of our weird amalgamation of monolithic cultures. Cultures that are so seemingly at odds with one another, a culture that lionizes achievement yet demands conformity in the pursuit of it, as opposed to one that celebrates the individual while taking in being average. We are the bridges, with one foot in each culture, and yet through our upbringing we’re discouraged from the disciplines that allow us to spread our stories and tell our truths. I think that’s while I’ve always been interested in telling these stories, I’ve always been afraid, instead taking the path of lesser resistance.
But, through the simple act of writing, keeping this blog alive, it’s allowed me to give my life a voice. It’s allowed me to codify my thoughts, to try to find a narrative through my experiences. It’s allowed me to find the humor and the pathos in my triumphs and my defeats. Most importantly though, it’s given a way for people to connect to my stories, to find kinship from one human being to another, or in short, a sense of belonging. And through that, the courage to pursue my dreams.
It’s been an incredibly trying journey so far, and marked by far more failures than successes, but I think the beauty is in the attempt and if I fall short, so be it. It’s reckless, foolhardy, and to be honest, a long shot. But that’s who I am, informed by my heritage, molded by my culture, and trying to make my way in a fashion that’s too cavalier for my own well-being.
That’s my version of Chinese.
That’s my version of American.