I wasn’t born in America.
According to the French, my smile spreads from ear to ear, and that marks me as American. According to the Chinese — well, they don’t vocalize it, but the eyes glued to me while I’m walking down the street in most parts of China tell me I’m not one of them.
In a class recently, I introduced myself to a Chinese boy. I’d noticed him in other classes but rarely saw him engage with anyone, so I thought I’d get to know him and make him feel more comfortable. Out of nowhere, he said: “You’re the worst type of Chinese person.”
Stunned, I didn’t understand how the conversation had deviated from small talk about his experience in New York to such a personal slight.
“Did you just call me the worst type of Chinese person?”
“Why?” I still couldn’t reconcile where this came from.
“Because you were born in China but raised in America.”
Flabbergasted, I couldn’t believe someone whom I’d recognized as sharing a common heritage had just otherized me.
“I identify as Chinese-American. My Chinese background, though I recognize I’m distanced from it and I’ll never truly understand it the way you do, means a lot to me. I’m aware that I’m very Americanized, but my identity is still Chinese because that’s how I am perceived on the exterior and that’s how I perceive myself. Most of my family is still in China. I cannot change my circumstances, go back in time and choose to be raised in China. For you to call me the worst type of Chinese person makes you the worst type of person.”
He replied: “But my friends would all say you’re the worst type of Chinese person.”
“That’s very closed-minded of them,” I said, before class started.
At the break, my classmates who had heard the exchange each approached me to tell me how they couldn’t believe what they’d walked into. They asked why I handled it so nicely, and why I felt I needed to explain my identity. It was because I felt empathy for his outsider status in our classroom and I felt that there was no need to react defensively to what I recognized as his ignorance, because that would have shown that I cared. Truthfully, the comment hurt me and I struggled to understand its meaning by consulting Chinese friends and family. Maybe I was more American at this point than I was Chinese, but does this discredit and erase the period of my life before I lived in America, before I became a citizen?
This wasn’t the first time I’d felt discriminated against. Although I went to elementary school with mostly Asian children, my middle and high school lacked significant diversity. I often felt I had to de-racialize myself to fit in, and at times found myself rejecting friendships with other Asian students because that would make me more Asian (and therefore more marginalized) by association. This all happened unconsciously; I was a child who lacked an objective understanding of the shame I felt for being different. I often found myself not studying in order to counteract stereotypes that because I was Asian, I was a nerd. I stopped going to Chinese school and put up a fight practicing piano every evening — things I wish I had continued — because I felt that they would further alienate me (I didn’t need to be further alienated, I was already marked as an alien on my green card before my citizenship!). Unfortunately, my rejection of education was against my parents’ values; like many Chinese immigrants, they relied on education as the main mode of upward mobility. My reaction towards discrimination and my desire to assimilate were costly and left me confused, isolated and filled with shame and guilt. I grew up learning how to deflect jokes about math, rice and tiny eyes — or at least how to avoid seeming bothered by them.
As I grew older and began to date, I came to realize my status as a fetish. Men who were interested in me often admitted to having “yellow fever,” or dismissed their interest in Asian women as a phase that every man goes through in his life. When I met one of my ex-boyfriends’ parents, his mom told him, “I get it, you want something exotic right now.” When I became disgusted by not being seen as anything more than my race, I began dating only men who hadn’t previously dated many Asian women, because I felt that at the very least I could be assured that they were interested in me as a person and not a type. But these experiences left me just as disheartened, as men would staunchly deny that they had “an Asian thing” and one recently even peeled my eyelid back and asked me, “Why won’t it open?” If I was liked for being Asian, or if I was liked despite being Asian, my race was always at the forefront of the decision. Even when I walk on the street, men will catcall me and say, “Are you from China looking for a husband?” or use the awful and cliché “me love you long time.”
I’ve found that being Asian has also influenced my professional opportunities. My past jobs often hinged on positive biases towards Asians; I found myself in tech positions when I personally thought I was under-qualified. I also experienced the negative biases: I was assumed to be meek and agreeable. Asian jokes were constantly made to my face, and work that wasn’t mine would constantly get delegated to me. I wasn’t allowed to get worked up — otherwise I would be seen as sensitive, and my already disqualified voice would be dismissed even more. I’ve watched Asian coworkers laugh at the discriminatory jokes and make fun of their own race in order to get along better with the team. I was left constantly wondering why it was that Asian jokes were OK, but if “Asian” were substituted with any other race, they wouldn’t be. Even though it seems that the Asian race is often associated with the “model minority” label, and we are often grouped in with Caucasians, these theoretically positive associations rely on a veneer that ignores the raw and lived experience. There is still an invisibility; there is not much Asian representation in the media — especially not representations that shatter stereotypes. Only those that reinforce them.
My own confusion about my identity also led to my straddling two different beauty ideals. In China, pale skin, dark hair and a face that looks as feminine and doll-like as possible are prized. Eyes are either taped or operated on to create a double lid, and giant “big eye” contacts are worn to enlarge the pupils. Essentially, the goal is to erase natural features in favor of a Caucasian and cartoonish ideal. In America, the Asian beauty ideal is more tan and masculine, focusing on sharp, elevated cheekbones while preserving certain “ethnic” features such as a mono-lid. Other times, features seen in airbrushed advertisements of Asians are completely Caucasian save for a few reductive details like almond-shaped eyes and yellow-toned skin.
All these ideals have made it hard for me to know which to adhere to. To make matters even more confusing, I was born with thick, wavy hair, double eyelids, and pale skin with more bluish undertones than yellow — which no one else in my family has. I’ve been told that I look slightly European. Naturally, I don’t fit into either American or Chinese ideals exactly, which further confounds my identity.
So who am I?
As a Chinese-American woman, there are very few stereotypical roles I can occupy. I’m not a tiger mom, a dragon lady, or a submissive china doll. I’m an excellent driver and I’m absolutely terrible at math — in fact I got a 1 on my AP Calculus exam in high school, and nearly had to retake my Behavioral Stats class in undergrad. I’m not a traitor to my heritage, and I’m not OK with being dismissed, otherized, or sexualized because of my race. Today I am ashamed, not of being Asian, but more of the fact that I once abided by the pressure to reject my heritage in order to assimilate. I can still speak Mandarin and understand it, but I admittedly feel a schism intuitively, because I cannot write or read Chinese. I want to be vocal about my experience in order to encourage others to do the same. The experience is one that needs to be collectively shared so that future generations will one day feel empowered and thus embrace their culture. See me for me — not what I appear to be, not what I represent, and not what I should be.