May 10th, 2009

toph chop!


I identify as Asian-American.

I know the term implies that I am not normal-American, that what I am is any less American than the Americans who don't feel the need to put a shiny qualifier before "American," because the definition of "American" already includes them. I know that the term gives everyone a license to think of us as strange and different and Other, but it is the closest word I know that can describe my experience, who I am and where I come from.

When I was younger, I knew I was different from the other kids (the kids who knew nothing of the Monkey King and only ever ate rice once in a while) and different from my parents (who knew nothing of Pogs or the Backstreet Boys), split down the middle between their two worlds. I knew other ABC (American-born Chinese) kids who went to Chinese school with me on Sundays, but we were always too young and too unaware to fully articulate our displacement, our discomfort.

In middle school, we had huge readers in English, crammed full of writing of various sorts. We were only assigned to read a few of the pieces, but I was the kind of voracious reader who would finish the assigned readings quickly so that I could flip through the other ones, poking at them here and there. I remember stumbling across a poem about being Asian-American, and it was like looking into a mirror. I don't remember the name or the author of the poem, but I do remember what it said.

What am I? it asked. Am I Asian? Or am I American? Am I both? Or am I neither?

I've been thinking about those questions a lot, and I like to think I've made peace with my answer. Asian-American is what I am, a reflection of the various parts of myself.

So, listen. Here is what being Asian-American means to me: crying because the boy down the street told me to go eat dog; red envelopes full of money every new year; occasional e-mails from my parents asking me to correct the prepositions on their presentations; knowing all the important words to the Star-Spangled Banner and the Pledge of Allegiance; chopsticks given freely at every Asian restaurant; a tub full of short-grained white rice underneath the kitchen counter; learning to play the violin and the piano and sucking at both; making scallion pancakes on Sunday mornings with my mother, rolling the dough flat with the sides of cups instead of a rolling pin; feeling guilty about my country's history of slavery and genocide; the other Asian girl in my class who I'm always mistaken for; brown eyes, black hair; loving Superman; the flat tones as I stumble over my spoken Chinese; feeling amazed as Barack Obama was inaugurated as our first black president; hot pots full of fishballs and rice noodles for Thanksgiving dinner; the woman who stops me on the street and asks me if I speak English so she can have the time; taking the SATs over and over again because my parents don't understand that they aren't entrance exams; always knowing when Christmas is; the small array of figurines of Taoist gods on the shelf of my living room; English as my first and best language; looking at pictures that other people have taken and feeling homesick for a place I've never lived; my stuttered inability to communicate with my cousin, even though she understands English and I understand Chinese; recognizing most of the pop culture references on 30 Rock; pressing close to the glass in the Ancient China section of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, because it was like getting closer to a part of myself that I didn't quite understand; having two names and only ever using one.

This is my truth, the two halves of my identity merged into one messy whole. I still don't think I'm fully capable of articulating my displacement, my discomfort, but you know what?

I think I'm getting better at it.

[Written for the Second Asian Women Blog Carnival.]