Sí, Io Sono Cinese

There is scrambled shouting, explosive laughter, elders sitting calmly at the head of the table, and an excess of food.

Between heated conversations concerning career paths and the whereabouts of long lost relatives, it’s clear I am at a family gathering located at an overly embellished banquet hall. Aunts and uncles whose names I cannot recall are reminding me of how little I used to be and how I may not remember the precious bonding moments we shared. I turn a blind eye to embarrassing jokes by my father and laugh hysterically at my cousins’ attempts at keeping up with the Joneses. As a twenty-year-old quickly approaching her senior year in college, I now crave times like these where dozens of relatives are able to spend one rowdy evening together around the dinner table.

The majority of my adolescent life consisted of early Saturday mornings at Chinese school and the constant nagging of my mother to speak my native tongue, Mandarin.

While my parents tried their best to integrate their heritage into American traditions, the scales tipped rapidly to and fro. My reluctance stemmed from the inconvenience of speaking two languages and the unforgiving realities behind Asian stereotypes. Fortunately for this hyper-emotional budding youth, growing up in the Bay Area bubble meant Asian supermarkets and popular Boba joints were plentiful and no one thought twice about the color of your skin. I was raised in a house where everything new had to be tried at least once (including all sorts of questionable foods). My best friends at school were Indian, Pakistani, Chinese, Vietnamese, Mexican; the list goes on. Race was never an issue in a world where minorities were abundant.

Almost immediately after heading East for college, I noticed a dramatic shift in perspective.

Dumbfounding questions were thrown my way from strangers in alignment with their generalized ideals of the Asian culture. Being inept at most types of mathematics, snide comments about how I wasn’t really Asian if I was bad at math left permanently stunned creases along my forehead. Was being a Chinese female raised in America really that outrageous? I gave them the benefit of the doubt. Despite the blaring differences between my physical appearances and that of others, many people would tell me—but you’re not like most Asians. And they were right. But I’m also not like most people. I enjoy red and purple hues in my hair, yoga and long hikes for fun, and ear-splitting electronic music. I quickly began to question my motives. Had I deliberately created a barrier between my heritage and myself?

During my time abroad I experienced racial prejudices far beyond the run-of-the-mill jokes.

Being harassed by locals in several European countries clouded my initial excitement of true cultural immersion. In order to combat the slanderous chants and surly glares in what would be my home for the next few months, I quickly picked up the Italian language and used it habitually. When my family came to visit at the end of the semester, it was as if the locals had upped the ante. I could always feel their eyes prying us apart from the hundreds of people walking by. There were close encounters but we managed to return home safely, tongues raw from biting back our words. There was no reason for me to be ashamed of my genetic makeup, yet it stung that these people saw me as nothing more than a color.

Being Asian by heritage means I am the one responsible for bringing about change.

People will put you down based on their petty misinformed bias, but there is never an excuse for ignorance. I am Chinese by birth, American by choice, and if you only see me for how narrow my eyes are, I only see you for how narrow your mind is.

Leave a Reply