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What Does it Really Mean To Be Chinese American?

By Stephanie L., University of San Francisco, TBC Fall 2019 Semester Abroad Student

Back in the States, I have always struggled with my Asian-American identity. Am I not Asian enough? Am I not American enough? I asked myself these questions constantly, even though I was born and raised in San Francisco – which has one of the highest Asian-American populations.

At my high school, the ethnic demographic was roughly 70% white 30% minority. Although most of my friends were of Asian background, it was still difficult for us to fit in. We soon adapted to the prep life of Vineyard Vines and Sperry’s, and for me in particular, I began to oppose my own culture. Why would I dislike my own culture? It seems like a ridiculous thing to do, but when you have experienced people telling you to speak English and people telling you that your lunch is disgusting, you begin to conform to societal standards just to fit in. My struggle with my identity also probably came from my lack of Chinese American friends throughout high school. Although my closest friends for the first few years were Asian-American (one close friend, however, was Chinese American), it was not until senior year that I made more Chinese American friends who I could relate to. This was my first step into accepting my culture.

This all happened nearly four years ago. I am currently a senior at the University of San Francisco, and after a year of convincing my parents, I decided to study abroad in China at The Beijing Center. During the summer, the thought of studying abroad sounded great – I did not have to live at home, and I could see what it would be like to live in another country. When my grandparents on both sides of my family heard I was going to Beijing to study, they were worried. My grandparents on my dad’s side immigrated first to Hong Kong, where my dad was born, and then later to America. My grandparents on my mom’s side immigrated from China to America after sending my mom and her siblings to America first. Both sides of the family have negative views on China, but I was optimistic, and I felt a calling to relearn my culture and to immerse myself in the country that my ancestors called home. 

My grandparents, my brother, and I

For the most part, I was worried about communication and speaking Mandarin. When I was younger, I attended Saturday Chinese language school, which was pretty common among Chinese Americans that I grew up around. However, I only studied it for two years. After that, I never really took an interest in learning Mandarin. Last year, I suddenly decided to change my major to International Studies with a regional minor in Asian studies. This required me to take an Asian language for 3 semesters, and although I already had my language requirement fulfilled by Spanish, I had to start over again and I chose to learn Mandarin Chinese. Realizing how quickly I picked it up, I decided to add a Chinese Studies minor, and that was when I decided to study abroad in Beijing, with only 2 semesters of Chinese language under my belt.

While my language skill is not necessarily bad, it is also not that great. My parents and family members have been speaking to me in Mandarin, Shanghainese, and Cantonese my whole life, and although I cannot speak any of these dialects fluently, I know enough to survive.

Living in China with a Chinese face has its perks. I do not get stopped for pictures like my white peers, and street vendors at tourist areas usually do not try to sell things to me. At home, when I travel to areas that are not highly populated by people of color, I often get stared at and treated differently. Here in China, because I blend in, I feel more comfortable. However, blending in becomes hard when I open my mouth.

When I speak Mandarin, I speak with a slight American accent, which then leads to the same question I often get asked, “Where are you from?” Those who ask me this question often assume I am Korean (the choice of ethnicity by workers at 7-11) and never American. When I tell them I am from America, they usually become confused and ask why I have a Chinese face. At first, I did not understand how hard it was to believe that I, a person of Chinese ethnicity, could be from America, but I soon realized that the stereotypical image of an American person by people in China is that of a white person. In another sense, it seems as if there is no separation between ethnicity and nationality to most Chinese nationals.

In situations like this one, I find myself stuck in the middle of being Chinese and American. Am I not Chinese enough? Is it okay that they see me as more Chinese than American because of my face? Should I be exhibiting more American qualities, or should I simply just fit in and try to be more Chinese? The questions I have been dealing with my whole life have carried over to China, and I am continuing to discover what it really means to be Chinese American.

At home and throughout my life, I have celebrated Chinese holidays and have been taught by my parents, Chinese customs, and it was only within the last five or six years that I began to feel proud of celebrating these customs. My early high school self, hated not being able to fit in, in a white society, and even though my high school was in San Francisco (stereotypically one of the most diverse and liberal cities in the country), it did not help that my high school environment perpetuated a false image of what I, an American of Chinese descent, should be like. I would constantly ignore my parents when they wanted to tell me about Chinese history, and I even hated associating myself with Chinese Americans who were “fresh off the boat.”

Through Jesuit education, I think I soon realized that we are all humans that deserve to be treated fairly. You may be wondering, how the heck does Jesuit education relate to me accepting my Chinese culture? Well, my change in mindset happened after my senior year Kairos retreat.

Kairos focuses on self-reflection, strengthening your relationship with God, and bettering yourself so that you can be a man or woman with and for others. Throughout Kairos, I thought a lot about how I was treating others, as well as how they were treating me. In high school, I never really wanted to do things with my parents in public throughout my early high school years. I wanted to rid myself of my Chinese heritage because I thought that it was embarrassing. (Yes. I know. This sounds EXTREMELY ridiculous, but when society perceives Chinese people in a certain way, it was hard to want to identify with a culture that people are so quick to judge in America). After Kairos, I felt a growing sense of gratitude for my parents’ hard work in the life that they have provided for me. I started to ask more questions about what their life was like in China (more specifically my mom, my dad came to America as a child).

After nearly 8 years of Jesuit education, I have bettered myself, my morals, and I have allowed myself to accept who I am. At this point in my life, I am proud to be Chinese American. It has taken 21 years of my life to (almost completely) figure out what being Chinese American really is and being in China this semester has helped me figure that out.

I am grateful for the friends that I have made during my time abroad, especially my Asian-American friends that I was able to identify with, as we all struggled with our identity. I am especially grateful for my Chinese roommate who has been understanding of my struggle with my Chinese American identity, and for her to be able to accept who I am and not see me as just American or just Chinese.

It IS possible to be both Chinese AND American at the same time. Even though not everyone will understand what it means to be Chinese American, I know who I am, and that is all that matters.