Hello Angry Asian Man readers. My name is Julianne Hing, and I'm a reporter. You can find my work at The Nation these days. I hope you'll indulge me as I attempt something I've never done before: give personal advice in a public arena. A young writer wrote to me earlier this month with questions about her cultural identity, and she said yes when I asked her if it'd be okay to write her back here, on Angry Asian Man. Big thanks to her and to Phil for inviting me to share my thoughts with you.
Recently, I've been trying to understand my ethnicity, racial heritage, and my experience as a Chinese American. In the past, I rejected my heritage because I didn't really have many positive experiences and tried to distance myself from my roots. I branded myself merely as "American" and forsook the "Chinese" part of my identity. It's funny, I've never been interested in understanding the Chinese part of me and was even repulsed by the thought of embracing myself as Chinese. It's only as of late that I became interested in understanding my Asian identity. In my quest for understanding, I'm trying to find good outlets to discuss these topics. Would you happen to have any ideas about where to start?
Caveats first: I'm no Asian-American studies scholar, and no expert in cultural identity formation. I've thought a lot about the issues you're exploring for yourself right now, but I certainly have not arrived at some plane of enlightenment in my journey to understand my cultural identity. Consider me a fellow traveler walking alongside you.
I can understand wanting to run as far away from a part of yourself as possible. We hear so many messages from media and society and family and friends about how to be in this world. How to be successful. How to be loved. How to be women. Many of those messages ask us to deny parts of our very selves in order to be accepted by others. Learning to discern between those distracting voices -- including the voices of people whose love and acceptance you want -- and your own is the journey all of us humans are on.
So my first idea is that it might help to go back to the start, and ask yourself about the origins of these feelings of repulsion. Did your classmates make fun of Chinese people, or make fun of you for being Chinese? Did you see people treat your parents with derision because of their Chinese-ness? Do your aunts and uncles talk loudly in quiet places, and chew with their mouths open? Did they save every plastic and ziploc bag and takeout container and cardboard box and sheet of bubble wrap your family was given, even if that meant you got crowded out of your own home? Did you spend every Thanksgiving break at a casino when you really wished you could be somewhere else?
These are all guesses. I don’t think of these as universal Chinese people behaviors, or things that, if you recognize them as familiar, should make you embarrassed about your being Chinese. Not only do I know non-Chinese people who love to gamble and refuse to modulate their voices and struggle to throw away extra things in their homes, I also know Chinese people who are soft-spoken minimalists who’ve never sat at a baccarat table in their lives. And I think people too easily confuse common behaviors with generalizable experiences with hard-wired, immutable cultural mandates. When you’re Chinese in an American world, every thing you do that’s out of step with a typical "American" experience can be seen as some innate difference.
Whatever those memories are, hold those experiences up to the light. Try to figure out if your earliest understandings of your Chinese identity were distorted by other people's opinions of and reactions to you and your Chinese-ness. Try to figure out whether what you thought was bad was actually just different from other people around you. Your painful experiences may have had more to do with the frustration and confusion your parents experienced as immigrants in a brand new country than it did with their being Chinese.
I also think it's okay to be critical of aspects of Chinese culture. It doesn't mean you hate yourself or your culture if you disagree with, for example, many Chinese people’s enduring preference for boys over girls, or the demand that children express their filial piety through unquestioning obedience of their parents. No culture, no community is infallible. Embracing your Chinese identity isn’t contingent upon you loving everything Chinese people do.
Some immigrant families can hold to a static idea of what it means to be Chinese, which can spill over into ideas about what it means to be a good daughter, and what it means to be successful. Those ideas can be fixed in time, usually set to the date your family left China to set out for their new lives. You might very well be chafing against the Chinese culture of your parents’ generation. It might feel outdated because it is outdated. But being Chinese in China today is different from being Chinese in China thirty, or even ten, years ago. Cultures change because people move forward in time.
Wherever you end up, the only actual bit of wisdom I have to share with you is that there’s no one way, and certainly no one right way, to be Chinese, or Chinese American. You are free to live your own definition of being Chinese and American. And best of all, your very understandings of each of those facets of yourself can change over time.
Julianne Hing is a contributing writer for The Nation, where she covers immigration and the elections. She’s fifth-generation Chinese American.