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  • Writer's pictureJessie Cheng

"yes, of course I know BTS and din tai fung" (happy lunar new year!)

There isn't much space to wrestle with the discomfort of our hybrid identity, but rather, a pressure to identify more closely with either "Asian" or "American" and still not be enough of either.

"Did you cut fruit for your mom while I was gone?" my dad asked as he rolled a seven in Catan.


"Have you ever cut fruit for Mom?" I shot back as I urged him to throw away four resource cards.


Silence ensued. My mom chuckled knowingly, and my brother sighed, probably thinking, Here we go again. I immediately regretted giving my dad attitude but didn't apologize as he went on to explain how in Chinese culture, children shouldn't talk back to their parents, and I should be cutting fruit for Mom even if he doesn't. (Note: this fruit-cutting question had been directed at me, not my brother. Gender expectations who?) I could tell under my dad's calm demeanor that he felt angry. The rest of the game was awkward, but my brother put a merciful end to it by revealing his winning victory point.


Then I went upstairs, pulled out my laptop, screamed internally, and now I'm here.


I’m Chinese American. Yes, of course I am proud to be Chinese American. 


Though if you ask me what it means to be Chinese American and why it makes me proud, my answer is still confusing, indefinite, and filled with knowledge gaps. Truthfully, I feel I have no choice but to be proud of my hybrid identity, because the idea of detaching myself from it feels unnecessary at best and shameful at worst. 


When I visit my relatives in China with a US passport, I am warned never to forget I am Chinese - that American ideals will make me weak. I hear about how China will become increasingly powerful because of its citizens’ united front and undivided politics (a front, because the country’s heavy censorship eliminates all dissent). If I raise an opposing view (or call out the double standards around fruit-cutting expectations), I am flagged for being overly Gen Z and so “un-Chinese” for talking back. So more times than I’d like, I dare to think to myself: I can’t stand Chinese culture. 


But then I watch Shang-Chi in the movie theaters, and I find myself tearing up at Simu Liu (who is Canadian) speaking mediocre Mandarin as he’s getting whooped by his long-lost sister in a fighting ring. I think about how difficult it has been for Chinese people to gain any sort of decent representation across American TV and film for decades, and I want to go to the front of the theater and bark, “LET’S GO” before getting myself kicked out. I read about Anna May Wong in my Asian American Media class and I tell myself I wish to be as bold, strong, and enduring as her. How she took a break from Hollywood because her roles didn’t paint Chinese people in a holistic or positive light, and how she was brave enough to say “I’ve had enough” to the blatant stereotypes. When I see people who look like myself doing things they love despite the obstacles, I dare to think to myself: Why would I ever want to be anything but Chinese?


I know. I am such a mess. Truly, I excel at confusing and contradicting myself. 


Writing this essay in itself feels controversial and ungrateful of me. How could I forget how indebted I am to my parents, who’ve sacrificed endlessly and worked hard so I could be here? My parents tell me my work ethic will help me succeed and stand out the same way they did. But what they don’t know is that when you’re in America, our success and social reputation are also propelled by the model minority myth, which is an awful privilege Asian Americans get to experience because it comes at the expense of other people of color, who are told if they were only as smart and rule-obeying and hardworking as we are, they’d be successful in White America, too. Forget history or the systemic inequalities that have pervaded American society for centuries: keep your head down, work harder, and don’t do anything provocative. As if the model minority privilege isn’t also extremely conditional. The moment Asians or Asian Americans threaten White supremacy and the illusion of safety, we lose that privilege immediately (take, for example, the rise in Asian hate crimes during the COVID-19 pandemic). 


I am grateful, and I am indebted. But I must also be critical of the belief that hard work guarantees success. It does not even guarantee absolute success for the White man - never mind Asians or other people of color. 


So if I can’t place my confidence in my work ethic as the reason to be proud of my cultural identity and its values, how do I answer, “What does it mean to be Asian American?” Certainly, it needs to be about more than our food, bilingual abilities, and media. My best yet always imperfect answer is that it is to live in a constant limbo and to never feel “Asian” or “American” enough. 


I feel many Asian Americans, myself included, often shy away from calling ourselves “American,” because we don’t fit the mold in the stereotypical way. We might not dress or talk like our cousins and grandparents living in the Motherland, but we still look exotic here. We grow up trying to laugh it off when people say ching chong and pull the corner of their eyes upwards. We say, “Yes, of course I know BTS and Din Tai Fung.” We grit our teeth and mumble, “No, we are not just the Chinese, the Korean, and the Japanese.” We were born in this country, yes, but most of us didn’t grow up watching Thursday Night Football, and we don’t wear shoes in the house or call adults by their first name. 


So how do we respond to the interesting reality that we are 100% American yet still misfits? I think many of us respond by either drawing closer to our Asian identity or pushing it away as much as possible. There isn't much space to wrestle with the discomfort of our hybrid identity, but rather, a pressure to identify more closely with either "Asian" or "American" and still not be enough of either. Some of us will actively reject our "Asian-ness" and choose to be part of White-dominated circles, hence the idea of being "White-washed." But from my personal experience, I've noticed that many of us will draw very close to our Asian identity, because while our “American-ness” is ambiguous at first glance, it is obvious from our physical appearance that we are at least not White. Our "Asian-ness" is something we can own more easily, even if parts of us internally reject or resent it. It allows us to feel like we have a unique identity in a country that simultaneously tolerates diversity and maintains White supremacy. Drawing closer to our Asian identity provides a sense of community and offers some sort of reconciliation for the confusing nature of our hybrid identity, so there becomes a pulsing desire to express our Asian identity more. We express it through our makeup styles, our music tastes, and our fashion. We add two flag emojis to our Instagram bios. We create public Spotify playlists with a non-English title and non-English songs. We hold onto our habitual, comforting, and often exclusive habit of speaking a combination of English and an Asian language in public to drive home the fact that we are bilingual and indeed, very Asian. 


We also see Asian Americans making their mark and sharing their stories through art, literature, film, TV, music, etc. It is empowering to hear new voices and resonate so deeply with people who have lived such different yet relatable lives. They remind us that despite the obstacles, each of us has the power within to express ourselves and to try living as authentically as possible. 


So yes, I am proud to be Chinese American, because I know that even though I lack blonde hair and blue or green eyes, I spare no effort to find and take up space in American society. I sometimes make people feel uncomfortable in doing so. I do my best to call out micro-aggressions. It is so awkward and I feel like a killjoy. I confess before a panel of White interviewers that I want to work in the music industry with the goal of promoting Asian American artists. I am happy that even though it makes me feel self-conscious and I cannot tell if their responses are genuine, I speak honestly anyways. I am proud to say that in a society designed mostly for the rich, straight, White cis man to flourish and retain power, I – along with other people of color – am still here and we try. Oh, we try, and we try relentlessly.


Left to right: TIME magazine covers featuring the Stop Asian Hate movement, Black Lives Matter founders, and immigration crackdown on families and individuals during the Trump administration


The efforts are imperfect, and they are messy. Sometimes, they burn us out and we shut down. Sometimes, they make us feel guilty and inadequate. Sometimes, they are met with no applause. Sometimes, they are weaponized against us. And oftentimes, they require continuous sacrifice and continuous endurance with no promise of redemption. 


I realize that the topic of race and cultural identity will always be ones I need to understand better, for I have twenty-two years worth of blind spots and internal biases to challenge. Even if there is no perfect answer to our questions, I feel we must all keep wrestling if we want a more just world and increased self-understanding. This essay in itself might have felt more complicated than necessary, but I didn’t even begin exploring how being biracial or multiracial complicates the question of racial identity even more. Or why we’re still playing Oppression Olympics when we share the common enemy of White supremacy. Or what fuels the subtle and non-subtle competitions between different ethnic groups to prove superiority and ethnic prowess, when really, we need to join hands to tackle the system of inequality itself together. 


So you ask me again, “Why are you proud to be Asian American?” My answer will still be an absolute mess. Maybe I’ll always defend America before my relatives and then scream about the bureaucratic nature of American politics with my friends right afterwards. Maybe I’ll always feel a little self-conscious as the only Asian in a room of White people. Maybe I’ll always wonder if I landed jobs in the music industry because it looked good for the company. But I hope to continually show up, pull a chair up to the table, take up some space, and live as authentically as I can anyways. 


Hopefully, together, we can build a society where there will be more space at the table for all people, and if not, that we start building them with whatever time and resources we have left. 


(By the way, my dad ended up cutting fruit for us a few days later - the universal Asian parent language for "I love you" or "I'm sorry".)


(Love you Dad! And I'm sorry for giving you attitude.)

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