Posted in All-Inclusive, Culture, Fine Arts

4. Were you always proud of your heritage or was there a time you rejected it?

*fourth installment of essays exploring the Asian-American tag  (created by Amy Lee) in celebration of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month; each essay or poem will be in response to a question on the tag.

I grew up an Asian girl in the American Mid-west, and I knew no other way. This was simply how life worked. This was how life worked, period.

Rice was eaten at every meal.

Room-temperature water was all that was available.

Shoes stayed outside.

These things were not things that I was “proud” of. They were normal things, part of everyday life. They were not extraordinary or unique or different. Life worked in a very specific way, and this was it. I thought it was the same for everyone else.

Realization came in small doses. That time when my friend’s parent gave us salad instead of bok choy for dinner. That time when the same friend flopped onto her bed, sneakers still on and dirt particles flying into her carpet. That time when ice water was given out at a birthday party, freezing my teeth and making my skin curl in on itself.

Throughout my youth, I slowly learned that my family operated differently than those around us. I became aware that rice was not a normal staple in the American diet, and that having a 50-pound bag of it sitting in the pantry was certainly not a normal occurrence. I learned that seaweed was disgusting and that other people only ate rice if it was drowned in soy sauce. I learned that going to a Chinese church was strange. I learned that people wanted to learn Japanese, not Chinese, and even then… only the curse words.

When this happened, I never felt ashamed of my differences themselves. My differences were unique and cool, even. They made me special. At the time, childlike innocence made me proud of my heritage. But insecurity eats like acid– even the strongest defenses turn into ash.

The strongest memories always cemented whenever I was introduced to a new friend group, a group already accustomed to their own ways of doing things. They would make jokes, stretching their eyes out and talking in exaggerated accents, before remembering that their group now included such a character from “the Orient.” It was then that I learned just how different I was to them and how easily they made fun of people like me. Though they weren’t mean, they were used to a certain way of living. I was not included in such a lifestyle.

Pride was slow-going after that, but not inexistent. Pride appeared when I had a hot dinner waiting for me, family members sitting around a table as my friends went home to empty houses and peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches. Pride appeared when Chinese New Year approached, red envelopes strewn around the study and Skype calls back home rung through the house. Pride appeared when I visited family and got enormous hugs, when I was allowed to crash at an aunt’s house for 3 months, when family sent birthday cards from halfway across the world.

No, I was not always proud of my heritage– in fact, at one time, I might have even wished that it didn’t even exist. Only through time and maturity did I learn to appreciate my differences and hold my heritage close. In the end, I learned the value of my culture through my family, a life event that could only have been sponsored by the Chinese master Confucius himself. How fitting.

 

 

 

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Posted in All-Inclusive, Fine Arts

3. What is the first experience where you felt that demarcation of being a minority/different?

*third installment of essays exploring the Asian-American tag  (created by Amy Lee) in celebration of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month; each essay or poem will be in response to a question on the tag.

The ripping of plastic wrapping could only be described as violent in a 17-year old’s mind. When I was 11, it meant nothing yet. When I was 11, the soft crinkle of Ziplock bags and ripping of plastic Oreo-wrappers were only foreign objects. When I was 11, they were just parts of a landscape. Benign, but unfamiliar. How I wish I could view them that way again.

I am sure that this must have happened before, this lunchtime conundrum of East clashing with West, but at the age of 11, I had never noticed this sensation before… I suppose I had never cared before.

Smells and sights I normally would have relished became my enemy in the cafeteria. During elementary school, lunchtime was broken up into 15-minutes marathons and there was no time to ponder on irrelevant things, for you barely had enough time to eat and finish your meal. Yet, in this strange, fluorescent biosphere, the only thing I could focus on was how different I seemed. How foreign my classmates’ objects seemed to me, and how foreign I must seem to them.

No, not foreign.

“Disgusting.”

At that point in time, gratefulness was not yet in my vocabulary– though my mother had spent hours cooking and cleaning for this meal I was about to eat, I did not care. The lines had been drawn in the Jello and I was to either join the American army or resist and tempt fate. Either way, I would go home that day and ask Mother to pack me a “normal” lunch, one that doesn’t smell, one that doesn’t look funny, one that doesn’t have seaweed in it. Most of the time, she would shake her head resolutely and tell me that if I liked the food at home, then I would eat it in public as well.

Most of the time, I behaved like a good girl (how could I ever waste precious food?), tucking in my Tupperware close to my body, hoping to shield the smells from escaping out into the void, hoping to shield prying eyes from my exotic dish. When I could, I ate as fast as humanly possible, scarfing down the morsels so they would spend less time sitting out in the open. I sat in particular spots, avoiding jelly sandwiches and sitting only with the closest of friends (is it no wonder some of my closest friends were not “all-American?”).

The cafeteria was where I first experienced the drawing of the line between “native” and “foreign,” the first time I felt so extremely different, and the first time I felt so profoundly alone. You could not escape the wondering eyes or the inquisitive stares because the food spoke for itself. Chives, soy sauce, seaweed– powerful flavors and powerful statements in a world of white bread and carrots. This was where I felt truly different. This was where I felt somewhat alone.

 

One day, a girl dropped down next to me. I looked up in surprise, for she was not one that I usually talked to. Her curly hair fell around her face like a halo and she pulled it into a ponytail for recess, vigorously combing it back and snapping a hair tie around it.

She took out a pink container, setting it carefully on the table. The girl moved with childlike precision, careful, but almost too tedious in her movements, setting a napkin down on her right and putting her utensils on top. She opened her jar gingerly, setting the cap open onto her left.

She caught me staring and I looked back down at my own plate, stuffing a dumpling in my mouth.

“I know it looks weird and it’s really different,” she said quickly, blowing on top of her food to cool it down. “But it’s really good!”

“What is it?” I asked shyly, peering into the container and seeing a rich broth with lumps of dough floating around. It vaguely reminded me of soup from back home.

“Matzo ball soup!” she proclaimed, sticking a fork into one of the balls and holding it out for me to inspect. “I know that it’s not Lunchables, but my mom made a bunch for Passover so we have leftovers for a whole week. It smells a little strong,” she laughed and sniffed at her bowl.

“Do you want to try?” she stuck the matzo ball out to me as I stabbed it with my own fork and bit into it gently.

I didn’t know what to expect. It tasted warm and slightly chewy. Though made with nothing of much substance, I could never turn down a ball of carbs and swallowed it down whole. It tasted different, much different than what I was expecting. I recognized the chicken broth and ginger, but was not expecting the hit of nutmeg or dill. Taking a look at her face, I knew that she recognized this as well. Her soup stuck out like a sore thumb, but so did my dumplings. We were two girls with heavy-smelling dishes in a lunchroom full of Doritos and make-your-own pizzas.

I smiled.

Perhaps we could be different together. Perhaps different didn’t have to mean alone.

Posted in All-Inclusive, Culture, Fine Arts

2. Which generation are you?

*second installment of essays exploring the Asian-American tag  (created by Amy Lee) in celebration of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month; each essay or poem will be in response to a question on the tag.

In the future, generations upon generations away from today,

I will be regarded as the first.

I will be a fable, a story, a familial myth,

someone that will become the anchor of a family tree

in the United States. I will be a tinge of Asian in the

bloodline, the reason why my wedding will have a wedding

banquet and firecrackers, the person behind the ritual of the bestowing of a Chinese

middle name, the human behind the stories they will paint.

 

I am first generation, born and raised in my country,

a country foreign to my parents.

I was raised in the mother tongue

but taught the patriotic one– only in cases such as these are the two not the same.

As a first, I have forged my own path,

created my own rituals. As a first,

I am effectively alone,

cut off from my immediate family and those around me,

too American for the bloodline and too different for everyone else.

Growing up, I quickly discover

I am an American living in a foreign household,

I discover quirks and surprises about my country that should have been obvious

from the beginning, but, alas– I had no one else

to teach me.

Phonetics plague the back of my mind, when I used to say “Panera” or

“Godiva” incorrectly,

simply because that was how my parents said it–

Thanksgiving dinners and the fourth of July seem like traps,

or at least, inconvenient stretches of time, when friends ask how

I’m celebrating or who I’m visiting.

What can I say?

My parents are not American, they do not particularly care for the

fireworks and hot dogs.

As for Thanksgiving, I have no people to cook for, no family to visit,

and no inherited recipes for Thanksgiving meals. I am American,

yet I am not like you.

 

I am first generation; I am the first connecting piece

in a bridge of Asia and the West.

I am the guinea pig,

my life story is an experiment based upon trial-and-error.

I have concluded that to be first generation is to be uncomfortable.

It means

that you will have to admit you know nothing, that you

have no one to teach you, that you are forever in search of

the genuine Dream. Your parents, the supposed masters of the universe,

will need you to be the teacher, sometimes. You will not have the luxury

of being ignorant. But that’s okay.

You are an adventurer, you will make

this America yours as well.

Being first generation means that you will forever be

learning, assimilating, teaching. messing up.

Being first generation means that you are

the pioneer, building upon the successes of

your predecessors. Being the first means

that you have infinite possibilities,

an entirely blank canvas.

Let us hope that we will be worthy of the stories

they paint.