Being Chinese American: The Identity Struggles (Study Abroad Series Part 3)

Identity struggles are a natural part of life for people who’ve grown up wedged between different cultures, yet I don’t see it being discussed enough among my Asian-American peers. It’s a gift to be able to grow up in a bilingual household or to get to celebrate both cultures’ holidays growing up, though it can come with the burdens of feeling that we don’t really belong anywhere, among other things.

I was born and raised in New Jersey by my two parents and sister who immigrated to the US from China during the ’90s. The angsty insecurities of being an ABC (American-born Chinese) I’ve accumulated over my lifetime had followed me stubbornly into adulthood, even while I seemed to be overcoming many of my other personal challenges over the years with relative ease. This became the main reason why I chose to study abroad in Shanghai this year — the idea was that by thrusting myself into an environment where I literally couldn’t flee from engaging with Chinese people, I’d accelerate my growth as a Chinese American. Short takeaway is: it worked! Living in Shanghai for four months has helped me face a lot of my personal battles. Below is a deep dive into one of those battles, and how my study abroad experience has helped me wrangle with it.

Crisis of confidence: “Chinese-ness” and Chinese fluency

A lot of older Chinese people have a deeply ingrained belief that, by some natural order, ethnically Chinese people should be fluent in the mother tongue. Thus, while growing up, nothing would stress me out more than being at a dinner party with some guests and being put on the spot to converse in Chinese — it felt like a pop quiz where I’d always disappoint. My parents had enrolled me in years of Chinese school, yet my language proficiency never seemed to rise above a second-grade level. As usual, I’d know my way around casual table conversation and household talk, but as soon as the watermelon slices and pumpkin seeds were out on the table and the adults started getting riled up gossiping about their kids or about the state of the economy, the conversation would turn into Chinese-sounding noise to my ears and I’d usually slip away quietly to the computer room.

As a little kid, this was normal, but patterns like this stuck well into my teenage years. Meeting new guests was always the most awkward because we’d have to play this polite (or patronizing?) one-sided dance of “Did I speak too fast for you?” or “Did you even understand what I just said?”. To avoid the risky gray zone of topics-Gloria-might-not-be-able-to-comprehend-in-Chinese, most guests would stick to throwing me softball questions like “What grade are you in?” or “Is school busy?” After answering the same battery of questions for more than ten years, I have to keep reminding myself that this only happens because I appear to them as language impaired not intellectually impaired.

Over time, I started getting quite anxious whenever I had to speak Chinese. It was not my favorite activity, and sometimes I’d prefer to dodge the effort and just assert that I can only speak English. I figured I’d rather tell people upfront I don’t speak Chinese than to feel their disappointment while seeing me stumble over my words — at least the former approach was swifter and seemed more dignified. Often because of my language block, I never felt Chinese enough. Mind you, I’ve been a skilled hoop-jumper since birth so I don’t naturally deal well with failure or with social disapproval (possibly another Asian thing?). All in all, it totally sucked.

At some point, I realized running for the hills every time someone said Ni Hao to me was not going to solve my problems. So, in an effort to force myself to engage meaningfully with Chinese culture, I went to China to study abroad for half the year.

While in China, a few things happened:

  1. I realized that I’m actually more Chinese than I ever gave myself credit for. For one, I know how to use chopsticks. I’d see two old ladies at a restaurant counter playing tug of war with the tab back and forth while fighting noisily and I’d know what they were doing. I’d see a dish like ‘Cold tossed pig ear’ or ‘duck blood stew’ come out on the table and I’d actually want to eat it. People talk about the culture shock that happens when all the strange and unfamiliar features of a new culture slap you in the face. I saw it happen with many of my study abroad classmates, some of whom knew virtually nothing about China before the start of the semester. It was the moments, when I saw where they struggled where I didn’t, that I began to realize how Chinese I really was. At times, I’d even find myself in the position of teaching others about Chinese culture. For someone who’s lived her entire life convinced that as the American one in the family she never knew enough, this perspective change was pretty powerful and validating.
  2. New environment, fresh start: Being in China allowed me to practice speaking Chinese to complete strangers, which turned out to be a gloriously effective way for me to improve my confidence. Interacting with strangers is a wholly different experience from being around friends and family who you have long histories with. Typically, we tend to be less inhibited and feel free to be edgy around friends and family compared to strangers. Nevertheless, I can easily think of just as many scenarios where the opposite is true: often it’s easier to take social risks around strangers because there’s less at stake and they don’t hold any rigid expectations of you. In my case, the latter was truer. Since my Chinese-speaking inhibition at home developed slowly over many years, I settled into a social groove with friends and family rubbed by habit so deep that it felt impossible to break the status quo. Now, there was this extra inertia I had to fight if I ever tried to make an honest effort to change all of the sudden. While I was in Shanghai, I remember striking up my first conversations with the fruit stand lady, the taxi drivers, the local college students. It took a bit of courage to do all of that but felt SO much easier and way more freeing than I expected.
  3. Redefining language as a medium, not its own end: One thing that kept me from speaking Chinese with family friends at home was the unshakeable feeling that they were focusing not on the ideas I wanted to convey to them but more on whether I was doing it in Chinese like I should. Whenever I’d be put on the spot to speak Chinese, it felt more like being challenged to do a party trick than being invited to share what I wanted to say. Since Day 1 of Shanghai, I needed to use Mandarin out of pure necessity, at least at first. The guy running the noodle shop didn’t care if the words I said weren’t accent-free, as long as he could understand what I was trying to order. The local college student I became close to throughout the semester (Hi Emily!) found my life as an American to be fascinating, and we had plenty of meaningful chats where we learned more about each other and discussed social issues between our two cultures. My Chinese wasn’t perfect, in fact it was inadequate in many places, so we used our smartphone dictionary apps to bridge the gaps where we needed to. With time, I started to look at language more as a medium of knowledge transfer rather than as a metric to prove how Chinese I was. Soon, I found myself feeling motivated to practice my Chinese simply because I wanted to connect with people more seamlessly. I stopped feeling as if I needed to prove something to people by who I was and how I spoke. I learned that those people actually cared more, instead, about who I was and what I had to say.



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