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

Gloria at Chuck E. Cheeses, her favorite place ever

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.

Chinese table snacks, to be enjoyed with tea. Chinese parents love tea.

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:

Writer, Cog-Neuro Research Assistant @ Yale. Presenting my thoughts about self-development and life as a former college student || gloriawfeng.com