I was convinced I was Italian and understood I was American before I realized and am still learning that I am ABC (American-Born Chinese).
I ate pasta drenched in my favorite Bolognase sauce (or gravy, as I’ve been told it is ‘properly’ called) with a fork covered in snowy grated Parmesan cheese before I ate noodles in salty soya sauce and earthy sesame oil covered in sesame seeds and seaweed bits with a pair of ivory chopsticks. I learned to eat with a fork, spoon, knife, and even a spork when I was a tiny tyke before I learned to use chopsticks at 15-years-old. My earliest memories of holiday festivities were of cottony soft red and white stockings hung by our fake fireplace stuffed with chocolates and candies on Christmas day rather than red packets etched in glittering golden characters stuffed with lucky wads of green money bills on Chinese New Year. I spoke English fluently before Chinese—and, mind you, my Chinese is still ever so broken and causes eruptions of laughter rather than nods of comprehension to this day. I knew my American name and how to write it in the letters of the alphabet before my Chinese name in countless characters, which I still do not know how to write in perfect strokes.
I grew up believing that I should be as “American” as possible—whatever “American” means. I was raised by my atypical anti-stereotypical Asian father who was born in Shanghai, grew up in Hong Kong, and was the first one to come to North America all on his own. He was considered unusual in the usual of Asian parents because he never drilled in me to study until my head hurt and until I received straight A+ (not only an “A”) marks. He never steered me in any direction about what I needed to do with my life career-wise, which, typically, Asian children are directed to go into science and math to become doctors or accountants where the ‘real’ money (aka: security and success in this society) are. After all, let us not forget that, Asians are known to exceed at mathematics and numbers over words and letters. Even now, I am the only one in my immediate family who does not have a doctor or doctorate degree or at least a Masters Degree. My father never put pressure on me. I put pressure on myself. I had to get lost and try to find my own way. Most of all, my father was unlike Asian parents in that he was a philosopher. He told me stories. He taught me lessons. He liked to and opted to talk through the world that was full of colors and grays rather than just blacks and whites. Every now and then, he will share his childhood with me.
It is when I hear these stories about him growing up in China, I wonder about who I am in relation to my cultural identity and how it plays its own vital part. I wonder about the Chinese side to me and if people make assumptions when they hear my last name is “Wu” and see my slanted eyes and yellow skin. I cannot tell you the number of times someone has said to me at first glance: “Konichiwa,” with the assumption I am Japanese, or asked me: “Where are you from? Born in China or here in U.S.A?” In many ways, I feel like I am like all the products on display in major corporate chain stores where I am here in the U.S.A., but “Made in China.” Do the people who ask me these questions have any idea that I am more American than Chinese? Do my very select few Asian friends know that, although I look just like them on the outside, they are more Asian than I am on the inside? On the outside, I am clearly Asian, but on the inside, I am so much more. My insides derive from a modge podge and multiple melting pots of experiences with people and life and, now more than ever, I am understanding, my roots, culture, ancestors, and past have an immense and lifelong impact.
As an ‘adult’ now if you can call me that because I am ever silly and goofy and forever young at heart, I often wished that my father told me what to do and laid the path out for me to follow so I did not have to get so lost to try to figure it out on my own to find my way. I also wish that I had ‘fit’ the mold of the typical Asian who excelled at science and math just because I think it would have been easier to connect to the Asian side to me. It is often easier and less painful to have someone tell you what to do than to have to figure it out on your own, but I understand that easier is not better and there is are great gifts and curses that come with the freedom of figuring it out on your own. ‘Gifts’ and ‘Curses’ that I would not and could not trade if given that freedom of choice. These ‘gifts’ and ‘curses’ of decision-making and getting through this meandering journey of life has made me see that the decisions and actions of our ancestors, grandparents, and parents affect our identity and what we do and who we are as we go forward. My father deciding to come to the U.S.A. at a very young age and to ‘make it on his own’ has carried over to me to ‘make it on my own.’ The previous, the past, the yesterday carry over to today and to next days from thereafter.
Sometimes, I will close my eyes and imagine what it was like for my father when he first came to the U.S.A. I think of “America” and what it means, and conjure images of flags boasting red, white, and blue and the Pledge of Allegiance that I recited when I was a little girl and into my teens. I think of the fireworks that blast and burst into the skies on 4 of July. I think of barbeques, picnics, and a land that my father came to where hard work meant everything and that you receive rewards not because you deserve it, but because you earned it. I think of all the ‘differences’ in culture, ethnicities, religion, and so much more we have here in this one U.S.A. country that try and can divide us when we possess ‘similarities’ that can ultimately bind and bring us together and to understand each other better.
When I completed one of my ‘live list’ items to walk on the Great Wall of China in Beijing, China a year after my hip replacement surgery, I remember my father said to me pensively with his head tiled, “I think it is important for children to have their grandparents in their lives because grandparents are living history to provide insight to who we are now and what could be in the future. “ Yes, I agree. Yes, I am finally understanding. I am understanding what “America” is and who I am from where I came from and from what my parents and the previous have decided and done.
What are your roots? Who do you identify with culturally and how so? Do you think your ethnicity and are your elderly and ancestors vital to your identity? Where and who do you come from?
I end with bidding “Happy Chinese New Year!” to all….it’s the year of the monkey, let’s go bananas over it!
Keep smilin’ until we meet again,