"Do you speak English?” I asked full of trepidation and desperation.
The response was laughter. Loud laughter all around me from the woman at the hotel concierge, my close buddy, and the tour guide driver. This question was not meant to be a joke. This was a dead serious question.
The woman said, “Of course I speak English! This is America—we have to speak English!”
Guess again. Here I was in Hawaii. Mind you, a U.S.A. state. The 50 state. Everyone who has been to Hawaii has raved and showered the state with happy sighs and verbal accolades as “Paradise,” “Heaven on Earth,” “Beautiful,” and “Gorgeous.” 4 months in advance of planning and booking. 10 hour flight of where I gorged on airplane food to keep my overactive mind at bay with a full belly.
I expected a sweet scented circle of flowers placed around my neck as the typical Hawaiian greeting breathed with the lilting word of “Aloha.” Instead, the tour guide driver in a light green and white-flowered Hawaiian shirt greeted me speaking only in Chinese, “This is a Chinese-speaking only tour. Do you speak Chinese?”
My English response, “Are you kidding me? You do not speak ANY English? You only speak Chinese?”
Apparently, he understood English as much as I understood Chinese—Barely. Before I knew it, he was on the cell phone telling his supervisor that a major mistake had been made that my friend and I had been inadvertently placed on a Chinese-speaking only tour. He ended the conversation with saying in Chinese: “Her and her friend are foreigners. She is Chinese, but she doesn’t speak Chinese. She is ABC-American-Born Chinese. She is a foreigner.”
My face suddenly got very, very hot. Waves of anger, humor, humiliation, and stupidity washed over me. I felt like I was a kid all over again when my father and his relatives would speak Cantonese and I was left so bored out of my skull that I would observe carpet patterns as my entertainment. I thought about my many failed attempts to learn Chinese, chalking it up to me lacking complete talent in linguistics. I reasoned that I learned hospital and healthcare language before Chinese because my exposure was that healthcare world over my Chinese roots. I felt like I was in school where I was the unpopular weird nerd buried with my head in the book, not belonging anywhere. I felt like I was in China. I was a stranger in a strange land. I was a foreigner. Have you ever felt like that? Not belonging anywhere even with people who appear and seem just like you on the surface, yet never feeling so different in the very core of you?
My Stepmom knew how I felt about being left out from my Dad and his relatives who spoke Cantonese because she spoke Mandarin and did not know any Cantonese. She said, “Well, you have to try to accommodate by learning their language.”
I sputtered, “Why do I have to learn their language when we are in America and speak English?”
Her response: “You are just putting yourself in a position where you are going to feel left out and not belong.”
My response, “Well, I hate to break to you, but I do not really belong anywhere.”
Growing up in a household of family members speaking Cantonese and Mandarin and then only English at school, I understood that hearing, languages, and communication could be the greatest barriers or the greatest bridges. Throughout my life, I felt like I never belonged anywhere. I’ve been called an “Abnormal Asian” and more “American” than “Chinese” because I am loud, inquisitive, and bold rather than the stereotypical timid, reserved, and quiet. My father has labeled us the “Weird Wus.” Growing up, I craved that sense of belonging. Somewhere. Someone. Some group.
Somewhere along the way in life when I sought out places to belong to and people to belong with, I understood that humans craved connections and would unknowingly undergo shifts in demeanor for the sake of just belonging and connecting with others. I also slowly concluded that you can’t care and you just have to be you to adjust and acclimate with different people and situations as they arise.
Identity, belonging, and connecting with others go beyond and deeper than my Asian features. My identity is NOT ONLY about and determined by my exterior surface features of Female, Asian-American, short stature, for these are all outer that change so much easier than the interior. For me, my identity is about my interior of substance, life experiences, personality, and character. There is so much more to each and every one of us on the inside more than the outside.
I suppose I am the foreigner—outside observer looking inside, just creating and loving my own little world full of versatility and varieties, not identifying with anything or anyone and just being me. Hail the foreigner!
Have you ever felt like you do not belong anywhere? Did you then seek outlets and people to belong? Did you ever think that belonging in one group can actually cause divisions with others? Have you ever lost your sense of who you actually are just for that euphoric and comforting feeling to belong somewhere and to connect with others?
For those who identify themselves as weird and not belonging anywhere end up creating their own world that is full of the unexpected, unforeseen, and most intriguing. Weird is Good. Normal is Boring.
Keep smilin’ until we meet again,