Sep. 6th, 2015

So zandperl sent me an ask:

I'm curious, you describe yourself as a "1.5 generation Chinese American," would you be willing to share more? My mother was born in China but came to the US with her family when she was still an infant, so I have some life experiences of an ABC, and more of being fully American. (E.g., my mother didn't teach me Chinese b/c she thought I'd be discriminated against more if I knew it.) On a related note, if you read SF I recommend "The Three-Body Problem" by Liu Cixin (translated by Ken Liu).


And I think this is the perfect sort of thing for responding on the Dreamwidth.

First -- I haven't read "The Three-Body Problem", though I think I should!

Next -- my "1.5 generation Chinese American" identity... here's my utterly unique and perfectly common experience:

- I moved to the US when I was 6. My mom was getting a PhD in the Midwest, so for the first two years of my American experience, basically everyone was white. My parents' friends told them that I'd forget my Chinese within half a year, and my mom, being Master Elementary Educator, was like "not on my watch." So she made a very bold decision: she decided not to teach me any English. At all. She figured I'd get enough exposure everywhere else, so we just spoke Chinese at home, and she got some Chinese elementary textbooks sent over from China and she'd teach me every night.

This meant that my first year in America was exceedingly painful -- I basically went through 1st grade without understanding *anything* that was going on in the classroom because I wasn't learning any English. At the same time, I'd go home and have to learn all these Chinese characters. I still remember for all of first grade, all that I knew how to do was copy the letters of my name from the name tag on my desk to the line on whatever worksheet that the teacher handed out. I also don't think that school had any ELL or bilingual education.

But the result of that pain was that I learned to read and write Chinese! Instead of being properly socialized into friend groups with American peers, I spent 2nd grade basically reading the children's abridged version of Journey to the West. This was followed in 3rd-4th grade by Romance of the 3 Kingdoms, Yuefei, and Yang Family stuff.

Suffice to say, I felt very Chinese and didn't really feel connected to American stuff at all.



- 2nd Grade was when we moved to California so that Mom could continue her PhD here. Two things happened with this move:

1) My parents decided that my Chinese was good enough and that I should really read some English stuff. My school also had ESL classes, so I kind of learned grammar, and I discovered dinosaur and outer space books. The school library was still an intimidating place and I mostly stuck to biographies, and still mostly preferred my Chinese Warrior books. I also read works by the same author as whoever we were reading in class (so a lot of Scott O'Dell and Roald Dahl). I kind of started making friends in school (it helped that there were more non-white kids), so I was feeling more American. Or more specifically, Californian.

2) My Chinese ability really impressed other Chinese parents, so my parents decided to start a Weekend Chinese School! (I explain it to people now as "Hebrew school for Chinese people"). It was wildly successful, in part because my mom is really good at curricular design, in part because my dad is really good at business, and mostly because the two of them were total workaholics. (My mom was still working on her dissertation at this time, and my dad was making financial ends meet by working at a Chinese restaurant). But basically this whole Chinese School thing made me realize that (a) my Chinese was really good! and (b) I really didn't have *anyone* to talk to about my love for Chinese military generals. Basically it made me feel more Chinese and not really Chinese-American at all. My Chinese-American friends all wanted to play Super Mario and didn't want to talk in Chinese.

This sense of alienation continued through most of middle school, where I was linguistically competent in both Chinese and English, but culturally just a complete outsider. (By then I was reading martial arts novels, which was a pretty easy hop from the military general stuff. I also read some sporadic western fantasy, and my parents tried to make me read Tarzan and Charles Dickens in Chinese. But still, generally not a lot of English reading guidance. I remember reading Lord of the Rings in 8th grade and deciding that the battle scenes were sub-par and that Frodo was whinier than the Tripitaka, which is quite a feat.)

- In high school everything changed. I started hanging out with a group of geeky girls who were Really Into Anime. The first anime that hooked me was Rurouni Kenshin, and tbh, it couldn't have happened any other way -- it's got all the history and fighting and warrior angst that I've *always* loved, except now in Japanese. And really the Kenshin fandom was how I began to find my own "tribe". I guess during this time I'd consider my primary identity as "geek", if I knew what that was.

Also, I went back to China in the summers 7th grade, 10th grade and in 12th grade, and my experiences in China those times made me realize that I wasn't really Chinese, either. My cousins in China didn't want to talk about military generals and martial arts heroes, either. They were honestly kind of confused, because to them, that's like your cousin showing up, not knowing any of the slang, using words like "thus" and "poopoo" in the same sentence, and insisting on talking only about Les Miserables, Shakespearan sonnets, and Chronicles of Narnia. With the same seriousness. It's... not quite typical teenager conversation. So I decided that while I was culturally Chinese, I wasn't *Chinese* Chinese, either. On my college app I wrote about being Chinese, being American, but not being Chinese-American

- I didn't realize how un-American I actually was until I got to college and had to eat with a knife and fork for the first time. Then came the painful years of learning how to make small talk and socialize the American way, and not just the online nerd way. (This was somewhat eased by the fact that my college was Extremely Nerdy. Really, the pain didn't come until I came back to California and started teaching at a school that was Decidedly Unnerdy)

College was also when I started taking Chinese history and and art history classes. They were excellent! The class I took on Confucianism really explained a lot of stuff about my parents. So I was gaining a lot of Chinese cultural knowledge and really falling in love with aspects of China that *were* military/martial stuff. But this knowledge was also acquired in English, so there is this interesting disconnect here, where I'd read the original text in Chinese, but only be able to discuss them in English. Also, I wasn't just taking Chinese history classes, but also Islamic history and Japanese/Korean history, and Western history classes, so I didn't feel that sense of "rah rah China" that I think would have happened if I was an exclusively Chinese history person. Even now, China-centrism bothers me as much as Anglo-centrism.

This was around the time that I started thinking of myself as a swirly ice cream cone: a weird blend of Chinese and American culture. Even so, I didn't participate in any of the Chinese-American events and groups in college (and still don't. And I still side-eye at certain Chinese-American stuff of mis-representing Daoism or Chinese culture.) On the other hand, I have a really hard time relating to Chinese people my own age -- their cultural values are very much formed by the last 10 years of China's development. And while I care A LOT about modern China, I'm coming at it from a completely different perspective from them. And on the third hand, I spend a lot of time defending and talking about China with my American friends, because the popular American view of China is far too simplistic. So, still not quite Chinese, not quite American.

In the time since then, I've done a lot more reading about the larger Chinese Diaspora, and realized that though my experiences feel very disconnected from the typical Chinese-American experience of "show up, learn English, forget Chinese, try to approximate Chinese culture through food and holidays, be angry about representation in media," my experience is still a non-unique part of the larger diaspora experience. So I now feel comfortable calling myself Chinese-American, though I also really like the term "bicultural".

So there you have it -- my Chinese-American identity. This is why I've drawn China Comics, I translate my dad's Cultural Revolution experience, I try to teach Asian Studies in high school, I work with a local Chinese-American group to put together a China workshop for teachers, I still teach at my parents' Chinese school on the weekends, I intend to raise my future child bilingual, and I occasionally rant about China on the internet.

Tumblr crosspost for liking/reblogging purposes: http://potofsoup.tumblr.com/post/128525300672/im-curious-you-describe-yourself-as-a-15

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