Image Source: Colin Boyle / Chicago Sun-Times
Is there value in holding onto the past when you’ve already embraced the new? Why did I sometimes struggle with the simplest of questions? It wasn’t always easy being me. I mean, I stood out from all the other kids in our cookie-cutter suburb in middle America. I was even different from the other kids that kind of looked like me. It was weird.
It was a late September day back in 1976. I sat at the kitchen table after school and squinted under the glare of the setting sun in my eye, struggling to complete my assignment. Our teacher had asked, “Who are you?” And for homework, she instructed us to write down where our family was from. I remember being confused, so I went up to the teacher’s desk and asked Ms. Thomas what she meant.
“What country is your family from?” asked Ms. Thomas looking at me straight in the eye. But when I replied that we’re from America, her face twitched, as if she had just eaten something distasteful.
“America? Are you adopted, Megan?”
“No,” I responded. I could feel my whole face heating up in embarrassment.
“Where were your parents born?”
“America,” I replied, feeling my voice getting all tinny and tiny.
“America? That doesn’t make sense,” said Ms. Thomas looking me over. “I want you to write down your family’s country of origin.”
“Okay,” I mumbled and quietly walked away, still not understanding. My stomach was clenched with defeat as I could sense the teacher’s irritation with me. I liked being a good student and it always felt great when the teacher said, “correct!” This was not one of those days. I could already hear my mother yelling at me, saying that I like to make a mountain out of a molehill.
When I got home, I told my mother about my homework assignment and everything that had happened with my teacher. Sure enough, my mother seemed just as aggravated and annoyed with me as the teacher had been. My mother said I asked too many questions. But I was just frustrated. I just wanted to understand.
“Ms. Thomas asked where you and daddy were born, but I think she thought my answer was wrong, and then she said ‘where are we from’ and I don’t know what she means, and I don’t know what to do!” I fretted and whined. I wondered if my mother could call the teacher to get clarification. I wondered why understanding the assignment was so difficult, why everything seemed so complicated. My vision had become blurry, and I wondered why the tear that had rolled onto my lip tasted salty. I didn’t want to write the wrong answer and get into trouble. I just wanted to get things right. Our family on both sides was from America. Why couldn’t I just write the truth and be done with it?
After more questions and more anguished tears, my mother shouted out a word I had never heard of before and commanded me to write it down. I began to spell “The Philippines” with my pencil. How many P’s? Oh, I wrote too many. No, not enough. The word was so long that I ran out of space, even as I tried to crowd all the letters in. No matter. Soon all the graphite was smearing all over my fingers as I tried to erase it all with an old, crumbly eraser. My mother had abruptly changed her mind. “No one knows what that is! Just write Chinese!” she screamed. But a bad piece of rubber and shellac on the thin, beige paper with faint, dotted green lines meant the Philippines was still shining through the roughed up, spoiled paper. It was still there. You could still see it. I cried because I thought it looked suspicious. Even as a first-grader, I wondered what the teacher would think.
When my grandparents heard my parents got engaged, Grandfather drove downtown to look at the Filipinos and noted their tan complexions. When my parents finally flew into town, everyone was relieved when my mother turned out to be incredibly pale. Everyone was pleased because she looked so Chinese. Everyone except my aunt who married my father’s brother. When they moved into town, she announced that she was “the real Chinese.” She said this to gain favor with my affluent grandparents. Never mind the fact that my aunt had never been to China or Hong Kong or Asia. She’s an “ABC,” American Born Chinese. Just like my father who is American-born. Just like my mother who is American-born and bred also.
My father’s family came to the U.S. from China in the 1800s, so our whole family was very Americanized. But on my mother’s side, they seemed even more completely assimilated. I didn’t recall ever experiencing anything Asian about them, the rare few times I met them. To be honest, they lived far away in another state, so I really didn’t know them. One time we had a chance to spend a little time with my mother’s brothers and sister. As we sat eating salads and sandwiches, I asked them what Filipino culture is like. They just laughed and said they were all born here in the U.S., did not grow up around other Filipino Americans, and didn’t know what “being Filipino” was all about. Aunt Carolyn was the high school Prom Queen. Uncle Bob and Uncle Steve played football. And they all married Caucasians when they got older. I suppose this proved how nonethnic, how all-American, and accepted by the mainstream they were. As they said themselves, they “considered themselves to be White.”
To be honest, I never thought of myself as being White. Where I grew up, I’m sure that would have been challenged had I claimed the same thing. In high school when someone would ask, “What’s your ethnicity?” I would just say “I’m Chinese.” It was easier. But honestly, how much of that did I truly know? I didn’t speak or understand the ancestral tongue. When it came to cultural background, my father grew up with Italian classmates, and when he went to college, he joined a fraternity where he was well-known and well-liked. The ancient stories my Chinese grandmother passed down were of her sweet childhood memories growing up in America’s southwest. She would describe her kindergarten classmates in Arizona and how everyone traveled by horse and buggy back then. She told me how she later learned to drive a Model T Ford, and she and her friends would meet for hamburgers and Cokes. She talked about the boy who had asked her to the high school senior prom and the dress she had made for the occasion. My experience growing up was not that of a daughter of immigrants.
I was an all-American girl who said I was Chinese because that’s what people wanted to hear. Then again, upon looking a little more closely at my face, a select few might notice that there’s possibly something else going on there. Certainly, it must be obvious to those more in the know; because one time in high school, I was on my way to class when I noticed this petite, tan girl, bobbing in a sea of white and Jewish kids coming down towards me on the other side of the hallway. She appeared to be one of those who gallop through life with perpetual, positive cheer. Anyway, as she came my way, I swear she looked right at me. Her large, round eyes lit up and she thrust her arm in the air and yelled, “Filipinas rule!” over the herd of hall walkers.
Huh? Was she talking to me? There were no other Asians around. Duh. She must’ve been giving me a warm, knowing nod. She must have seen something familiar in me. That I, like her, was a fellow member of some Filipina sisterhood. Years later, I had always felt bad, because my reaction had been so stoic. At that moment, my reaction was to look away and disassociate. I felt like my unspoken cover had been blown.
Leaving home for college allowed me to reflect and discover more about my identity. My college roommate, Jane, was Korean American. She was the oldest like me and from the Midwest, just like me too. She described how she and her parents butt heads. Her parents didn’t understand her, because they weren’t born in America.; they were raised in another country, in another culture. Jane complained that her parents were old-fashioned, overly strict, and tried to control who she dated and what she studied. Jane told me how fortunate I was that my family was all born in the U.S. and so Americanized. They would understand what we go through. I admit that as I listened to Jane talk about her relationship with her parents, I couldn’t relate to her struggles.
One day I was having lunch with Jane when I noticed this guy in the cafeteria. “He’s cute!” I remarked.
Jane’s reaction was something I didn’t expect. Her eyes widened and her round face — chaffed from the cold, Autumn winds — flushed hot with the same rage she saved for her parents. “That Oriental guy? But why?!” she demanded. “That’s like being attracted to your brother!”
“I don’t have any brothers,” I said, wondering what’s it to her who I like.
“You know you’re being insecure if you date the same race. You’re actually being racist!” shouted Jane.
I looked around, shocked by Jane’s accusation. “Seems to me, you’re the one who’s being racist and discriminatory,” I said.
“It’s just not good to stay with your own kind. You have to broaden your horizons!”
“But I’ve barely ever even talked to a guy before – like any guy,” I admitted.
“Seriously, Caucasian guys are better looking than Oriental ones. You could do better — date who you want, not what’s expected of you,” argued Jane.
“And that’s what I plan on doing. Just so you know, I don’t have to rebel against my parents like you.”
“Just don’t be narrow-minded, Megan.”
“Uh, are we the same person? I think I’m coming from a different mindset than you.”
“It doesn’t matter,” said Jane. “You need to leave the past behind. This is America. Your family has been here for like generations and generations. You’re full-on American — and you’d think you’d want an all-American boy like me – because that’s who you are. That’s who I am. We’re Americans!”
“Listen, you know that blond girl, Staci, down the hall? She was talking about dim sum and she knew all the names of the dishes –in Chinese! I mean, I think that’s cool! When I go to a Chinese restaurant, I don’t know anything, I’m just like, I’ll have combination A!” I laughed.
“So what? Who cares!” snapped Jane. “I’m not into stuff like that. You think I like kimchi? No, I hate that shit!” Jane pushed her cafeteria tray to the side. “Ugh. I’m just disappointed in you, Megan. I thought we could go to the bars together and meet cool guys.”
“Well, I’m not stopping you,” I retorted.
“Megan, you’re just no fun. I seriously don’t understand you.”
“I don’t understand me either,” I said. “But I’m open and willing to learn.”
Over the years, Jane and I lost touch. Looking back at that discussion in the cafeteria, back when we were only eighteen, I can see that our life adventures had just barely begun. I remember how much Jane wanted to distance herself from her Asian roots. I, on the other hand, was curious about a heritage that felt distant, nearly lost, and mysterious. Jane’s parents were immigrants and my family had already been in the United States for five generations.
When my elementary school teacher gave us our homework assignment to write where we are from, I was like Jane, I wanted to tell the truth. We are Americans. But society will often push us to connect to something more ethnic; it feels organized to check off and put people in boxes. Ultimately, we each have our own unique experiences that we react to and interpret in different ways. How much we let go; how much we hold onto; and how much we explore and learn of our cultural heritages differs for everyone. We’re all on different paths, paths that continue to evolve throughout adulthood, middle age, and beyond. If we learn to accept and appreciate our present and past – if we like all of who we are — then the love can begin to pour over. We learn to respect and appreciate the uniqueness of others, including those who look like ourselves. And that’s a beautiful future.
Ashley Gin is a fourth generation Asian American. She writes about identity, family, struggle, and hope. She earned a B.A. from the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California. She has been published in the South Seattle Emerald.