“Always remember,” my mother said in Mandarin, “that you are a Chinese person. Never forget where you came from. All right, now continue studying your Chinese.”
I was in third grade. I looked up, puzzled, from the tedious vocabulary lists from the old Chinese text my mother had brought with us from Taiwan. I thought, Of course I am Chinese. What a silly thing to remind me of.
But before long, my mother’s words were forgotten and my Chinese studies were set aside. Learning English was the only thing I cared about. A solid mastery of English would bring up my grades and help me make friends. And it could keep me from being teased and taunted by bullies at school. With every joke that my classmates played on me, they reminded me that I was in America now, and I had to be an American boy. It was a matter of survival. By the time I reached high school, people assumed I was born here ‘cause I seemed so American. Finally I was being accepted!
I was pretty proud of myself for doing such a good job of fitting in. But two years ago I began to realize the price I have paid for my “perfect” adjustment.
It was a warm summer day, just after my junior year ended. I felt free—I had nothing to do but take afternoon naps and hang out. On this day, I planned to meet a friend. First, of course, I had to put on my gear. Like a ritual, I ceremoniously clipped on my silver bracelet. I threw on my Nike shirt, Nautica jacket, ankle-cut socks and baggy shorts. My facade was complete.
My friend showed up and we went to get something to eat. Not far away, a large gathering of Asians in a parking lot caught our eye. Some were yelling. We recognized several acquaintances, veins popping out of their necks as they confronted another group of Asians. “Oh sh–,” said my friend, and we rushed to back our boys up. As my friend and I closed in, we could hear curses in Mandarin, Cantonese, English, Taiwanese and even Spanish.
“@#$$ FOBS … Lets go #$@% them up!”
“$%#^ ABCs, go %$#^ yourselves!”
“Se mo? ni gan, ni jo lai ah!” (What? If you dare, just bring it on!)
It was the American-Born Chinese (ABCs) against the recently immigrated Asians Fresh-Off-the-Boat (FOBs). As hot air rose from the asphalt, the ABCs, with their designer labels, circled around the FOBs with their bleached hair and flashy clothes. The whole thing seemed unreal to me—it was almost like a Chinese opera was being put on.
Although the FOBs were outnumbered two to one, they showed no sign of backing down. As soon as my friend and I arrived at the scene, several of them got in our faces. I could feel the hot breath spewing from their mouths as they spat obscenities and dared us to do something about it. I just shoved them away. They began advancing and shoving back. One FOB jumped on top of a brown Toyota Cressida and started stomping his feet and ranting about the gloriousness of China and all things Chinese. Up and down he went on top of the car, his tight-fitting Levi jacket flapping around like a flightless bird. In all the chaos, a FOB yelled at us, “Why are you doing this? We are all Chinese. Don’t you know who you are? #$% your mother. We shouldn’t be fighting.”
There was silence for a few moments after he said that. I stood silently, staring at the FOBs.
Why? I thought to myself. I remembered how hard I had tried to become American. All the ridicule. All the pain that I endured. Now, these FOBs are asking why I hate them? They have no idea what I went through. In the now vast Chinese community of Los Angles, they can remain Chinese and don’t even have to speak a word of English. I had never had that luxury. I “had” to become American.
‘I am American’
I shouted in Mandarin, “No! We are not Chinese. I am an American, and damn you for not having to be one.” I felt it all coming back, the frustration and anger of being Chinese in an intolerant land. It was as if I was breathing in air and spewing out fire. The FOBs, ignited by the flames I had spread, directed their anger toward me. They called me an ingrate who didn’t deserve to be Chinese. Furious, I rushed up to one of them. Then somebody shoved. Jackets dropped to the ground and people started swinging. The next thing I knew, my fist was on this really tall guy’s jaw. Someone hit me so hard in the stomach, it knocked the wind out of me. I fell to the ground, pathetically attempting to tackle people’s legs and getting kicked all over as a result. The FOBs swung at my friends with little effect. They soon found two punches returning for every one that they tried to throw. Desperation marked their faces, and they started running away. One by one they ran: no longer united and no longer talking smack.
Victorious though we were, we felt like sh—. No one was celebrating. As I looked over at my seemingly unscathed friend, I realized how one-sided the fight had been. We had been extremely lucky. The FOBs could have had a lot more people or even some experienced martial artists. Maybe they got their butts kicked, but we did not feel good about winning the fight. Speechless, we too scattered one by one.
I began to think things over
When I got home, I immediately checked my face for blood. The last thing I wanted was to have my mom on my back. Aside from a few large bruises, I was not seriously hurt, though I ached all over, and I felt like puking. Lying on my bedroom floor seemed the best thing to do. As I lay spread-eagled on the carpet looking up at the white ceiling, my mind began wandering into the past.
As I often do when I am troubled, I thought of the boy I used to be. I can picture him so clearly. Freshly immigrated from Taiwan, the boy has a bowl-style hair cut from home, mid-calf socks and three-button shirt that the other kids tease him about. During nutrition, he stays by himself in the playground. His classmates ridicule him for things he does not understand while teachers look the other way. But he is such a good, innocent kid, full of dreams about making the world better. He’s the kind of kid who gives his money away to homeless people. He still believes in people, he wants to do the right thing.
As the image of the little boy lingered in my mind, I thought again about the fight. I remembered the swearing, the punching, the kicking. With a sick feeling, I realized I had become the person I hated most: an intolerant American.
“Dinner time,” my mom bellowed from downstairs.
“Yah, all right,” I called back, irritated.
Not feeling like eating, I took my time going down to the dinner table. My clueless mom then gave me a speech about how I have no sense of responsibility and I am always late. As I ate slowly so as to not disturb my recently kicked-in stomach, I noticed the Chinese characters on the plates. I could not read them.
“Hurry up and eat,” my mom scolded.
I didn’t want to tell her I had stomach pains. She would have wanted to know why. I noticed that as she yelled at me she snapped her chopsticks. She held her chopsticks the same way that almost all Asians hold them. It had never been so apparent that I hold my chopsticks the wrong way. So, there I sat, staring at my chopsticks.
“Hey,” my mom said.
Pissed off at the interruptions, I told her “You know, there are reasons for the way I do things. Just because you do not understand them doesn’t mean you have a right to change what I do.”
“A son is not supposed to talk back …” She launched into a lecture about my proper place.
As she was talking, I thought about the fight and everything that happened that day. Suddenly a plan came into my mind. Out of nowhere, I told my mother, “Oh, I’m going to take Chinese classes at Pasadena City College next summer.”
She didn’t really react to that—maybe she thought I was just kidding. She just shrugged casually.
That was over a year ago. Since then I have taken two Chinese classes. There I found many who want to regain their heritage. Some simply admire the Chinese culture while others, like me, wish to make up for our past lack of effort. But so far the first step has been disappointing. Although I worked hard on my Chinese all summer long, my language skills are only on a first-grade level. Four hours a day for 60 days just isn’t enough to make up for nine years of neglect.
I thought maybe if I could read and write Chinese, other Chinese people would accept me as one of their own. So far that has not happened. On a recent trip to Chinatown, I noticed that I was being charged the same price as the white guy next to me. Usually, foreigners get charged more—I suppose I had become a foreigner as well. Furthermore, in Chinese restaurants, I get treated badly. After greeting the hostess in English, I often don’t get a menu or even an acknowledgment. Even though I am fluent in Mandarin, I prefer speaking English. Why can’t they understand that I am still very much Chinese?
How can I be more Chinese?
I know that going to Chinese neighborhoods around L.A. is not enough; I have to experience Chinese culture first-hand. But how? Most of my friends are as Americanized as I am. My best bet is my mother, but we have been growing apart. I’m not her little boy anymore.
The thing that separated us the most was our battle over college. When I told her where I was going to school, we argued for three weeks.
It started when my top-choice colleges turned me down: Cornell, NYU, and University of Chicago. I did get into some notable colleges—UC Irvine, University of Arizona, and UC Santa Cruz—but I didn’t want to go to a second-rung school. It was all or nothing to me. Either I am at the top or I am at the bottom—so I decided to go to Santa Monica College, then transfer to one of my favorite schools.
My mom was furious. She told me, “That’s the kind of attitude that got you here in the first place!” (She was referring to my tendency to get either A’s or C’s.)
I told her she was driving me crazy and that I needed to live away from home, away from her.
She said, “This is what I get for bringing you here to America to have a better life!”
I told her I too have sacrificed, perhaps even more than she has, and that I too am disappointed. I explained that I need to do things my own way. I need to be independent.
Hurt, she cried, “I am your mother and I will always be your mother.”
I told her I would take care of her when she gets old. I told her that when I get rich, she’ll get the 3 Ms—a mansion, a Mercedes, and millions. She just shrugged. Those words came from my heart, but it meant nothing to her. Instead she came back with a list of rules and guidelines: get all A’s in community college, marry a girl that she approves of, become a doctor or a lawyer, have a normal career, and have children—especially a little girl for her to play with. I told her I couldn’t live up to all those expectations. She didn’t want to hear me.
Searching for answers, she even went to a few fortune tellers. There she learned that I have very bad luck and that my time to shine will not come until I am more than 20. It is like her to attribute everything to something out of her control, something that proves that it was not her fault.
She has never told me this but I feel I have failed her.
I am beginning to believe my quest to become Chinese is futile. In order to be a good Chinese son, I have to give up my American self. If being Chinese means that I am to give up my free will and follow strict Chinese ideals then I do not want to be Chinese. Maybe I could be Chinese in my own way, and not necessarily in the traditional way. But, what is Chinese and what is American? It is a hazy borderline where I get lost every day. Chinese or American, neither title suits me, but what is left for people like me who choose to embrace both cultures?
Vincent majored in literature at UC San Diego. After working as a journalist, he decided to change careers and spent two years working in China. He is now a graduate student at American University’s School of International Service in Washington, D.C. He says the process of writing helped him to better understand his frustrations and deal with his anger.