By Beini Shi, 16, Palisades Charter HS
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Beini’s first meal in America was a hot dog. She’s still trying to figure out what they put in them.

My life started out as a typically Asian story. I was 5 when my mom decided to move from China to the United States to give me better opportunities. I started school a few days after we arrived in Salt Lake City, Utah, and I was the shy Chinese girl whose only English words were "yes" and "no." I was one of just two Asian people in my class. But after just a few months I could speak English almost fluently and my mom was reminding me to speak more Mandarin at home.

Over the next few years, I grew to know the American culture better and better. My English improved. And my mother kept scolding me, telling me to speak Chinese so that I wouldn’t forget any more of the language. She wanted me to be able to speak to my grandparents on the phone when we called. She was worried that I might lose my Chinese roots. But speaking English was easier than speaking Chinese, since I was hearing it more and more. Also, I spent a good amount of time with my friends at their houses, where everything was pure American. While they had Barbies and Legos, I still had some of my dolls from China.

While I was going to elementary school in Salt Lake City, my mom always imagined moving to Los Angeles or San Francisco. She thought of them as the "big shot" cities, and she dreamed that I’d go to UCLA or Berkeley.

It was once we moved to Los Angeles in 1996 that my story changed. No longer was I the new, quiet Chinese girl who couldn’t say more than a sentence in English. Now I was the new Chinese girl who turned out to be not Asian enough for some of her Asian classmates.

I didn’t know some Asian traditions

For the first time, I was around a lot of Asian people at school. In seventh grade we were assigned a project to make dinner for our families. I went over to my friend’s house to make the meal. We didn’t end up doing much of the cooking (my friend’s mom did most of it). When the meal was finished, its aroma spread throughout her house—wontons, egg rolls, beef and a sticky rice cake for dessert. When we sat down at the table I was hungry, so I put a piece of beef in my mouth. My friend’s father frowned at me and mumbled under his breath in Chinese, "How rude and disrespectful."

I was confused. Obviously I wasn’t going to spit the meat out, so I just smiled apologetically, and he didn’t say any more. He didn’t look too happy, though. I wasn’t sure what to do, so I decided to ignore his facial expression and continued eating. Then everyone just dug in and pretended as if nothing had happened.

I told my mom what happened later. She explained to me that my friend’s family must follow the Chinese tradition in which the father eats first at dinner, then the mother, then the children, in order of age. I was embarrassed that I didn’t know this tradition, but it wasn’t my fault. No one had ever told me about it. My mom said that her family sometimes followed this when they lived in China. I asked a few of my other Asian friends about it and they were surprised I didn’t know. Most of them told me that it was "an unsaid type of thing." It didn’t matter all that much, but it was respectful if you did it. Not all of their families were strict about it.

Illustration by Danielle Brown, 18

It occurred to me that there were some really traditional Asian families out there. Since my family wasn’t one of them, I had naturally thought that everyone’s family was like mine. It didn’t bother me that we were different, though. I liked that my mother was open to a more American lifestyle. I felt that my friend and her family didn’t think I was Asian enough, while I thought that they were a little out of touch with the times.

As I got older my Asian friends’ traditions started to show more and more, but that was cool. It was actually pretty interesting to learn more about their cultures. I met a friend in the beginning of ninth grade who answered the phone in Korean. The first time I called her, I thought that I had dialed the wrong number. I asked for my friend, and she responded in English. I asked her why she answered in Korean, and she just said that she’d always done that. I thought it was kind of weird at first, like maybe she was too Asian. But I’ve gotten used to it now. When she or her family members answer now, I respond in Korean. I think that learning a new language is pretty cool, and I like knowing a few words in different languages.

I’ll be friends with anyone

Even though I saw myself as someone interested in learning about new Asian things, some of my super Asian friends viewed me as a Twinkie, someone yellow on the outside but white on the inside. This term is usually a derogatory word, but they didn’t mean it that way with me. They commented on this in the 10th grade. I wasn’t offended, because I knew they were right. Some of my friends have so much "Asian pride" that they hang out only with Asians, will date only other Asians and their screen names and e-mail addresses contain the letters "azn," the abbreviation for "Asian" on the Internet. One of my friends doesn’t even like hanging out with me that much because I’m too "white" for her.

I’d never thought about my lack of "Asianness," until I started writing this story. I’m not ashamed of being Asian, but I don’t see a particular reason to be overly proud of it. It’s just another race, like being Hispanic, white or whatever. It makes no difference to me, so why do some people on the Internet need to know that you’re Asian? I never understood it.

I think a lot of my non-Asianness comes from my not really hanging out with Asian people until the seventh grade. Utah had so few Asian people. The first friends that I made after moving to Los Angeles were white, and it’s pretty much remained that way. I eventually started to hang out with Asian people more and more, but I never had only Asian friends. A lot of my friends’ parents would only approve of them dating Asian boys, but my mother just wants me to be happy, no matter the race.

Despite what I’ve said, of course I do have similarities with other Asians. During middle school, I went to Chinese language school where I learned reading and writing (at home we only spoke it). My mom wants me to be able to communicate with all sorts of people, so that’s why she made me go. I hated it at the time. Getting up at 8 a.m. every Saturday was a pain in the butt, but now I’m kind of glad I went through it. It’s nice to be able to communicate in Chinese with my grandparents with a better vocabulary, and also to write a few sentences in Chinese when I need to.

I also have "Asian parents," meaning they’re extra strict about grades. My mom gets angry when I don’t get straight As. It happened for the first time in the seventh grade, when she got my five-week report card. She was disappointed, and I cried at that first B on a report card, even though it didn’t count for anything because it was just a midterm grade. Over the years, she’s become a tad more lenient. However, she’s different because most of my other Asian friends have parents that demand their kids be home for dinner. If I’m out with my friends, my mom is OK with letting me eat out with them. I love how she’s cool about this kind of stuff. I’m glad she trusts me and lets me have fun.

My friends have pretty much accepted the fact that I’ll never be as Asian as I’m "supposed" to be. However, my super Asian friends have gone from wondering why I had no idea that dads were supposed to eat first to being cool with the fact that I never have "azn" in my screen name. In the end, defining race isn’t really that big of a deal. I’ve chosen to define "Asian" in my own way.