Photo depicting a diverse group of individuals standing against a yellow wall holding protest signs against racism.

OPINION | I Used to Dream of Being American

by Chen Yi Huang

There was nothing I envied more than seeing my white classmates live a life that I wished belonged to me.

One day during second-grade lunch, I sat with my friends at our usual table as we ate in the cafeteria. I had brought my own lunch because I wasn’t used to eating the lunch served at school. The school often served hamburgers, hot dogs, or pizza, along with fruits, like pears and tangerines. That day, I had already finished the fried rice my mom packed me, and I searched for the piece of wrapped bread in my lunch bag. Carefully, I unfolded it as the foil crinkled under my fingertips, excited as I felt my mouth begin to water. My mom had made me two Chinese baozi with pork, diced shrimp, and sliced sausages stuffed inside the bun. As I took a bite, the sweetness and flavor melted in my mouth as I craved more. It was then I noticed one of the staff supervisors walking near us. I remember the way her dark curls rested on her shoulders and the way her thin-framed glasses complemented the wrinkles across her pale face. She stared at me for a long moment before her gaze traveled to the food I was eating.

“Oh, you’re eating bread again? I see you eat it every day.”

I could hear my friends’ laughter stop short as their attention shifted to me. I hadn’t expected the lady to talk to me. I wanted to tell her: “It wasn’t just any bread. It was really good!” But I was too embarrassed to form any words. I only nodded, keeping my head down. The staff lady didn’t say anything else as she walked away, leaving a wave of shame inside me. My hands lowered under the table as I quietly took a bite of the baozi, afraid it would draw attention to other teachers passing by. The following days, I would tense up when I felt her presence drawing near at the hard look she gave and comments leaving her lips. I’ve always wondered why she didn’t comment on what other students around my table ate, only me. Was I really the odd one out? But then I remember the other students had corn dogs, mashed potatoes, macaroni and cheese — a typical American lunch.

The need to hide my food followed during third grade summer school. It wasn’t until the start of fourth grade that I felt comfortable enough putting my food on the table to eat, without the worry of being judged. But by then, I found myself lining up for the cafeteria food and rarely asking my mom to prepare my home lunch for school. It was during my fifth grade graduation assembly that I recognized the same staff lady being praised as she held a bouquet of colorful flowers and announced her retirement to the auditorium. People cheered and applauded. She may have forgotten the things she said to me, but I hadn’t.

If you grew up eating American food, does that make you American? If you grew up eating your culture’s food but switched to American dishes, what does that make you?

I knew that even after eating typical American food, I still didn’t feel American.

“What did you get for Christmas?”

“How was Halloween?”

Those were the questions I got asked whenever a holiday passed, by teachers, classmates, sometimes friends. I was accustomed to saying, “Good. And yours?” But the truth was: I didn’t celebrate it. I had lied my way in. My parents didn’t eat turkey or pie for Thanksgiving. They never bought a Christmas tree or hung up Christmas decorations around the house. Surely, they bought us Christmas presents once — but only because they wanted us to feel included.

When I was little, my mom would drive my brother and me around our neighborhood at night and we would peek our heads out the car windows as we giggled to ourselves. Our eyes would light up in excitement as bright red and green lights flooded the outsides of our neighbors’ houses and trinkets of decorations hung on their doors.

The only holidays my family celebrated every year were the Lunar New Year and the Mid-Autumn Festival. As a kid, a small part of me wished I had someone to share my culture’s traditions with so I felt like at least something I celebrated mattered. I always wondered how my classmates felt the night before Christmas, as they slept knowing their presents were tucked inside a twinkling, decorated tree hung with ornaments. I wondered if they felt excited as they prepared their Halloween costumes the week before and went out with friends to knock on people’s doors. “陌生人给你糖果, 不要拿。你有看新闻吗?” (“When strangers give you candy, do not take it. Have you seen the news?”) That’s what my mom always said when my brother and I complained about not going to trick-or-treat. She always told us it didn’t feel the same when we celebrated Western holidays. It’s as if she knew something was missing. Eventually, we stopped asking.

At some point, I realized some teachers and staff were trying something new. They taught us about other traditions celebrated in different parts of the world. At first, I was surprised. My classmates started sharing the ways they celebrated their culture’s holidays and which holidays they didn’t celebrate. I felt connected to them in some way, as if we did have something in common, and I didn’t feel as alone. Yet, when we briefly touched on the traditions of my culture, a familiar feeling crept above the surface. What was it? Anger? Jealousy? I don’t know, but all this time I had been trying to fit into American culture and their holidays but was left with little to no progress. Yet now they were able to easily slip their way into my traditions as if they’d always belonged. I wanted to tell them, “No, you can’t. Celebrate the holidays you’ve already been used to.” I felt defensive. Like they wanted to take away something I’d always been too afraid to show. If they had it in their grasp, they could put it on display for everyone else to see. Did they really want to learn? Or was it just a fleeting moment of excitement that would die away quickly?

If I couldn’t be American, then does that mean I am Chinese?

Of course I am. Right? I am Chinese, but I didn’t feel Chinese. I felt a barrier that disconnected myself from my own culture. When my family walked into a Chinese restaurant, the waiters would speak to my parents about the menu in Cantonese. But when their gaze landed on me, the atmosphere shifted and one thing changed: They started speaking English. Once, a waitress came up to me but kept her eyes on my parents as she asked, “你的孩子会说中文吗?” (“Can your kids speak Chinese?”) To which I responded in fluent Mandarin, which genuinely shocked and impressed her. What she thought was a “skill” of mine made me realize maybe I wasn’t as close to my culture as my parents. Waiters didn’t expect me to know my mother language because they assumed I was raised American.

Sometimes, my parents and auntie made comments about how my brother and I needed to practice more Chinese. It didn’t matter how much we learned from watching Chinese videos on TV, reading Chinese books, or writing pages of it. Our education was constantly compared to students in China, the reminder that our Chinese level only met elementary school standards. We were falling behind. The endless amount of time I spent studying Chinese would seemingly never be enough. But when I was little, did I truly believe the language was as important as they said? No. Everyone around me at school spoke English. We were in America. I used to wonder why my parents wouldn’t learn English. If they were fluent, wouldn’t it have been easier? If they had to choose again, would they wish they had stayed in China? No, they would’ve still immigrated here — trust me, I’ve asked them multiple times already. If I had to choose for them, I wish we had stayed in China. I might’ve hesitated if you had asked me the same question when I was in seventh grade.

During the rise and spread of COVID-19, I was just like many others: afraid the sickness was going to come get me and relatively bored at home. I remember watching TV as the news broadcasted the rising number of deaths from the virus and the ongoing process of vaccines being made. Maybe the news stopped there for you. But for me, I watched as the anchors talked about the intense spread of Asian hate. People holding up signs that read: “Go back to China,” racist attacks, and verbal abuse were everywhere. Some Americans didn’t welcome us because they blamed us for “starting” the pandemic. Some even referred to it as the “Chinese virus,” as if we were more contagious than the virus itself. Fear twisted into hate. The term “sinophobia” refers to a fear or intense dislike of Chinese people or culture. It is discrimination and racism directed toward us, and it was on the rise. I remember watching a protest video where a young Asian woman held up a sign that read: “My race is not a virus.” I wondered, if we left America as they wished, would COVID stop spreading? Were we really the problem? Of course not. Racism is.

A while ago, I told someone once that I’d like to visit China sometime in the future. He asked me, “Why? Isn’t the economy trash there? But we can still visit, though, because it’s got some nice scenery.” I couldn’t help but feel a sharp twist of anger threatening to rise inside me. Was the only good thing about China the landscapes? Was everything else about it not worthy enough to be considered beautiful? Maybe he didn’t know enough information about the country, so he made assumptions based on what was said through media platforms. Of course, what he said wasn’t completely wrong, but I wish he had phrased it differently. Was that something people said so casually? But he knew I was Chinese. Or maybe in that split second, he didn’t remember, and the words had already left his mouth.

Did I even look Chinese?

Starting in eighth grade, my hair started to change. Loose curl patterns fell down my shoulders, while some strands under were wavy and straight. When I didn’t style it carefully enough, frizz started to overtake and tangle up my head.

I remember walking to one of my classes and feeling a gentle pull on my ponytail. I whipped my head back, seeing one of my classmates and their friends behind me, saying something in Spanish to each other as they nodded with a small smile and scurried away. Maybe they found my hair fascinating, or perhaps it was a subtle microaggression toward the different texture of my hair. I never found out what they said. But it didn’t matter, because it was enough for me to realize that I don’t look like my mom with her straight black hair or even like some of my friends. Something was different about me. At first, I thought it was a bad thing. I didn’t want to feel odd, even if it was over something small. I just wanted to be normal. So I brushed it out every morning and every night. I forcefully pulled the comb from the roots and to the ends of my hair, not caring when my scalp hurt, because at least it looked like I was Chinese. There were times I was tempted to buy a hair iron and pull my hair straight with heat. It wasn’t until later that I finally embraced my curly hair as what it was. I tried product after product and styled it naturally because I thought it looked nice. I saw it as something good. Even classmates and friends complimented my hair. My grandma and parents have always said some people are willing to spend hundreds of dollars in salons just to get it curly like mine. And I was so lucky to have naturally curly hair. In fact, I’ll let you in on a little secret: My mom used to have curly hair too.

So then, why was I hiding something that was part of me? I had spent the majority of my life questioning who I was and hoping to find a place that I would fit in — from my food, my language, and to my hair. I tried to bury everything I was and am because I wanted to feel included and like I belonged. Soon, I realized trying to hide my own culture also turned into hiding myself. Deeply rooted was fear from my childhood that followed quietly throughout my life. But over time, I’ve learned that, just like everything else, my culture was part of me and something beautiful and important to cherish. If I was able to embrace and love my hair, the same goes for my culture. I love it not because I had to, but because I want to.

So, what is it like to be American? I’m still not sure. I’ve always felt in the middle, stuck between two vastly different cultures and identities. Not exactly fully American or fully Chinese. I just want to be me.

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