Thursday, July 10, 2008
On Not Being Chinese
So. We've established that I am not white. Good for me, right? Which brings the follow-up question for a bi-racial (white/Chinese) guy - then am I Chinese?
The short answer? No.
Now let's get into the long answer.
We'll start off by handling semantics real quick. Obviously, being born in the U.S., I can't possibly be literally Chinese. Therefore, for the sake of expedience, when I say "Chinese," I actually mean "Chinese-American."
By blood, then, I am Chinese. My mom was born in China. That makes my blood (half of it) Chinese. But, as I argued with my "Not White" post, we all know that blood doesn't really have that much say in regards to race in this country. A large part of it is experience, and that's where my answer lies.
Granted, I grew up with some Chinese influence. My grandmother tried to teach my brother and I to read and write Chinese (to my knowledge - it was a long time ago - Mandarin, although my family is from Shanghai). For most of my conscious life, my grandparents lived in Oakland Chinatown, where we would visit them somewhat regularly. My grandmother taught Tai-Chi and I was given her sword after her death. As she got older, my grandma would forget that I didn't speak Chinese and would hold "conversations" with me in Chinese (I think Shanghai-ese). At home, we ate tons of rice and used chopsticks relatively often. I got somewhat used to seeing "strange" things eaten around me (although, I was mostly picky about eating the same).
There's a little bit more to it, but not a whole lot. Because I mainly grew up in white American culture. My schools were largely white (although, being the Bay Area, there was still a decent number of Asian - mostly Chinese - folks around). My friends - when I was little - were mostly white. It wasn't until I grew older that my circle of friends stopped being so dominated by white kids. My home life was mostly a white way of life with a dash of rice, soy sauce, and chopsticks. I failed to learn to read or write Chinese characters, and I never learned the language (any dialect thereof).
So many of the experiences that tend to connect a person to some sort of true "Chinese-ness" were denied me. My appearance didn't really help, either, as - to full-blood Chinese folks - I didn't look "Chinese" at all. My grandmother's friends would often question her about me and my brother when we were in Chinatown. I always felt tall and white while visiting her. Early on (this was before my conscious memories), my grandmother referred to me and my brother as "the shame of the family" because of our mix.*
Due to this, I have never felt fully connected to my Chinese blood. I have found myself trying, in recent years, to bridge that gap, but it is difficult.** Because of my ambiguous look (I'm just as likely to be thought of as a number of other races other than Asian - let alone Chinese), I've never been fully accepted by "real" Chinese. Sure, I can connect on some levels, but there are a number of ways that I am the "third-rate Asian sell-out" that some Asian kids at my high school accused me of being. I'm working to remedy that, but it's not so easy to do, considering my background.
And so, when thinking about my Chinese-ness, it really comes to the culture. I am not white from experiences generally based on my physical traits and how that makes people interact with me. But, with my Chinese side, I feel "not Chinese" because of my limited connection to Chinese (and now I'm talking more of "true" Chinese and not just "Chinese-American") culture. I think the lack of language plays a HUGE part of that (as I strongly believe no true understanding of a people can take place without being able to speak their language fluently).***
I also think my visual disconnect in appearance greatly contributed to my internal disconnect. Since I felt like I didn't "look Chinese,"**** since I so often was mistaken for something else, since I received numerous messages telling me I wasn't "really Chinese" - it all led to me not embracing it as my own. To keeping distance between myself and a full effort to incorporate Chinese culture into my way of being. And that created a "vicious circle" situation that fed upon itself.
And so only after my Chinese grandmother's death (she was the last of my grandparents) did I make the conscious decision to start becoming "more Chinese." To start really making Chinese culture part of who I am on a more "real" level. Now, I actually know a little bit of what Chinese New Year is about - and I celebrate it in a way I never did as a kid. Again - I'm learning the language and planning on living in China sometime soon (within the next year or two). I've considered learning a Chinese martial art.***** And I believe that if I follow through on all these things, I may actually become more Chinese. Not fully - not ever can I be fully Chinese, due to my mix - but much more than I am now.
And I am excited for that prospect. To understand that half of myself and my family in a way that I never have before. To honor that side. And, as I am somebody who follows through on things once I've made a decision, it will happen.
But - until then - I'm not quite Chinese, either. More Chinese than white, for sure - but still with a lot further to go.
* She got over it, becoming fiercely proud of our accomplishments in later life. I think the fact that all of my married cousins have white spouses contributed to that.
** Finally trying to learn Chinese (Mandarin, simply because that makes the most sense), planning a long-term visit to China, etc.
*** When living in Tanzania, it was the mastery of Swahili that made my mind switch into "Tanzania-mode." Automatically using various turns-of-phrase and expressions and exclamations changed not only how I spoke, but how I looked out into the world. I still find myself slipping back into a "Tanzania mind-set" when I speak (or, much more often) write or read Swahili. And yes, I am fully aware of the irony that I speak Swahili fluently, but am barely a beginner in Chinese - that's for another day.
**** Personally, I feel like I look more Japanese in terms of body-build and overall facial appearance (especially when I have my quasi-facial hair going).
***** I told Ah-Boo (my grandmother) once that I was going to start learning Tai-Chi, and she responded with shock, "Why would you do that!? Tai-Chi is for old people!" And that effectively ended my Tai-Chi drive (once I'm much older, though, I plan on returning to it).