Phillipian Commentary: On Being ‘American’ Enough

“So where are you really from?”

That question has always bothered me. I’ve received it more times than I can count on two hands. Where I’m really from is rural Virginia, and my childhood consisted of Percy Jackson and American Girl dolls. My childhood was not unique. I’ve never lived anywhere else, that is my normal. So, what exactly do people expect from this question? It comes from a preconceived notion is placed in their mind, that, frankly, I’m not American. At least, not American enough.

Who exactly is ‘they’ in these situations? No, they aren’t the blubbering racists you might think, attempting to slander me and my heritage. More typically, they are naive people acting on the assumption that I’m not from here. They mean well, but they view me as a key to validate their knowledge and further their cultural enrichment about the ‘exotic’ place they read about in magazines.

As Shirley Acuna, a Peruvian-American, said for “The New York Times,” “They want to put me in a box or assign me a label. So the question of ‘what are you’ has always made me feel defensive of who I am and how I’m presented in the world.”

Both of my parents are from China and they emigrated over to America after college. Growing up under a communist government, they were restricted from many basic freedoms. My father grew up with the Red Guard terrorizing his neighborhood as his childhood was enveloped by the height of the Cultural Revolution. They moved to a strange new country in their twenties for a chance at a better life, with only a few dollars to suffice. My parents wholeheartedly believe in the American Dream, coming from a country that was anything but free.

American society places this inconceivable pressure on immigrants or first-generation Americans to conform to certain norms; in essence, ‘Americanize’ themselves to fit in. The Pew Institute says about 60 percent of first-generation Americans believe that they are a “typical American,” while only four-in-ten first-generation Asian Americans speak their native languages. This shows a common trend with children of immigrants feeling a disconnect from their heritage, one I often feel as well.

To an extent, Americanization is not healthy. Of course, it is normal to incorporate parts of a new culture and adapt to new environments. However, Americanization promotes losing an immigrant’s previous cultural identity in favor of taking on established American customs.

With the current tension of the political climate and certain parts of America becoming more and more anti-immigration, current immigrants feel this additional pressure to not stand out. Many strive to establish themselves as non-threatening to the general public, which they believe can be achieved through complete assimilation.

This particular narrative of ‘Americanizing’ is present in many households, and mine is no exception. While my father worked in the Navy, he not only adopted perfect posture and announcing his E.T.A. before arriving, he also began to feel the pressure to ‘westernize.’ Many of his white commanding officers who mocked his accent, equated his linguistic barrier to incompetence. In an attempt to prove them otherwise, my parents have tried to employ this philosophy of Americanizing in a positive light to create new experiences. They hoped to incorporate the best aspects of their Chinese childhood, whether it was about snacks, family, or traditions. Despite the good intentions, my two cultures were so distant, I couldn’t bridge the gap no matter how hard I tried, then again I never tried that hard.

We were exposed to all aspects of Asian culture — but from the time I was a toddler, I’ve separated that facet of my identity from my daily life. I felt an urge to compensate for my ethnicity by washing myself of any Asian traces while out in public. I didn’t want to give them any more excuses to doubt me like they doubted my parents. I just couldn’t be another dull statistic; diminished into another stereotype. While at home we ate homemade dumplings and spoke Mandarin at the dinner table. At school, I became ashamed of my weird smelling food and even my last name. Eventually, my responses at home adapted to English when my parents prompted me in Mandarin. I recall so many nights that I wished I was born in a normal American household, where there were Friday night scrabble games, baked mac and cheese, and large family reunions. Maybe then I could feel like the ‘typical’ American.

In a school like Andover, where about a quarter of the students are Asian, it makes it easier for me to embrace my ethnicity. However, I know many other students do not have that luxury. I witnessed countless students, whether international or domestic, feeling secure in their respective identities. As I’ve heard students’ stories, it’s inspired me to appreciate my heritage significantly more as well. I no longer view it as a burden I must hide, but rather an opportunity for access to two intricate, enriching cultures. My particular concoction of cultures is quite common in America, so I’m definitely not alone. I still don’t feel ready to shout my ethnicity from every rooftop, but I can now own my identity with pride.

I still will receive the occasional “knee how” accompanied by a pair of expectant eyes like a Duolingo level, but I merely laugh off these statements. Being only Chinese or American does not feel quite right to me. Geordano Liriano, a Dominican-American student at the University of Iowa, described it most accurately for the Gazette: “I am the hyphen because I exist in both.’

I want to be proud of who I am. And who I am is Chinese-American.