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Michigan in Color: I am not ashamed

Courtesy of Kevin Chung

BY KEVIN CHUNG

Published February 23, 2014

To this day, I have never been, nor will I ever be, (insert identity) enough: Never Chinese enough, never American enough. Born and raised in Michigan to an immigrant family, my life as a Chinese-American has been manifold. Sometimes Chinese, sometimes American; always partial, never complete. Forever in shame.

“Aww, you’re so Chinese!” they tell me. “Wow you are basically white!” they tell me. “Where are you really from?” they ask me. “You are definitely from America. It’s obvious,” they tell me.

Chinese is in my blood — it’s in the prowess of my name, the scents of ginger and sesame oil during dinner, and the sentimental furnishings that make our house our home. I come from a childhood filled with Saturday dim sum outings in Windsor with extended family, my mother’s succulent congee to get me through a cold, and bright red envelopes of good fortune given on birthdays and holidays. Grocery shopping was two-fold for us — a trip to Meijer for our American food, ideal for school lunches; and a trip to local Chinese grocery stores for the food we knew, loved and cooked.

But being American is another thing — being American is a struggle.

I am continuously haunted by my “otherness” when my white peers talk about the days their parents listened to Queen and Bruce Springsteen and watched “Cheers” and “The Golden Girls.” I feel like a deer in the headlights when others drop their jaw is disbelief that my family has never been to a Red Lobster, or a Texas Roadhouse, or an Applebee’s, or any other popular American restaurant. This isn’t the world my parents grew up in. I was the one who introduced my parents to Fleetwood Mac. I was the one who told them about Janis Joplin. I was the one who ate at Big Boy and Chili’s. I was the one who watched “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.” Call me an uncultured joker if you must, but trying to compensate for decades of unfamiliar American culture is work.

And I can’t even begin to tell you how many times I’ve been asked to translate Chinese characters printed on signs or tattooed on flesh. Every time I admit my incompetency with the Chinese language, I am stabbed with feral nods of disappointment and flushed with waves of inadequacy — of shame. I am suddenly not Chinese enough.

You see, my English skills have improved at the expense of the language I grew up with — all part of my pursuit to become “American.” My Cantonese has turned into a dissonant convolution of choppy English and French interjecting every other word.

“But I thought you were Chinese?” they tell me. “Shouldn’t you know your own language?” they tell me. “Aren’t you proud of being Chinese?” they tell me.

Shame.

Through its flaws and imperfections, I do love America. But I don’t like that my assimilation — my Americanization — came at the expense of my culture. I hate that being American meant being white.

My stomach churns when I think of my fallacious assimilation into White America. I felt annoyed by other Asian-Americans for being friends with one another and not “assimilating,” or making friends with non-Asian-Americans like I was doing. Hearing Chinese spoken in public made me want to hide because I could feel the stares from people judging us. Walking past groups of Asian-Americans in high school jolted discomfort in me as I made an effort to avoid being seeing as “one of them”; for fear of being seen as “un-American” — whatever the hell that means.

But that discomfort stemmed from an inescapable feeling that I fully did not fit in with them either. I felt guilty about how clueless I am about many Chinese celebrations. I was oblivious about the latest episode of the evening dramas on TVB, and I didn’t have a lot of Asian-American friends. I wasn’t one of them. I’ve been made so ashamed of being Chinese — of being “different” and non-white — that I regretfully pushed back that side of me for so long.

The nods of disapproval and the malevolent jokes from other Chinese-Americans sting when they discover just how inadequate I am — how “American” I am. I feel as though I’m a letdown when I say I’m not going into the STEM fields. I more frequently cook chicken piccata or black bean burgers than the food that I grew up with. Even at work when a Chinese visitor approaches me hoping I can be their translator, I feel their level of respect for me plummet when I nervously respond in English.

“But you’re Chinese!” they tell me. “How could you forget your own language?!” they tell me. “How dishonorable and disgraceful,” they tell me. “Aren’t you proud of being Chinese?” they tell me.

Needless to say, I continue to feel lost in the dichotomy of my two worlds. The energy I spent trying to fit in — to be American and to be Chinese — was taxing. I wanted a space where I fit in and didn’t have to always think about my race so much to the point that I wished I was born white — that I was so willing to give up my heritage and my parents’ story to escape the perpetual shame that haunts me at night. I felt ashamed about who I was, and who I wasn’t.

But let me get some things straight. I am proud of who I am; of the childhood of hot dogs and Independence Day parades, and of the delicate moon cake during the Mid-Autumn festival. I am proud to be Chinese-American. I am not a Twinkie. I am not whitewashed. I should not be told that I am not (insert identity) enough by anyone. I’ve expended so much energy trying to embrace my Chinese heritage while balancing the American-ness I needed to survive that I am exhausted. I will never be Chinese enough, nor will I ever be American enough.

And you know what? I’m finally okay with that. Rather, I am my own shade of imperfection, steeped with conflicting ethnic narratives, navigating through the ever-so complexity of my multi-faceted life. I don’t need non-Chinese people telling me I don’t fit into their expectations of what it means to be Chinese. I do not need other Chinese people to tell me I’m a disgrace to my community — to feel unworthy of my heritage. I do not need people telling me I’m an uncultured outsider.

I should not and do not need to prove to others that I deserve to be who I am. I should not be made ashamed of who I am and who I’m not. I am my own; my experiences are mine and I am my own narrative. This is my story.

My name is Kevin, and I am not ashamed of who I am.

Michigan in Color is the Daily’s opinion section designated as a space for and by students of color at the University of Michigan. To contribute your voice or find out more about MiC, e-mail michiganincolor@umich.edu.


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