Rediscovering Your Cultural Identity Is Possible
Like many other children of immigrants growing up in a white-centric community, I tried to hide my identity most of my formative years. Whenever my mom would pick me up from school and call out, “Fang Fang!” (my Chinese name), I’d shush her. “Speak Ennnnnglish, Mom,” I’d whisper. I remember kids asking me why my eyes look the way they do. I remember getting off the school bus and running home in tears, telling my parents that kids were teasing for being different.
“Why do I have to be Chinese?” I’d ask.
“It’s who you are,” my dad would say. “Be proud of your heritage. Be proud of being Chinese.”
Easy for him to say, I thought. He doesn’t have to deal with elementary school bullies. For a young girl in suburban Ohio, being proud of your heritage was no easy feat. It was easier to blend in, adopt a palatable Midwestern identity, and just completely ignore your cultural background. That’s how I spent many of my younger years, at least—and now, in my late twenties, I’m regretting it.
I don’t think I’m alone in this. Many of my Asian friends (and friends from other ethnic backgrounds) experienced similar childhood bullying. Blending in felt like a means of survival in those daunting years. Like me, many eventually moved to coastal cities where there is more diversity, and now feel more accepted for who they are (and accept themselves for who they are). Everywhere I go in LA, I see others—old and young—who look like me.
But when I’m around native Mandarin Chinese speakers in Chinatown or the San Gabriel Valley (China City, as some call it), I suddenly feel like I stand out yet again. This time, for not being able to speak my native tongue fluently and for being out of touch with my very rich cultural background. As I listen to the vibrant Chinese conversations around me, I worry it’s too late. I worry I’m too whitewashed and there’s no way I can walk the line between my Midwestern upbringing and Chinese identity.
I also realize, the older I get, that these worries—while valid—don’t have to play out to be true. I will always be Chinese-American, and it’s never too late to explore my identity. Now that I have an appreciation for my culture, I can take the time to explore different facets of it, from food to traditions. Sometimes that’s easy. I will never pass up dim sum, Chinese baked goods, or bubble tea. I’m always down to try new Chinese fare.
Then, there are other more difficult aspects I am trying to understand, like the turbulent politics and history my parents lived through, under Mao Zedong’s reign, that shaped them. It’s something I’ve researched a lot and have begun discussing with my parents in more recent years.
When I traveled to China more than a decade ago with my family, I was fifteen and all about the shopping, fashion, food, and photo ops. I am now planning another trip to China (finally!) during which I’ll explore historical landmarks, visit my parents’ hometowns, really take in aspects of Chinese culture, attempt to relearn the language (I was fluent as a child but lost it over time), and reconnect with my family overseas. I’ve enlisted my cousin in New York City—my only extended family member that lives in the states—to visit with me and be my tour guide. He’s happy to do it, and says his friends will think I’m “cool” for being American. We’ll see about that.
Reconnecting with my culture is very important to me. As my parents get older and I live across the country from them, I am desperate to feel this connection with them. They did a bold thing in moving to the U.S., and there is a huge part of their lives before that I’ll never fully understand (and didn’t want to understand as a child). I hope to have a better grasp on my culture as I go through the years, and I hope to use that knowledge as a way to bond with my parents and relatives overseas.
I also hope to use what I learn as a way to feel more connected to myself. I want to get in touch with my identity, as a first generation Chinese-American. There were many times when I felt alone growing up. I realize now, I am far from alone.
I’ve made wonderful Asian-American friends with whom I feel solidarity and a special connection. Plus, all it takes is a quick Internet search to see videos and read accounts of other Chinese-Americans sharing their experiences. I hope this helps me find greater community both in LA and eventually in China.
It’s easy to blame yourself for not putting in the work to discover your cultural roots. For a long time, I was upset at myself for rejecting Chinese culture, but the thing is—it’s really never too late. With the world becoming more interconnected than ever, there are endless resources and communities online—and in the real world—that can bring your closer to yourself, and to others like you.
Belinda Cai is a multimedia journalist who frequently writes about lifestyle, social and environmental justice, and identity and culture. She has a master’s in journalism and communications from the University of Southern California, and hails from Cincinnati, Ohio. When she’s not writing, she’s Wikipedia-spiraling, staying active, enjoying nature, and thrifting. Check out her website and Instagram.