There is a great myth surrounding my type of immigrant family. Rosy cheeked and bright eyed, we arrive on the shores of the New World full of the promise of opportunity. Percolating with spicy foods, strange poultices for every ailment, and wise sayings, we are stitched into a multicultural quilt and, it is assumed, raise children with two perfectly intertwined identities. Yet for years, I fluctuated between Chinese and American, unsure of where I fit.
I see myself, bleary eyed, stumbling out of the Dulles airport terminal, still foreign to the world, even more foreign to America. I see my Dad giving me my first Barbie, feel my adoration of her blue eyes and blonde hair, marks of the beginning of my obsession. I touched her shyly, marveling at her beautiful, delicate features, so different from my mother’s paper dolls. Quickly, those dolls were hidden away in a flurry of hot tears and embarrassment after my first friend dubbed them “stupid Chinese trash.”
From that instant, I lusted after American culture. After pancakes, Disney princesses, and Saturday morning cartoons. I pinched my flat Asian nose every day in hopes of it one day standing higher, taller, prouder. As if my nose could scream “I’m American!” any better than my jet black hair could.
Quickly, I began to realize my frenzied Americanization was impossible. My tables were laden with Chinese foods and math workbooks to be done after school. I gave my Sundays, with the deepest dread and loathing, over to endless Chinese classes that screamed I was not American. I spent much of my pre-adolescent years drowning in the abyss of my unknown, unwanted culture- and it didn’t stare back.
I began to grow up. My parents began telling me stories, not ones of beautiful princesses in sweeping gowns, but their own. My background and narrative transitioned to one of immersion rather than erasure, and I began to piece together my own quilt.
My mother told me one of her first memories was my grandmother eating dirt to fill her belly so the last of the flour could be distributed amongst her children. My parents, hailing from the dirt-poor mountains of rural China, were both on the younger end of their large families. The sole gas lamp was given to the eldest siblings and my parents got up at sunrise to finish their homework. The only school was a six mile walk away, and with China’s entrance exam system for college, higher education seemed impossible. Yet my parents persisted, and went to a graduate school with a 1 in 1000 acceptance rate. They worked so I could have the privilege of growing up elsewhere, offered a blank page untainted by their scorched past or brutal education systems. During my year abroad, I visited their hometowns, touched the crumbling walls of their childhood homes and sat in their rickety beds. Living in a foreign land for a year versus traveling there for a few weeks gave me a unique understanding of Chinese culture, of my background, that I never had before.
One year ago, I became a U.S. citizen and my epiphany struck. My environment did not define me. The “American” that I so desperately pursued is a mindset, a philosophy, something undefinable by how I dressed, what I ate, or the fads in which I indulged. America is a place of reinvention, of second chances, somewhere anyone with ambition and wit can succeed. Uniquely poised, I will finish my own quilt, the voice of my past still resonating in the hopes of my future.