I am a wallflower to my Chinese American heritage. I observe and try to understand the strange mingling of Chinese and American cultures at the party, but I’m stuck against the wall: excluded, awkward, no dance partner. There’s cultural and historical richness everywhere, from both the East and the West, but I have no commonalities with anyone here. I’m disconnected, with two worlds thriving right in front of me, too lost to find a home in either.
History, particularly the way that Chinese immigrants were treated with hostile and racist attitudes when they first arrived in America, has definitely set a precedent for displacement in Chinese American identity. This is an inheritance that I can’t necessarily control. There’s another aspect to the identity conflicts I face, however, and it stems from the differences between Chinese and American cultures.
China and America seem to be completely different. Just one classic example is the way prototypical Americans value and even glorify individualism, while the Chinese tend to prioritize group image over self-hood. There is an American Dream, but no Chinese Dream. It’s difficult to reconcile these stark differences.
Since Chinese and American cultures are in such opposition to each other, often I find myself void of any culture at all. This is the essence of the Chinese American experience. People like me face a unique sense of displacement: the loneliness that comes with being surrounded by two entirely different crowds, while simultaneously being unable to join either one. If I try to honor one culture, I feel like I am betraying the other one. I can never quite honor both at the same time, and thus opt to stay out of it altogether.
The sense of rejection from both cultures is particularly daunting especially in the face of generational divisions within diasporic families, leading to cultural apathy. I don’t feel much for China, yet my parents seem to have some sort of unbreakable connection to their homeland.
I cannot pinpoint any particular time in my life where I felt completely lost regarding my identity. It’s always been more of a background issue. But from small things like accepting Panda Express’s fake, overly sweetened Chinese food, to not following the correct order of strokes when writing in Mandarin, I feel farther from my Chinese heritage now than I ever was as a kid. I’m terrified that the more time passes, the less I’ll ever be able to reclaim my roots.
What further blurs the lines is when traditional Chinese customs become Americanized. Chinese New Year parades, for example, are an American creation, with the purpose to encourage tourism and make Chinese Americans less intimidating to the general public, especially during the Cold War era. There really is no point in trying to connect with traditional Chinese practices, because there is no true Chinese culture anymore once American customs have infiltrated them.
None of us Chinese Americans belong to the same China, but our one commonality is that we don’t belong anywhere. And when we have been fed bastardized versions of Chinese traditions all our lives, when the only two homes we have wage war on principle, we can’t help but feel some sort of apathy toward our heritage.
There is, however, a sense of comfort and even creativity in this isolation. Being surrounded by opposing cultures is surely a setback that creates confusion, but it could also be an advantage. Forging my own pathway and culture out of opposing values is the power and the perk of being a Chinese wallflower: seeing, observing, and ultimately coming to an understanding.
I have the best of two worlds in the palms of my hands. I have, for example, the American value of individuality and the Chinese value of caring collectively. I have loyalty and liberty. I have the doggedness to pursue what I want and the wisdom to understand why it matters.
I can combine American and Chinese characters to fight for both myself and my community. I have all the power and strength I need to mesh my two worlds together and find a home in them.
Like Stephen Chbosky wrote in my favorite book, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, “Even if we don’t have the power to choose where we come from, we can still choose where we go from there.” Being proud of being Chinese lies in the little things too: in enjoying my mom’s cooking much more than Panda Express, in the small burst of pride I feel every time I recognize a Mandarin character without the pinyin. Just like how all the big, bad cultural conflicts can add up, the tiny, seemingly insignificant things also count.
I didn’t have a say in the kinds of historical precedents influencing my identity and experiences now, but I do have the privilege and freedom to move forward. While I may not be as proud of my heritage as my parents are, I am proud of my parents for making the sacrifice of leaving their homelands to pursue a better life in America. I am proud of all the other Chinese wallflowers out there who had the courage to attend the party in the first place.
Ultimately, if you pull me up from the ground, you’ll find that my roots aren’t completely rotten after all.
Photo: Humphrey Muleba