Saturday, June 03, 2006

Growing Up Chinese in Middle America

Growing Up Chinese in Middle America

When I was a kid, I never fit in. We didn’t live in the Chinese ghettos; we grew up in the white neighborhoods of northwest Detroit. I guess, in a way that makes me privileged? When I made friends, I was always someone’s “special” Chinese friend. I’ve actually been introduced to other people as “…and this is my Chinese friend.” Was I a trophy or showcase? Did she just score extra points because of my ethnicity? In the Midwest, in the era when I grew up in the 1950’s through the 1970’s and during my early professional life, I often wondered about that. They didn’t know how to act around me, what to feed me, what to do with me. I was like a cactus…exotic, nice to look at, but had prickly thorns, required special careful handling, couldn’t be watered too much or I’d die. Don’t worry, I can eat American food, grilled cheese sandwiches are okay. I’ll survive until I get home and have real food…it’s okay, don’t worry, don’t apologize. They’d fret and fuss – are all white people like that?

But, as I grew, instead of feeling more comfortable, I seldom felt as if I fit in. There were times that I would forget I was Chinese and really feel like I was part of the group, but then I was quickly reminded by someone that, “oh you are so different!” “What do you mean,” I would say. “Oh, you know what I mean,” they’d reply thinking that I readily understood. “No,” I’d say unguardedly, “really, what are you talking about,” smiling, openly receptive to a friendly comment as we were just joking around and laughing. “You’re just so different from …you know…other Chinese,” they would say innocently. And I would be shocked back to reality. Despite the fact that I felt white, I was still in this Chinese body. I still had this Chinese face I couldn’t get rid of. I would stare in the mirror everyday and not see myself, not know who I am. Sometimes, I would expect to see a white person, it’s what I felt like. I would ask myself, “Who are you?” That question would riddle me for a good part of my life and reside in the recesses of my mind. I am Chinese-American and grew up in Middle America in good old Detroit USA.

“You’ll never fit it,” my sister once told me. “Huh,” I was dumbfounded by her honesty. “You’ll never fit in,” she emphasized. “You’re this invisible class,” she gestured simply. I begged for further explanation. I didn’t know if I was being personally criticized or if she was being theoretical. She went on. “Where I work, I only see Asians behind the counters, they’re the service class. “They’re not the power brokers.” “I still don’t see them at the higher levels.” “Sure there are some middle-level managers, you don’t see that too often.” “But, they are abundantly behind the counters…invisible!” “They are under-represented in the higher echelons of corporate America.” “You, not you, but Chinese-you, will never fit in,” she explained.

The Woman Warrior, by Maxine Hong-Kingston

“Oh, okay!” And with that, an entire 50 years’ burden was lifted off my shoulders. I felt as relieved as I did when I read, “Woman Warrior,” by Maxine Hong-Kingston, a book that my sister turned me onto. Up until I read that book, I felt that my mother absolutely hated me and if she had her ‘druthers, she wouldn’t have given birth to my sorry ass. But, like many Asians, I found “Woman Warrior” to be a self-help book. It let me know that I was not alone. It helped me understand the way women and girls are viewed in Chinese society as an underclass. It helped me understand that my mother was, unknowing to her, full of self-loathing and yet had so much love to give. She was a fellow victim and such a conflicted tortured soul. Clearly, I could see it. Did she see it in me?

Then, when my sister lifted the veil with the, “You’ll never fit in,” statement, I was just astonished by its simplicity. She wasn’t being cruel; she was just making an observation, a statement of fact. It wasn’t personal. It was the synthesis of my entire existence…okay, well maybe not, but nonetheless it was revealing. I realized at that moment that despite all the great accomplishments of the ancient Chinese civilization (please don’t make me list them here), despite all the great modern-day scholars, we are still an under-represented class.

Don’t misunderstand, I’m not blaming “whitey” here for all the misgivings between the races. Far from it. Although I do note growing up that, whenever there was a joke made delineating a certain segment of the population, it usually was at the expense of a person of color or from an underprivileged background and made by a privileged Caucasian. Regardless, I blame ignorance and the unwillingness of the masses to fully integrate their species. Whoa! What’d I just say? Let’s face it. Whenever a mixed couple is seen in the Midwest, it causes some stares. Trust me, I know. This may not be so true of the coasts, but it still does happen. I’m not saying that everyone should do a, “guess who’s coming to dinner,” scenario. I’m just saying that until we can accept the idea of a different race into our family, when we open our minds to that idea, there will not be that open arms policy in the boardroom. Because, after all, who elects whom in the boardroom? The answer is based simply upon trust, affiliation, a feeling of kinship.

Sure, we are neighborly to the Black guy down the street, or the Asian woman across the hall, but would we allow our daughter or son to marry him or her? Would we welcome her and allow him into our family? It’s that feeling of kinship that we share when we see our same kind, eye-to-eye, and get that instant connection. Do you get that feeling from a different species? For either side of the coin, I don’t think I could answer that question. That is what allows a step up the corporate ladder. When we can look at another person and not see race nor ethnicity, when that is invisible to us and is no longer a question on an application (voluntary or not), that is when we have achieved equilibrium. Is that environment available now? How do we go about achieving that? Hell if I know. All I do know is that race relations don’t get much talk! What does get a lot of talk is a bunch of stupid crap like Jessica Simpson or Brangelina.

Black Like Me, by John Howard Griffin

Yell-Oh Girls!, by Vickie Nam

There have been many times that I have said, “I am Chinese-American.” But, I said it half-heartedly; it was basically a statement of fact. There have been times when I really have wished I were a white male. Life would have been so much easier. But today, I can say, “I am proud to be Chinese-American.” Go read the book, “Black Like Me,” by John Howard Griffin or “Chink,” by Cheng Tsu-Wu or “Yell-Oh Girls!,” by Vickie Nam. All are excellent books on racism, but none can really take you into the depths of confusion or the guts of despair unless you experience it first hand. In my next life, when I came back, I want to come back as my mother's Chinese daughter…there is still a lot of work to be done.

p.s. please don’t send me hate mail


Blogger Publius said...

The most human thing to do is to gravitate towards our own. Regardless of what our own is. Our own can be white. Our own can be female. Our own can be reggae listeners. Our own can be alcoholics. Our own can be anything. If you are black, Jewish, female, from Vermont, isn’t it likely you would want to seek out any other black, Jewish, females in Vermont too? No one should be embarrassed for wanting to be around their own. It doesn’t meat you look down on “others” it only means that you want to spend your time with those who know where you come from and what it is like to be you. Not seeking out those like you is the same as turning your back on yourself.

7:20 PM PDT  

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