Belatedly starting to understand my Asian Canadian high school classmates

Greater Hongkouver is loaded with Asians. There’s the “University of Brilliant Chinese” (UBC), and it has the fastest way to get from India to China (the Alex Fraser Bridge). There are two Chinatowns, and whole shopping malls that are 100%-Chinese-language-English-is-absolutely-unnecessary (we’ve gone there to practice Chinese). The parents of Taiwanese kids I’ve tutored complain that their kids speak Chinese all day at their Canadian public high school. Even 500 years ago when I was in high school, I had no shortage of Korean and Chinese classmates (most of us couldn’t tell them apart, at least I know I couldn’t!).

Of my high school classmates (small high school, 50 kids in my graduating class), I can specifically remember five who, while certainly Asian and from Asian families, fit in well with the rest of us. I didn’t consciously talk or relate to them any differently, though I remember once or twice one girl getting annoyed if someone thought she was Chinese: “I’m Korean!” she’d emphatically reply in 100% native-speaker English (sorry, Jennie! ;) ). But aside from those five, our class also had a small group of Asian girls who, from my perspective at the time, were nearly invisible. They were the quietest and most unobtrusive students in our class; they kept to themselves and I can’t remember them ever speaking up in class. I have memories of coming up the stairs, seeing them huddled together by the lockers, but never talking loud enough to be heard.

I recently read Yell-Oh Girls! by Vickie Nam (ed.), 2001, a book of essays by Asian American high school and college freshman girls where they talk about their experience of growing up as TCKs (though they don’t use that term). There’s one particular essay that really made me think of my old classmates, especially that group of quiet girls; I wonder how much this essay does or doesn’t resonate with their experience. It’s unfair in the sense that it compares American cultural ideals to the worst side of particular aspects of East Asian cultures, from the view of a teenager, but it’s still an eye-opening read. You can read the whole essay and more at this googlebooks link. Here’s an excerpt:

“Identity Crisis” by Michelle Chang, 17.

Being Taiwanese American is supposed to give me all the benefits of two rich, vastly different cultures, when in reality, every cultural influence from either side makes it impossible for me to be accepted by the other. Everyone who is Taiwanese considers me American. Everyone American considers me Taiwanese. It’s like standing with one foot planted on the side of a crack that continually widens with time. For every time I thought I actually belonged to either side, there have been five times when I’ve felt entirely lost, bereft, and on my own. When I begin to feel comfortable in one environment, something brings me back to reality. I don’t fit in anywhere.

“Do your parents encourage you to speak your opinions?”

I sit listening to the teacher in an orange chair in the warm classroom, half asleep from yesterday’s grueling six-hour gymnastics workout. Leaning over the desk with my head down in my arms, I try not to attract attention to myself; I am content to listen to, but not participate in, the discussion of a book. Slightly interested, I hoist my head up to watch the other students’ reactions. Of course, the ones whose parents have encouraged them to form opinionated minds are the first to respond.

Someone answers, confidently, “My parents were extremely oppressed and not allowed to voice their opinion, so they try to encourage me to always say what I think.”

Well, then, that was profound, safe, and politically correct. Intelligent, creative, thoughtful answers like these scream, I’m trying my hardest to let you know that I see everyone as an individual and I know that everyone is equal. Their preposterous self-righteousness makes me want to laugh, but instead, I put my head back on the desk and close my eyes.

I consider the question, too, but what could I say?

“Well, actually—no, not really. My parents’ opinions were suppressed; therefore, they silence mine as part of traditional Asian beliefs. I supposedly have no opinion, because as my parents’ daughter, I have no right to an opinion.” Besides, according to my parents, it’s not right to talk about personal, family matters. And now I’m wide-awake. My teacher’s question has reminded me once again of my inner conflict: I don’t belong here or there.
The generation gap that separates teens from their parents makes communications difficult; in my case, it’s more than twice as bad, not only because my parents are extremely conservative, but because they’re extremely conservative for even for Taiwanese parents. They seem to think that they can raise us exactly the way their parents raised them in Taiwan; the fact that we’re living in the United States a quarter century later apparently means nothing to them. Even though I was born here, I go to school here, and I spend eleven months of every year here, I’m supposed to be 100 percent Taiwanese. Clearly, it doesn’t work, and it’s obvious that I don’t belong in Taiwan. Regardless, they continue to try to make me into something I’m not.

Imagine being unable to lock (or even close) your door for any reason, ever. Imagine being punished for listening to WILD 94.9 radio, not because of the sex and violence contained in the lyrics, but because the music is a sign of how “American” you’ve become. Imagine being treated as if you were less important in the family because you are a girl and because your last name will be lost when you marry. Imagine having to listen constantly to sexist, racist or homophobic ranting and getting punished for expressing an opposing viewpoint. Imagine a place where staying silent when you disagree is not enough; you must vocally agree and submit to their power. Imagine having to follow a course of action that will lead you nowhere, simply because your elders are always right—even when they’re wrong. Imagine living in constant fear of being disowned by your family were you to do something wrong. Imagine having you entire life plotted out for you without your opinion or consent. Any deviation from a prescribed path is impossible.

Imagine all this, living in a country supposedly built on liberty and equality for all, while going to school in a supposedly open-minded environment, where independent thought is encouraged. The home environment inevitably has an impact on everything else, especially school. For instance, how can I participate in class and present opposing views when it’s expected that, at home, I shouldn’t have an opinion at all? How can I choose my own classes, my own path, make my own decisions, when my parents have already made them for me?

Living in the U.S. has instilled me with more American than Taiwanese values; I think we should develop strong, personal opinions and foster creativity. I believe in freedom, equality, and nondiscrimination, wherever these issues might be problematic. Unfortunately, for me, my parents have been more successful than they know in inscribing certain Taiwanese values ideas in me. I feel uncomfortable talking to anyone about my personal problems, or even presenting my own ideas. I’m never happy with anything less than perfection. I see things skewed through the window of my own experiences…

If you’re interested in reading more about Chinese American and Asian American identity, I found these worth reading for the cross-cultural angle:

On the blog, there’s more about Vancouver, our own reverse-culture-shock experiences, raising a foreign kid in China, and Chinese parenting:

7 thoughts on “Belatedly starting to understand my Asian Canadian high school classmates”

  1. Thnx sooooooo much, for you web-site & your thoughts. I REALLY enjoy your opinions on life + love in the PRC. The cultural differences are enormous. You two shrink those differences every day. RichFromTampa

  2. oh wow, this post hit a nerve in me! I have memories, both remote and too-recent, of trying to sort out whether I’m Chinese or Canadian (always, both!), or being receiving compliments for my English (:P ).

    Thanks for posting the book excerpt and your narrative about understanding your classmates in “Hongcouver” (granted, I would have been on the other side of this picture).

    At the moment, my language- and culture-studies take me into a course about the Chinese worldview. More-specifically, examining how the Abundant Life makes Chinese people un-Confucian, and how our now-post-Confucian brothers and sisters must re-learn what it is to be Chinese in order to be relevant to their communities. Fascinating, eh! plus, I’m getting a fresh look at the various cultural layers of my own personal formations.

    Would love to dialogue with you guys about this stuff!

  3. Great article! As an immigrant, we all have “Identity Crisis”.

    My opinion is that each person is unique, and we’d better see ourselves are the persons who are trying to learn the good parts of each side; we are the persons who understand both sides.

  4. As parents, we should know that time is changing. Even in the mainland China, the kids are growing very differently compared to their parents.

    Parenting in immigrants’ family is much tougher. As parents, we want our kids to learn the good things of both Chinese and American by guiding kids to learn Chinese. In the reality, kids in immigrants’ family do face more complicated issues. As parents, we should be more patient and open to communicate with our kids.

  5. @Joel: great links! Yes, you’ll get an email from me :)

    @Cana: do you really see the good of both sides? Canada is strongly multicultural (we value cultural diversity, differently than Americans do) and this was difficult to live-out in our home. Growing up Chinese, in French Canada, I struggled to appreciate the supposed “good parts” of being Chinese… I often saw ethnocentrism, patriarchy, disdain (例如:“我们中国人比那些外国人好得多”) and I could not accept these intolerant attitudes.

    @Aihua: Please spend time with your kids, helping them understand why you do things the way you do. Merely saying “we are Chinese so we do it this way” will not win your children over. Many parents didn’t have time or energy to explain — my responsiblity was to 听话,服从 and avoid provoking them. I did learn a bit of Chinese language, little more than “pidgin” Chinglish (aka kitchen Cantonese), and learned a great deal more in my adulthood. My peers have opted to raise their children Canadian, because they themselves understand that better than the Chinese ways. I wish you well.

  6. Good! I’ll keep and eye out for it. And here’s another example of how, according to the author’s sources, the Party is cherry-picking from Western culture and Christianity in response to social challenges that they feel China’s traditional culture and sources of wisdom cannot meet (last seven paragraphs on p.2): Love In China

    I’m highly skeptical of the way the article tries to connect the dots, but it’s interesting nonetheless. And here’s another recent one connecting Christianity to Chinese government policies.

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