In sixth grade, one of my Caucasian friends

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Last updated: December 29, 2019

In sixth grade, one of my Caucasian friends quipped, “I’m more Chinese than you are!” after discovering that, despite my outward appearance, I couldn’t speak a word of Chinese.  She had just started learning Mandarin at our middle school.  While I brushed it off and rebuked that of course she couldn’t be more Chinese than I am, I couldn’t help but feel that she had a point: I didn’t feel all that connected to my ethnic identity.At first glance, though, there’s no doubt that I’m Asian.

 100% Asian, in fact.  My ancestors are all from the southern Guangdong Province of China and my physical characteristics are distinctly East Asian.  Yet these features: my dark hair and brown eyes, my small, low-profile nose, are often what seem to betray me most.   As a third-generation Chinese-American, I’ve often felt at odds with my ethnicity.  To put things in context, my maternal and paternal grandparents immigrated to the United States and Canada, respectively, in the early 1940s, and settled in working-class communities to start a new life and raise their families.

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 And while my parents grew up speaking Taishanese—an all-but-extinct dialect of Cantonese—my brother and I never learned a single word.  Nowadays, my dad can barely understand Taishanese, much less speak it; and even my mom, who spent years studying Mandarin in college and graduate school, has all but lost her fluency. More than just my inability to understand the language, however, I often feel a more implicit cultural disconnect from my heritage.  Last spring, when a group of over 40 middle school students from Shanghai visited my high school for a dance exchange program, I felt overwhelmed and embarrassed.  Not only did I find my inability to communicate with the eager students awkward and humiliating, I also felt no connection to the traditional Chinese dances the students performed so passionately and proudly for us.  In a sea of my own “people,” I couldn’t have felt more out of place.  And after a week with the Shanghai students, I quickly realized that what my middle school friend had said years before was actually quite true.This feeling of disconnect paradoxically arises in even the most “diverse” environments.

 At my high school, for example, where nearly half the student body identify as students of color and some 10 percent are international (of which most are Asian), I am routinely assumed to be “from China” by fellow classmates.  In reality, though, I’ve never even visited China, much less was I born and raised there, and so I inevitably feel isolated from the students who frequent Asian affinity groups and speak to each other in Chinese.  I tend to feel like the fraudulent “other”; an Asian anomaly. Despite it all, however, my outer appearance has categorized me as simply and solely “Asian.”  On standardized tests I’m forced to check the box even though I don’t feel all that Asian, and I often find myself the brunt of many ethnic stereotypes: “you must be a whiz at STEM subjects” I often hear.  Or, “are you a musical prodigy?”And while for many years I tried to subscribe to these stereotypes, attempting to mold myself into what others would view as a “true Asian,” only recently have I learned to distinguish my real passions from my stereotyped ones.

 I know now that, even if my ethnicity is a very complicated part of my identity, how other people see it does not define me.  My interest in dance, English, and history are no less real than my interest (or lack thereof) in math and computer science because of the shape of my eyes or the color of my hair.

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