Where are you from?

I was always embarrassed of my family. 

As a child, the embarrassment was principally because of our otherness. As one of the only Chinese kids among a sea of white American faces, I never fit in. Not quite.

My family was originally from a small town in Guangzhou, China. My siblings and I were the products of an arranged marriage and the first generation to be born in the US. Our world was divided by who we were in the privacy of our home and the outside world that we were taught not to trust.

All we had was each other. Consequently, I was very close to my brother and sister, and being confined to the house (the only place where my mother felt she could protect us), we survived by our creativity. We wrote scripts, made movies, wrote and illustrated our own books, cooked, sewed, and found ways to amuse ourselves. It was saccharine and wholesome, but it was also in some ways backwards and isolated.  

I had my first sense of otherness as my mother discouraged me from playing with the neighborhood children. I never went to birthday parties or sleepovers. And forget about having one of my own.

My mother brought her sense of deprivation and hardship to the land of plenty, and she made thriftiness her religion. We saved everything - plastic containers, broken appliances, used paper, plastic bags, our urine, anything that had the potential to be used again. My mom was eco and green before it was ever trendy. Whenever she did buy something (which was rare), it was always dictated by a sales or a coupon. God forbid a purchase be made by desire or compulsion. She never bought anything at full price. 

Our parents didn’t play with us, nor talk to us much beyond logistics and maintaining order. Commands were frequent and repetitive. Compliments were scarce. Our conversations seemed to lack the charm, curiosity, and warmth of white families, whose proclivities and preferences I was acutely aware of as I was growing up.   

In contrast, we operated by a sense of duty and obligation, regulated by guilt and shame. Our lives were defined by work, sacrifice, being resourceful, and not drawing too much attention to ourselves. While Westerners may think that the squeakiest wheel gets the oil, the Chinese believe that “the nail that sticks out gets hammered down.”

Meanwhile, as I quietly grew up, it became clear to me that all the other girls were not wearing underwear made by their mothers or drinking turtle soup or watching chickens get slaughtered in their backyards. 

Before Crazy Rich Asians, Fresh off the Boat, diversity awareness, or online  interconnectedness, there were families like us. Humble and hardworking. Coming of age in the eighties and nineties in Phoenix, Arizona, it wasn’t cool to be Chinese, and we were definitely the minority. There was no Chinatown for me. I didn’t have Chinese friends. Kids would tell me to go back to China where I belonged, despite not ever having been there (that would come later). I inferred that in order to socially survive, I needed to blend in and not exhibit any Chinese traits that might make me stick out. That included the language. By the time I entered school, I quickly adopted English as my primary language and allowed my Chinese to fall by the wayside. 

As a child, I knew something was missing, but I wasn’t quite sure what it was. Because I hadn’t experienced it yet. This was just the way things were. This was my family. And they were all I knew. And the pain only became apparent when I compared my life to those of my non-Chinese peers, which made me pine for a world of more abundance, beauty, kindness, complexity, and communication, where I was popular, people cared about what I had to say, and I had agency and voice.