Dear Cultural Identity,
You have been an ever-changing facet in my life. Though I have been immersed in my American culture longer than my Chinese culture, every now and then, something happens to make me feel so very grateful that I've held onto my native culture as snugly and as dearly as I have.
I carved my first pumpkin at age 37. DH and I dragged home our first real Christmas tree in our mid-thirties. The only Easter eggs I've come across are the ones we've hidden for the kiddos in the recent years. This is because our parents were first generation immigrants who braved the cultural divide to come the the US to give their children opportunities that would otherwise not have been offered. Life was hard enough to adjust to a new language and culture for our parents that things inherently 'American' were touched on, but not experienced fully. Sure, we went trick-or-treating, and we had presents under the fake tree. Thanksgivings were food a-plenty but turkey-less, and The Fourth of July fireworks were only beautiful lights in the sky and not much more.
But DH and I are not exactly second generation, either. We both came to the US during grade school, after we had already learned how to speak, read, and write our native language. We came here already with an imprint of our native culture like a badge that we wear. We show off that badge whenever we continue to celebrate our cultural holidays by eating certain significant foods and performing various rituals. We show off that badge when we somehow accept our mold of the model minority standard that makes us become high academic achievers. And we show off that badge when we refuse to address people more senior than ourselves by their first names. We are special because we are First-and-a-Half generation Chinese-Americans.
Growing up in the South was quite interesting, as there were not a lot of Asians there thirty years ago. I endured kids pulling on my pigtails and calling me "chopsticks." At home, I was a Chinese girl who wanted to to be American. Outside the home, I was never quite an American girl. So when I went off the college on the west coast and saw a sea of black-haired Asian faces on campus, I felt like for once I might be finally understood. In my Asian American Literature class, I read Maxine Hong Kingston's works, as well as works by other Asian American authors, such as Frank Chin, Louis Chu, Carlos Bulosan, and Gus Lee for the first time in my life. It was there that I found resolve with my identity. Coinciding the coming of age with exposure to the real world, I found myself not Chinese, not American, but Chinese-American. Moreover, for me, cultural identity was not on one single spectrum with one culture on either end. I realized that it was two separate spectrums with varying degrees of 'Chinese-ness' and 'American-ness.' And I had the privilege to plot my points on both. Appropriately, that was the premise of my college English major thesis paper.
Life carried on. DH and I moved to the Midwest, where with fewer Asian faces around, we lived our American life. When the kiddos came, we did our darnedest to speak Chinese to them so that they could learn two languages. But in reality, they are decidedly Americans living an American life in a home where, sometimes, their parents speak Chinese to each other. And now I find myself carving pumpkins in October, serving a turkey in November, and keeping a Frasier pine tree alive in my home in December, among other things. Because, now is when I can live my American life to the fullest so that my children can experience what their peers live, breathe, and know. But, alas, everything is relative. I have friends who probably think that DH and I are "too American, too white-washed." I also have friends who probably think that we are "too Chinese" because we are unable to escape certain cultural burdens. But no matter what people think, I know that every time I stand up to sing the Star Spangled Banner nowadays, I feel something very real, and very proud.
Having said all that, something happened the other night that made me feel so incredibly complete that I lived and retained my Chinese culture. DH and I were watching a Chinese program on our satellite TV. It was like a Chinese version of American Idol, where in each episode, the contestants sing the songs of one particular artist. That night, one of my favorite artists, a singer/songwriter/composer, was the choice artist and present at the show. The contestants sang many of his songs I knew very well, including 童年 (which I wrote about here). And as I watched and walked down memory lane, I was actually able to belt it out with the contestants here and there. Then came one song that I had never heard of. Its title is 亞細亞的孤兒, The Orphans of Asia. Perhaps I never heard this song by chance, or perhaps because it was once banned in Taiwan. What really caught my attention was the beauty of the lyrics, the sadness in the music, and the heartbreaking images it evokes.
The Orphans of Asia
The orphans of Asia are weeping in the wind
Their yellow faces are tainted with red mud
Their black pupils are surrounded by white terror
The west wind is in the East singing a sorrowful melody
The orphans of Asia are weeping in the wind
No one wants to play fair with you
Yet everyone wants your favorite toy
My dear child -- why are you crying?
Countless people are searching for that unanswerable question
Countless people are sighing with frustration in the night
Countless people are wiping away tears in silence
Dear Mothers -- how can this be justified?
Writer/Composer Luo Da You
Unfortunately, translating this song into English takes away much of its meaning and beauty. On the surface, it seems to be describing the lost orphans of Pan Asia, but the writer's actual intent was to describe Taiwan and its people as the orphans of the world. Debuted during a time of political turmoil in 1983, this song was banned in Taiwan because of its political overtones. Later, it was banned in China when people sang this song during the Tiananmen Square Massacre of 1989. Undoubtedly, this genius writer struck a nerve. I heard this song in 2011, and it pulled my heartstrings. Politics aside, it is an incredible song of philosophy, poetry, and history.
I would have never had the opportunity to hear this song, understand it, and find out the history of these meaningful words and haunting music if I hadn't been Chinese before I became an American. And because we are American, DH and I are able to, without even a flinch, say "I love you" to our children and shower them with hugs and kisses everyday, while neither of us had that experience ourselves as children. That, in essence, is the beauty of my bi-cultural life.
To sum you up, Cultural Identity, when it comes to a bi-cultural identity, it is not an "either-or," but a "both." Some might think that we First-and-a-Half generation Chinese-Americans are "neither-nor," but I choose to see us as living an even more enriched life, precisely because we are "both."