Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Dear Cultural Identity

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.  


亞細亞的孤兒 在風中哭泣
黃色的臉孔 有紅色的污泥 
黑色的眼珠 有白色的恐懼 
西風在東方 唱著悲傷的歌曲 

亞細亞的孤兒 在風中哭泣 
沒有人要和你 玩平等的遊戲 
每個人都想要 你心愛的玩具 
親愛的孩子 你為何哭泣 

多少人在追尋 那解不開的問題 
多少人在深夜裡 無奈的嘆息 
多少人的眼淚 在無言中抹去 
親愛的母親 這是什麼道理 

詞/曲  羅大佑

My translation:

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."  



  1. OMG such powerful writing and it is so true we appreciate so much more growing up bi-cultured. Just the other day, Clive had told me the same thing that when he grew up he was called names and being picked on cuz he was the only asian in his class growing up and not until Berkeley had he been exposed to a lot more Asians and same as you growing in the South. As for me, I guess I was really lucky to be in Albany when mass majority of students in my highschool were from Taiwan and funny enough that's where I learned my Mandarin. So it is extremely interesting for me to read your letter as I have never experienced it myself. Thank you or sharing! Great writing.

  2. Thank you! I can laugh at those experiences now, since I'm sure somehow they helped build character. So have you heard of that song before? I'm still amazed that it took me so long to come across it. Have the tune stuck in my head.

  3. Sandra, I feel the same, even though I was much older than you were when I moved to the US. I call it the in-between, we are neither one nor the other culture anymore. It is something I share with all my foreign friends.

    The part where you talk about showering your children with kisses or saying I love you, made me so sad to think that you didn't receive that type of affection. I can't imagine not kissing your baby's hair or his cheeks or saying I love you dozen times a day. Your children are lucky to have you and your DH as parents, I hope they know.

    Thanks for this post, and I wish I could read Chinese to better understand the song.

  4. Laura, I'm sure we were kissed when we were babies. But that kind of affection truly dwindles as kids grow up for our parents' generation. Affection was not a comfortable or natural thing for many of them. I now understand that it was cultural as well as generational, and not because we weren't loved just as much. But being able to shower kids with affection is just as much fun for kids and parents alike!

    I'm sure you understand how meaning gets lost in translation. I did my best, but it doesn't seem t0 do the song justice. Thanks for reading!

  5. Sandra, I know you were loved but I know how important touch is at any age. Apparently the US rank 20th for happiness, and weirdly this is not a country were you share touch much as adults. I have lots of friends from Brazil, and I love being around them because they always touch your arms or shoulder when you are having a conversation. I got used to not do that here since it is not an American custom, people have a much different personal space. Sadly my son is more American than Italian, and with the teen years he has stopped hugging or snuggling, peer pressure I am sure. This summer though when we were in Italy he noticed how much laid back Italians were, it tells you something.

    Keep the musing coming, I love reading them.

  6. Laura, You bring up an interesting point. It seems that affection has its limits and terms in this culture. I think we more likely to show affection to family versus friends and acquaintances. I know it's sad for you that your son is less touchy-feely, but it's probably a normal course of a teenager finding him/herself in life. I think it's wonderful that he saw the difference when he was in Italy. And thanks for your encouragement; I will keep the Muse coming!

  7. That was beautifully expressed. I was born in Thailand and moved to the US when I was three, with my Thai mom and my American dad.

    I went through some cultural tug-of-wars growing up. No kids had ever even heard of Thailand and assumed I meant Taiwan. My father embraced Thai culture and yet my mother chose to embrace American culture. It was no surprise that I grew up somewhat confused about who I am.

    But, like you, I discovered that I am both, not just genetically, nor geographically, but also within my own soul.

    When I was young, these differences caused me pain and shame. Now, it gives me strength, pride, and peace.

  8. Ok, you're SO going to make me cry now. That was such a beautiful post. That said, I don't know that I'd put too much of a label on what people think of you being "too much" one thing or another. No matter who we are or what our backgrounds, there's always someone who thinks we're too "something" whether it's loud or stand offish or bossy or perfect... it's always something that's their perception of us that doesn't quite fit with who we are. Your area may be cultural, but there's an area for everyone.

    LOVE that poem, and we need to chat more!

  9. Nari, When I used to tell people that I'm from Taiwan, some would ask, "oh, you speak Thai?" =) I agree, age and experience do make us wiser! I am much more at peace with who I am now. But I cannot help but to wonder about how my kids will find their identities as true second-generation Chinese-Americans. I hope they will also find richness in their souls. Thank you for your poignant comment.

  10. Michelle, You are absolutely right that people always have their own perceptions whether it's right or just or not. This so reminds me of the injustices your Little Miss was/is going through. The way you just wrote to me about people's "perceptions" in grown-up terms, I know you are telling her just the right thing in "kiddie terms" to help her through this. Thanks for your wonderful feedback! Your blog has really been an inspiration for me! I'm so glad Maria introduced me to it. =)

  11. So I am just catching up on your blog and I read this and think that for the most part I could have written it. But then I take another moment to think and realize that, despite being Filipino I'm pretty much Filipino American, or even JUST American. My Lola (grandmother) married an American who was in WWII. He taught her the celebrations, traditions, etc. of Americans. Growing up in the Philippines for the first several years of my life (7 to be exact) we celebrated American Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday of November. We always celebrated Christmas with a tree but it was never like the ones here. We mostly celebrated Filipino holidays. When my parents moved us here after my eldest brother showed that we would be able to acclimate to the world of America we encountered new things such as snow, Halloween, etc. My brothers never really spoke Tagalog well to begin with. I understood it but with no one to practice with I have lost it, much to the dismay (and mockery) of a lot of my friends still back home in the Philippines. I try to find a balance. My parents try to speak entirely in Tagalog to Daniel who seems to understand but also is showing signs of losing the beginnings of it. I believe cultural identity, for me anyway, will continue to be a struggle for balance. I suppose I am what they call a coconut...brown (well, really only in the summer) on the outside and white (American) on the inside.

  12. Pirates, Appropriately, I've heard of "banana" and "twinkie," but I had not heard of "coconut"! Yes, I think it's always a struggle for people who are not born here to find a balance in identity, and it's a process that keeps changing with time. Thanks for sharing your story!

  13. Even though I was born here, I can totally relate to the 1.5 generation thing. Your struggles with assimilation vs preservation mirror what I had to wrestle with growing up. You know what one memory most symbolizes this for me? Thanksgiving turkey, with sticky rice stuffing. Man, was that delicious!

  14. I can totally relate to this but like a previous blog, with a different perspective. I grew up in Wisconsin and had the most All-American childhood. Not by my patents doing but due to my social butterfly personality. I was on Pom-Pons, went to and acted a fool at every football game and dance, played soccer and hung out at the beach all summer getting way tanner than my "American" friends using crisco as a tanning accelerator and lemon juice for highlights. ;) However, every weekend I hung out with my Korean commrades at church and feasted on all the delicious traditional food and joked around in Korean, which is definitely lost in translation. Then, in college, I abandoned my All-American life and made instant connections with other Koreans and Asians who were 1.5ers just like me! ;) After years of this, I realized I missed my close friendships and thanks to good friends who never forgot me and through social networking sites, I've reconnected with my closer than family friends from my youth and I definitely appreciate being both Korean and American. ;). Thanks for beginning this thought and insight Sandra!

  15. Nam, Thank you for reading! I think everyone, natives and foreigners alike, all go through some sort of identity fusion between what it feels like 'inside' and what it appears to be 'outside'. But with many differences in background, everyone's story is unique in detail, yet incredibly alike as a whole. Namely, Crisco for you and baby oil for me (can you BELIEVE we did that?). =)

  16. love this post, Sandra. I identify with your inability to call elders by their first name. It has always stumped me and shocked me.

    I do not know how much of the Filipino and Asian my children will have. I hope they will get the best of our cultures. I think they will be richer if they embrace that. I hope your children will embrace their Asian culture too in time.

    Oh, I smiled when I read that you read Carlos Bulosan. :-)


    1. Thanks so much for reading this archive post, Imelda! I think that my kiddos are more Asian than they think and we give them credit for, but I know that they will have a chance to rediscover their heritage when they get older, just the way DH and I did. I do think our kids will be lucky to have the best of both worlds/cultures.

      The interesting thing about calling elders by their first names? I've encountered youngsters that only call me by my last name. That either reflects their good practice of respect or my advancing age. I'm hoping it's the former. =)

      Carlos Bulosan is still on my shelf, currently in my bedroom! Both *The Philippines is in the Heart* and *America is in the Heart*. I have fond memories of my Asian American Lit class.