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What Race Means To Me: Being Chinese In A White America

Andrea Lau, 18, was a student scholar this past fall in the first college-level Anisfield-Wolf course, pioneered by Dr. Lisa Nielson at Case Western Reserve University.  The class read essays, poems and books by Anisfield-Wolf Book Award winners, attended the September awards ceremony and did original research on topics inspired by the course.

“The pieces of literature that we read and the stimulating discussion held in this class have left a profound impact on my perspective of the world and my understanding of how society participates in equality and prejudice,” wrote Lau, who grew up in New Jersey.

In coming weeks, this site will feature a selection of work from these students.

By Andrea Lau

My story of growing up in America as a first-generation Chinese-American is not particularly individual or unique, but it has shaped me as a person and American citizen, and I am proud of my background in my own low-key way. This is not a sob story, nor is it a sentimental essay of how I and my parents struggled to fit into a society designed against us. I write this piece as a chronicle of my personal journey to “find my true self”; to document my struggle to identify myself and locate a true definition that I can be content to use in detailing my make up as a person.

It may be true that my favorite Disney princess is Mulan, and it so happens that my favorite dishes include rice or noodles. I have difficulty watching Caucasian girls’ makeup tutorials online because my eyes are genetically differently than theirs. These descriptions already categorize me perfectly into the image of the stereotypical Asian American. However, I have never been one to believe in stereotypes because there are always more complex and interesting storylines underneath. I watched Mulan all the time as a child, mainly because I admired her bravery, cleverness, and humility.

The Little Mermaid was another childhood favorite, yet society does not immediately believe that I have fish friends and live in the sea.  Furthermore, rice and noodles are present in a wide range of cultures outside Asia and are enjoyed by many races. Finally, I can’t even follow makeup techniques for Asians because my features, like my inner personality, seem to be a hybrid of both races’ characteristics. My upbringing and environment throughout my socialization have created my personality and the life perspective I have today.

Generally, I simply think of myself as an American individual who just happened to grow up in a Chinese household: the paleness of my skin and knowledge of another language have never played a defining role in my life. I attribute this freedom to my parents, who never forced things like Chinese school upon my childhood. If they had urged me to attend, like my very traditional grandmother wanted them to, I probably would have despised it as a child; viewing it more as a prison and burden than the intended enrichment of my culture and an education of another dialect of my native language. As a result, my inability to speak Mandarin has followed me through life, haunting me and wreaking its inconvenient effects all too often.

Possessing a mediocre capacity to speak Cantonese only allows me to communicate with my relatives on an elementary level. As a matured and more developed young adult, I am now equipped with the knowledge and hindsight to regret my incompetence in the dialect which a large portion of the world speaks. The skill with which my parents mastered English has always been a blessed convenience for me, but I now realize that it is just another factor that contributed to my lack of proficiency in Chinese. This inconsistency illustrates one struggle that my identity faces – I may be a well socialized American citizen who can easily blend in with the white majority, but I also regret the lack of a connection I have to my ethnic character.

Zadie Smith’s “Speaking in Tongues” dictated a powerful message to me, and in reading it I realized how similar my struggles are to those of my peers. While I have never had any trouble communicating with my parents in the same kind of language I use with school colleagues, conversing with relatives has always posed an obstacle, and I indeed had to alter my discourse and diction in order to facilitate conversation and understanding. From another interesting angle, whenever I speak to family friends, who, like my parents, were Chinese immigrants educated in America, I have little trouble doing so, and I actually admire how cultured and knowledgeable they are. They represent who I strive to be through hard work in hopes of rising through society’s ranks.

Racism has never had a significantly negative affect on my life. In a society that is fortunately quite accepting of the minority I am a part of, it is more interesting for me to observe the public’s attitudes toward other races. My lifestyle has never fulfilled a specific stereotype for the typical Asian American, and I have always taken a secret pride in not simply conforming to yet another social standard for who an individual should be. Unfortunately, I am no better at mathematics or academia than the average non-Asian person who studies diligently.

The widely publicized memoir of the so-called “Tiger Mom,” Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, in 2011 could not be more different than the household in which I was raised. Surely, I was familiar with the traditional and strict parenting she swore by because I grew up surrounded by figures who inflicted small dosages of these techniques on my upbringing. However, I consider myself lucky that my family approached parenting from a more understanding and flexible perspective, and it is why I am content with the way I conduct my life today. I am fortunate that my race and background have never hindered me from any of my ambitions, and the cultural flavor that has been added to my life has only enriched me and made me more interesting as an individual.

This class introduced me to the intriguing concept of intersectionality: the idea that no individual in society has a single label.  A person is not classified by his/her gender alone, but also by his/her race, and any other factor that influences how he/she is perceived.  Several, sometimes conflicting, identities in tension are what truly characterize a person and their role in society.  I am not simply an Asian, but an Asian woman.  That means my experience in the world is different from that of an Asian man, who is respected at least for his sex, or a Caucasian woman, who rallies for women’s rights separately from ones against racism.  As a result, my experience is unique and original, and reading the works of and hearing the voices of Asian American women is even more enriching.

I have indeed grappled with how true I am to my heritage, and wonder if I struggle more with being a Chinese person Americanized by society, or being an American person endeavoring to reestablish connections to my culture. Reading pieces from the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards has enlightened me to the idea of multiple cultural personalities and living in society with these labels, and I embrace both the benefits and obstacles that come with my heritage.

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