Bridging the Gap: A Chinese Immigrant in America & An Expatriate in China

1987: a year before my father left for the US; my mother and I followed a year later in 1989

1987: a year before my father left for the US; my mother and I followed a year later in 1989

Growing up Chinese with immigrant parents in the US meant there were many moments in my child-and-adulthood when I struggled to fit in. We emigrated from China when I was just under three years old, and while I don’t remember much of those first years in the US, I know I didn’t have any friends because we moved around so often and because I didn’t speak English.

At eight years old, my parents sent me back to China to live with my grandparents so I could relearn Mandarin — I’d forgotten my native tongue almost as quickly as I’d learned English at the age of five. My grandparents were strangers to me. I arrived in Shanghai, greeted by two adults, foreign to me, whom I had no relationship with and attachments to; it felt like I’d been kidnapped.

We drove through the cramped, chaotic streets of Shanghai littered with people, bicycles and trash. I cried myself to sleep every night for two months and protested to my parents, in letters, about how tiny and crowded everything was — from my room, to the apartment, to the streets — and how everyone, everything, every place was so disgustingly dirty. I begged them to let me come home.

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My grandparents enrolled me in a local Chinese elementary school half-way through second grade. My first day at that school, as I remember it, was the first (but not last) time I’d felt like an outsider, like I didn’t belong. The thought of being Chinese or Asian or American hadn’t entered my consciousness or understanding before then. I don’t recall if I’d even thought of myself as American, but I do remember feeling pride for having lived in the US and for speaking English. (You know, because America was the greatest country in the world.)

Walking into that classroom of nearly 40 Chinese uniformed students sitting perfectly upright with their hands and arms neatly folded behind their back elicited in me equal parts fear, bewilderment and unease. For the first time in my life, I developed an almost painful awareness of the gap, the chasm, the separation, that was forming between myself and these students as I walked in, and I found myself wanting, desperately, to be accepted, to be liked.

I could see it in their eyes — curiosity, menace, indifference — and mine, in all likelihood, reflected back fear, discomfort, pride and confusion. It took me several months to relearn Chinese, to assimilate to the culture, and to find my place within this small tribe of forty. But being young, naive and adaptable, I did.

By my 10th birthday, the whole class came to my party. I was finally well-liked! But deep down, I knew I didn’t belong. The date of my return to the US was looming ahead, and my friends always gave me special treatment because to them, I was American. It was a strange thing that both stroked at my ego and made me deeply sad.

Unexpectedly, leaving my grandparents, friends, school and Shanghai was far more difficult than leaving my parents, friends, school and Los Angeles two years prior. But that was part of the deal — two years in Shanghai and then back to my parents in America. I felt like a piece of cargo being transported back and forth. I arrived at LAX and was again greeted by two foreign adults I hardly recognized. I felt as unsettled and alien around my parents as I’d had with my grandparents two years before.

I was, however, far more optimistic about going back to school in America than I had been about going to school in China. I was confident I’d make friends quickly and finally “belong” as I’d come back home. This, however, was a faulty assumption. I had failed to account for the fact that living in China for the past two years had changed me (for the weirder) — I’d forgotten much of my vernacular English, was ill-informed of any and all cultural references outside of Michael Jordan, and all of this was compounded by my strange taste in fashion (which was a combinatory play of what had been trendy in Los Angeles three years ago, what had been recently trendy in Shanghai, and the bizarre imagination of a ten-year-old girl). To top things off, my mom sent me to school with a highly aromatic lunch box, replete with the most pungent of Chinese foods.

This didn’t bode well for me as a new student entering second semester of fifth grade in a new school, in a predominantly Caucasian town. On the very first day, I was teased, made fun of and called a “fob.” I didn’t know what this meant and had to ask my dad, who didn’t know either; it took us awhile to solve the acronym — there was no Google then. And while my home room teacher was supportive, watchful and sympathetic of my situation, I felt like an outsider, a weirdo, a resident alien in the literal sense.

I struggled to identify with being American in a class full of Americans just as I’d struggled to identify with being Chinese in a class full of Chinese.

1996: 5th Grade graduation at Will Rogers Elementary School in Santa Monica, California

1996: 5th Grade graduation at Will Rogers Elementary School in Santa Monica, California

Throughout middle school, I struggled to find my place and desperately wanted to look and be as American as possible. This, to me, meant modeling whatever the popular girls had as well as whatever I saw on television or read in magazines. I begged my mom to pack me peanut butter & jelly sandwiches, Lunchables, fruit roll-ups and Capri Suns instead of the usual Chinese leftovers. Whenever she did stuff my lunchbox with Chinese food because we had too many leftovers, I’d dump it into the trash bin as soon as she was out of sight so I wouldn’t smell “Chinese” for the rest of the day. I starved myself instead.

I hated my jet-black hair and slanted eyes, and would stare into the mirror willing my hair to curl and turn blonde, my eyes to widen and turn blue. I wanted to get my ears pierced, to wear Converses and Vans with colorful laces, to play team sports and listen to Alanis Morrisette.

I was convinced being Chinese was the worst possible thing to be out there. When kids made fun of the language by yelling “ching, chong, ding, dong,” it only reaffirmed what I’d already felt and thought. I was so embarrassed and ashamed of my Chinese-ness, I disassociated myself from all things Chinese. Whether consciously or not, none of my friends throughout middle school or high school were Chinese. I felt anxious about having friends over because I didn’t want them to meet my Chinese parents. Whenever a friend called our landline, I would dive for the phone so they wouldn’t have to hear my mom’s broken English and cacophonous Chinese accent. Whenever people teased me about being Chinese or Asian, I played it off and pretended it didn’t bother me, but it did. Whenever a Chinese person behaved in a “Chinese” way, usually by speaking loudly or fervently, I would cower my head in horror and immense shame. The only somewhat “Chinese” things I didn’t disassociate from were Panda Express and Jackie Chan.

Here’s a paragraph from my journal when I was 13:

“Sadie and Gia are always making fun of me, saying stuff like I’m stupid, my legs are fat, my being Chinese/Asian. You know what? I’m sick of it, so they can just go fuck themselves. I get better grades than them, guys go for me more than them two added together, and being Asian is as close to white as you can get.”

Yikes.

Throughout high school, I’d deluded myself and my friends into believing I was “white” and American, that I belonged. The greatest compliment I ever got was when one of my friends said, “You’re the most white-washed person I know. I’m pretty sure you’re whiter than I am,” or when my Iranian-American friend said, “You’re not Asian. You’re, like, less Asian than I am.”

But this delusion quickly reared its ugly head when I started dating. Perhaps because of my then hostile feelings towards Chinese and Asian culture, I’d only ever been attracted to non-Asian men. Most of my friends throughout middle school and high school were, like me, caught between borders, 1.5 or second-generation Americans. Their families had come from Mexico, Iran, Japan, Poland, India, and in this, we found common ground to build our friendships on. So it wasn’t until I started dating my first boyfriend senior year of high school that I was exposed to the kind of American culture, customs and norms I had previously only seen on television and in movies.

This was a rude awakening. It opened up a whole, new domain of feelings I was ill-equipped to navigate. When I went to Thanksgiving dinner at my then-boyfriend’s house, I felt like Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio) at his first formal dinner with Rose (Kate Winslet) and her rich friends and family in Titanic, where Molly (Kathy Bates’ character) coaches Jack to use the silverware by working outside-in. Her tip actually came in handy at Thanksgiving dinner.

As my fobby mother and I sat alongside and across from my then-boyfriend, his family and his family’s friends at Thanksgiving, the divide felt bigger than ever before. My mother and I were outsiders, her even more so than I. I tried, desperately, to close the gap, by dressing her for the occasion, having her bring a gift and wine (rather than Chinese dumplings), asking her to introduce herself by her English name rather than her unpronounceable Chinese name. When people asked her a question, I answered for her so as to “save face.”

I had a fleeting realization during that dinner that I will never feel like I fully “belong” in this America, no matter how much or how hard I try, because this, quite simply, wasn’t (and isn’t) how I was raised. I can’t make up for lost time by making my parents listen to The Beatles and Crosby, Stills & Nash over Teresa Teng and Andy Lau, or watch American movies and sitcoms over Chinese ones. I can’t make up for lost time by replacing every pair of chopsticks in our kitchen with forks, knives and spoons. I can’t make up for lost time by forcing my parents to have a glass of wine with dinner, to cook pasta rather than rice, to celebrate Thanksgiving over Chinese New Year. My parents couldn’t help me much with homework, nor would they reminisce about when they read Catcher in the Rye way back when. The foundation for my life, my upbringing, was and is, different.

It took me a long time to come to terms with this epiphany and to accept it. Throughout my teens and into my early 20s, I continued to delude myself by assimilating to American culture as much as I could, avoiding all things China. Whenever I dated a new boy and the moment inevitably came for him to meet my parents, I’d preface it with “they’re super Chinese” or “my mom doesn’t speak English,” as a way to lower expectations, and predictably, the boy would come out saying, “Your mom was fine! She speaks plenty of English!” This was the kind of reassurance I needed.


As the years passed, I gradually settled into myself, my body, my appearance. I became more accepting of China and with being Chinese. Mainly, I stopped taking things so personally. When people teased me about being Chinese or made fun of the language, it washed right over me and no longer lingered or stung. I guess my skin thickened. Sometimes, if it was actually funny, I’d laugh with them, whereas before it had always felt like I was being laughed at. Laughter had become the tonic to my healing.

In 2010, a couple of years after the 2008 economic crisis, I made the decision to move back to China to gain international experience and to get in touch with my roots. Little did I know then that this decision would become the singular event that would have the biggest and most profound impact on my life, my perspective and my relationship with my parents, people and the world around me.

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What was supposed to be one year abroad in China turned into six, and it was there I found myself amongst other (1.5, like myself, or 2nd generation) Chinese-Americans. For the first time in my life, I felt a little less lonely and a little more understood. Here were others who were neither Chinese nor American, but a little bit of both, who’d found themselves caught in the weird in-between. Here were others who’d also felt mortified by the pungent smells of Chinese food in their lunch pails, who’d been bullied and teased, who’d been made to feel small and inferior. Here were others who’d had strict parents and were constantly compared to other children, who’d started SAT prep in middle school. Here were others who’d been embarrassed by their parents yelling “Take off you shoes!” when their non-Asian friends came over.

We commiserated over growing up in the liminal and bonded over our now laughable upbringings. Living in China, amongst other foreign expatriates, we found ourselves once more caught in an in-between. We were technically considered expats, but most of us spoke Mandarin, had family and history in China, understood the nuances of the local culture, got along with the locals. Yet we weren’t accepted as locals, because we carried ourselves differently, spoke English fluently, came from a Western education and grew up under Western influences.

But now, we were valued for these differences rather than made fun of for them.

This unique dualist upbringing, one of my friends once said to me with the wisdom of a sage, supplied us with the knowledge and ability to bridge the gap.

We are the bridge, she said, that connects opposing forces, cultures, tribes, ideologies. Because we are our own standalone structure and because we don’t have to have allegiance to any side, we can more objectively and intelligibly see the pros and cons of each. We can better spotlight strengths and weaknesses, threats and opportunities.

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Eventually, I stopped worrying about and concerning myself with “fitting in” and “belonging” to a culture, ideology or group of people and began to see the value in being a bridge.

I may never fit neatly into one box (then again, most of us don’t), but my experiences living in and out of multiple boxes has made me more open-minded, adaptable and empathetic. It taught me how to navigate extreme differences and biases, and to find solidarity in our commonalities.

Being the bridge, to me, means holding space for others to travel across to the opposite side, to introduce and open their eyes, hearts and minds to a whole new world, so we might one day better understand, respect and treat one another.

It means creating more opportunities for someone like my mother to take part in an all-American Thanksgiving dinner, but rather than being embarrassed by or ashamed of her, I’d encourage her to bring a piece of herself and her culture, perhaps in the form of delicious Chinese dumplings, to the table.

The most valuable lesson in being a bridge is the power and importance of non-allegiance and non-attachment.

This has been applicable to other areas of my life where dualities appear as well — between old and young, wealthy and impoverished, spiritual and nonspiritual, the highly sentimental and the highly dispassionate, so on and so forth. The bridge self-demolishes the moment you claim allegiance to any one “side,” and you inevitably close yourself off to a world of unexpected experiences and beauty.

I still identify myself as Chinese-American for simplicity’s sake, but I am not attached to either as I once was. It’s a personal choice, you see, to be the bridge. And while I may be alone on my bridge, I am no longer lonely, for there are more and more bridges erected around me every minute. And the more of them we have, the less separation and tribalism there will be.