My very first post on this blog was: “What does it mean to be Asian-American?” Now, almost 18 months later, while some of the ideas in this blog post has stuck with me, others I have discarded. In honor of May, AAPI month, I would like to reflect on my experiences as a second-gen immigrant and how I have begun to form an answer to this question.
Ever since reading this article a few weeks ago, R.F. Kuang’s “How to Talk to Ghosts” has really resonated with me. Kuang writes about the Asian-American experience of hauntology, and how Asian-Americans, often children of immigrants, feel “haunted” by a ghost-like presence of their origins. The secrets that our parents keep from us in an attempt to assimilate into Western society leave us feeling empty, as if a part of ourselves is missing.
It wasn’t until high school that I realized that my childhood was characterized by my parents’ attempts to help my brother and I assimilate. While I was required to learn Mandarin and speak it at home, I never listened to Chinese songs, save for a few repeated lines that my mother would hum. I watched the same two Chinese cartoons over and over again, without any attempt to find anything more. My brother stopped learning Chinese in third grade. He doesn’t even know how to write his Chinese name. My father never speaks about his college experience, except for that he got in without taking the infamous gaokao, and precedes to use this as an example for how hard work leads to success.
Only in 8th grade did I begin to reconnect with what I had been missing. Listening to JJ Lin, watching Chinese variety shows and films, finding an appreciation for Asian/Asian-American literature and art…why did my parents keep this all from me?
Yet, as much as I thought I had finally “found” my roots, when I visited China during winter break in 10th grade, I realized that I was not, and would never be like, the people around me. It is easy to spot out an American-Born Chinese in the middle of a crowded shopping district in Shenzhen, China. From my clothes to my mannerisms, I was just different. One taxi driver even asked where my accent was from (which is actually impressive because I thought my American accent was quite apparent). It was in China that I found my mother the happiest, reconnecting with her college friends and a life that she had left behind. A life that I had never known.
For me, I had never felt as lonely as in China. I walked around the fancy malls by myself, watching chatty young couples as they rode the escalators carrying bags upon bags of clothing. I tagged along to my mother’s college reunions, but I always ended up falling asleep in a corner by myself. Coupled with the timezone difference with Seattle and terrible VPN connection, I felt isolated from the entire world. I felt disappointed that I felt foreign in a place where everyone, sans their apparel and mannerisms, looked like me. (Don’t get me wrong, I do love visiting China, but I would never be able to survive there by myself.)
If China wasn’t my place, then where was it?
This has always been a question festering in the back of my mind, and only with the rise of social media have I begun to find an answer. The Asian-American experience is less about boba and raves, but rather it is characterized by the constant journey to find a place to belong. But, I’ve come to realize that this place of belonging does not need to be a physical location. Social media has connected Asian diaspora, allowing us to realize that though we live in different geographical locations, we share common experiences. Subtle Asian Traits on Facebook and Youtube channels such as WongFu and FungBros epitomize the way that Asian diaspora have utilized the internet to carve social spaces for ourselves when we don’t necessarily feel like we “belong” in either our home countries or where we were born.
In doing so, a place does not define us, rather, we define the spaces we create.
** Disclaimer: Asian-American is definitely a homogeneous term, and my experience is not the same as others’.
featured image credit: https://www.instagram.com/tarekmawad/