The ABCs of Being an ABC (American Born Chinese)

This piece was written by Mr. Chan as part of the Gazette‘s initiative to recognize the month of May as AAPI (Asian American and Pacific Islander) Heritage Month.

As we walked off of the plane, I waited to feel something. I was hoping for a moment when it would all hit me. Maybe I would feel dizzy and emotional. Maybe I would even cry. Some sort of grand feeling like I was finally home after a long journey and truly knew what it meant to be Chinese. But all I felt was the urge to pee.

As a child, I never had the opportunity to travel to China and as an adult I was too cheap to do so on my own. The desire was always there but so were the cost and time commitment, not to mention the language barrier and fear. China didn’t happen until I began working at Grace Church School where I was given the opportunity to visit all for the low, low cost of chaperoning fourteen hormonal teenagers and giving up my spring break. Dreams do come true!

My great-grandparents, grandparents, parents, uncles, and aunts did not arrive in America as chaperones for a school trip but as immigrants. They must have really loved America because they immigrated here not once, not twice, but THREE times. They were factory workers, farmers, butchers, seamstresses and some were even gangsters. The nice kind of gangster, though. My great-grandfather wouldn’t break your arm if you were late with his money; maybe just a finger. 

I grew up in Wilton, Connecticut; a majority white upper-middle-class suburb of New York City. I would jokingly refer to my neighborhood as Chinatown because we had three Chinese families living there, all named Chan but only two were related. Growing up in a mostly white town was an interesting experience. I was taught from an early age that America was a melting pot of race, ethnicity, and culture, but what I was shown were constant reminders that I was Chinese before I was American. Kids would ask questions like, “What does ‘ching chong ching’ mean?” “Do you know karate?” “Is Jackie Chan your uncle?” “Does your restaurant serve cat?” It got old pretty quick.

A friend of mine, a really good friend whom I have known since the sixth grade and who I still see on occasion, once asked me why I didn’t seem to fully embrace being Chinese. Mind you, this is the same guy who insisted that I ask out Christine Park (who was Korean) because we seemed like we’d make a great couple (we did not) and was always asking me to teach him how to say things in Chinese (I suspect that he was looking for ways to impress Chinese women, but I can’t 100% verify that).  I didn’t have the heart to tell him that he is part of the problem. If I was ashamed of being Chinese it was because of the constant reminders of how different I was. Even though I was made to follow through with all of the traditions, I just went through the motions. I would mess around whenever we went to the cemetery to honor our ancestors. Chinese New Year and wedding banquets were just excuses to hang out with the cousins that I liked and talk trash about those I didn’t. It all became meaningless. 

But it wasn’t just my American friends and peers who pointed out my differences; my family played their part, too. It was hard enough having constant reminders that I was too Chinese to be American, I was also hearing how I was too American to be Chinese. I was a banana: yellow on the outside, white on the inside. To the Chinese, I was “jook sing.” A hollow bamboo. I didn’t appreciate my history and didn’t understand half of the customs that we did.  My mom got tired of explaining everything so she would just say, “Because that’s what we’re supposed to do.” I wonder now if she didn’t actually know either. 

My parents understood too well how tough it was to be an outsider, a foreigner. As much as they would encourage me to assimilate, they would still badger me to not forget my roots. Their dissonance was difficult to navigate. Some nights the rule was that we could only speak in Chinese. I’m not sure if it was to get us to practice or because my parents just wanted us to be quiet.

I’m functionally illiterate in Chinese. I speak Cantonese well enough but definitely understand more than I can say. I dropped out of Chinese school after one semester. I was twelve years old and one of the oldest students in my first-grade class. Even though I was ranked second (the number one student was five years old), I didn’t enjoy spending my Sundays in a hot classroom in an old church in Chinatown (the one in Manhattan, not Wilton). My rebellion continued all the way through high school. I so desperately wanted to be like everyone else that I didn’t know who I actually was.

College was a turning point for me. I attended Michigan State University, where the Asian population was a robust 5.6%. It was quite a jump from my high school, where it was four. Not four percent. Four. Four Asians. In the whole school. Of eight hundred. (That’s 0.005%, in case you were wondering.) I began seeing faces that looked like mine and actively sought them out. I joined the Asian Pacific American Student Organization and the Chinese Student Coalition. I dated a Chinese woman. I was finally making my parents proud. Except for my major. A bachelor’s degree in Criminal Justice was not a stepping stone in the road to becoming a doctor.

Even though the midwest was not exactly swimming with Asians and my time there was still fraught with racism (to be fair, they were very polite racists), I never felt completely alone. Moving back to Connecticut intensified my feelings of otherness. I was the only Asian Fraud Investigator in the entire Department of Social Services. I was the only Asian Child Protective Services Investigator in the entire Department of Children and Families. I was the only Asian Probation Officer in the entire Office of Adult Probation. Noticing a trend? So after eight years back in Connecticut, I did the only sensible thing I could think of: I quit my job, moved to New York, and attended NYU to become a social worker.

Which eventually brought me all the way to China. It was a good trip. Some parts were even great. But there was no epiphany. No enlightening moment where everything about my identity suddenly made sense. Traveling the country with my American students, it was clear I didn’t belong. My clothes were wrong. My mannerisms were wrong. Even my dialect of Chinese was wrong. There I was in China, surrounded by millions of Chinese people, and I never felt less Chinese than during those two weeks.

The flight back was long and uneventful. The cab ride from Newark to Flushing even less so. When I got out of the cab, I walked into my building and stood in front of the door to my apartment. I was finally home.

Mr. Chan is the guidance counselor at Grace Church School for grades 9-12.