I grew up in a suburban town in New Jersey where I was one of about ten Asian students in a graduating class of over four hundred. My background was always a topic of intrigue, and when people first met me, they’d often dance around certain words to ask about my ethnicity so as to be politically correct, only to come off as politically incorrect in the end. I’ve received every kind of phrasing possible for the same exact question, but one of my favorites: “Uh…so…what are you?”
Well, you could call me a first generation American-Born Chinese, sometimes called an “ABC.” Or you could call me a second-generation Chinese-American, if you consider immigrants “first-generation.” Or you might not call me Chinese at all, if you don’t consider Hong Kong or Taiwan to be within the political jurisdiction of the People’s Republic of China (that’s an argument you do not want to start with my grandparents).
The ambiguity of identity as the American-born son of immigrant parents makes me something of a soldier without a country. Kind of a Tom Hanks in The Terminal. My Taiwanese friends from home say I eat too much of my father’s Hong Kong cooking to identify as Taiwanese. My Hong Kong friends say I know too little Cantonese to identify as Hong Kongnese. And don’t even mention identifying as mainland Chinese- they would berate me if I were to dare identify as Chinese when my parents never stepped foot in the mainland. And if I say I’m simply American, people say “well duh,” and continue to push about where my parents are from.
And we should be deliberate about this existential dilemma – our answer to the ethnicity question defines the pride, culture, and family history behind our roots.
I’ve confided in my identity through the lifestyle my family maintains in the United States. I live in a modest townhouse in New Jersey. Mandated by the homeowner’s association, my house must be painted the same shade of brown as the rest of the houses on my street. My house is number 8, chosen deliberately because 8 is the Chinese lucky number.
My parents have a policy of only buying Japanese cars, although my father once worked for Ford in Dearborn Michigan, engineering the Ford Bronco. Recently I’ve caught my dad perusing used car ads for Dodge Challengers, claiming he’s just “browsing.”
We eat Chinese food, with rice, about five times a week. We use Corningware plates and stainless steel forks and knives, although every now and then we’ll use plastic chopsticks. My dad likes to grill outside on his big stainless steel grill, although I might argue he uses the side burner to cook Hong Kong-style fish more often.
In the argument about cultural assimilation in the United States, I’ve created my own faction. I’m proud of my Taiwanese and Hong Kongnese heritage, but I am just as proud in my American citizenship. I don’t feel pressured to give up my cultural identity to “fit” in better with American standards. I don’t feel pressured to over-represent my Chinese heritage in the name of cultural awareness. So although I might not be wholly American or wholly Taiwanese or wholly Hong Kongnese, I am apart of an entirely different faction: “Taiwanese & Hong Kong & American.”