Holding on to My Heritage

My family uses our rice cooker just as often as we use our waffle iron. My freezer is equally filled with ziploc bags of frozen dumplings as it is with Hot Pockets. On Jan. 1 I will celebrate New Year’s Day and on Jan. 28 I will celebrate Chinese New Year.

I did not inherit just my straight black hair and almond-shaped eyes but a rich heritage. It is quite a challenge finding the careful balance between the two cultures that I grew up with; it is even harder to define which culture I belong to more. When trying to answer the all-important question of “Who are you?” I often find myself clinging onto an identity that I don’t know a whole lot about.

If I had to give a practical answer to this question, I would say that I am Chinese-American. I have Chinese ancestry but I grew up in America. As such, I’m expected to embrace American culture yet still preserve Chinese traditions. But I’ve kind of been doing a less than stellar job at keeping a balance between both.

Others say that I am lucky to be part of two cultures. With access to the rich cultural history of China and the modernity of America, it would seem that I have the best of both worlds, right?

Kind of. The problem is, most of the time people identify me with one or the other. My Chinese relatives see me as “the American,” and my American friends have the understanding that I am Chinese. It’s hard for others to understand that I am not fully Chinese nor am I fully American and that I have to somehow manage straddling the fence between the two.

Embracing American culture is the much easier expectation of the two because I grew up here. Yet there’s still a certain pressure to assimilate more to American culture – so much that there’s a point when a dissociation with ancestry is promoted. For instance I stopped bringing spicy fish and rice for lunch when someone commented on the strong smell. When I was in elementary school, I was always known as “the Asian one” of the group.

When I visited China during the summer, I found that I couldn’t completely blend in there either. I was repeatedly called out for my tan skin, sometimes by complete strangers. I had to ask my father to translate a Chinese menu for me and I was frequently embarrassed by my lack of dexterity when using chopsticks.

I want to be able to take pride in my culture but I have little knowledge of it and have not tried nearly hard enough to learn about it. My Mandarin is choppy at best, I have the same knowledge of Chinese history that my peers do (which is not very much) and my cooking is limited to microwave dumplings from Costco.

While I would like to learn more, no matter how hard I try it’s not possible for me to understand my Chinese heritage in the same way that my parents do. We simply have gone through different experiences.

In recent years I have noticed that my parents place less emphasis on Chinese traditions as they are overshadowed by American ones. Thanksgiving and Christmas remain more important than the Qingming Festival or Dragon Boat Festival, both of which we don’t even celebrate anymore. When I was younger I remember celebrating the Mid-Autumn Festival every year by eating mooncakes but slowly this tradition died down as well.

As generations pass I think it’s important that we try to hold on to our heritage. This struggle in cultural identity is undoubtedly more difficult in people of multiple ethnicities but I regret not paying more attention in the Chinese school that my parents sent me to when I was younger. Someday in the future I would like to call myself “Chinese-American” knowing that I haven’t completely let go of the “Chinese” part.

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