CLICK TO PLAY: Growing up Chinese in America (8:27)
<Shining and Joseph aka Qiqi>
In the 6th grade, when my brother was born, I named him Joseph. He is the only member of my family not born in China and the only one with American name. I called him that because I hated my own name at the time and I wanted him to avoid being teased the way I was at school. That was unrealistic. He is 11 years old now and he is teased anyway. Growing up, I really hated being Chinese. I had so many feelings I couldn’t explain- shame, guilt, discomfort. More than anything else I felt the painful desire to be normal, to be completely accepted as American. And it hurts me now to see my brother going through same thing as I did. Especially because I know he doesn’t understand them yet.
This summer we went to China to visit relatives. At my my grandmother’s house at Changsha, it was hot and humid, and we ate ice-cream bars to stay off heat stroke.
Shining: So what have we done on this trip, to China? What have we done so far?
Joseph: Well, we went out to a city, we’ve gone to this cultural place, which was just like bunch of old Chinese artifacts. It was so boring.
S: You don’t like coming to China?
J: It’s stinky, it’s polluted, some of our relatives that we most frequently go to don’t even have real toilet and they don’t have shower stinks because it’s right next to toilet. And I don’t understand half of what people are saying, probably more than half.
S: But that’s because you don’t know Chinese.
J: I know!
S: So you can just learn Chinese.
J: I would rather just not come to China.
S: I didn’t want to go to China either when I was his age. I thought I was american. And just the mention of China, let alone going to China, was a reminder that I didn’t completely belong. I had this constant identity crisis. No matter how American I felt, I couldn’t escape being an immigrant. I had a friend in third grade with big blue eyes and a family golden retriever. Her parents spoke perfect, unaccented English. I wanted so badly to be her sister. At school, I hated it whenever anyone commented on my race.
S: How do you feel different from other people at school?
J: Well, of course, there is the thing teasing about like “oh your hair looks weird” or something. And they tease me about how my hair is little bit brownish color compared to other Chinese people. Because obviously Chinese people should have solid black hair.
S: So your hair is browner and they tease you about that. Anything else?
J: They do make stereotypical jokes like “Oh you are Chinese, you should be good at math”, which I kind of am, but that doesn’t mean anything.
S: So they make stereotypical jokes about you being Chinese?
J: Yea and they [say] like “sumo wrestler!”
S: That’s not even from China.
J: I know! That’s how stereotypical they are. They don’t even know what stereotype they are talking about.
S: So you don’t really respond to them? And you don’t ever tell them to stop making jokes about you?
J: No, I just say at least “I’m smarter than you”.
S: What about other jokes? What other jokes do they make?
J: Like they say I’m fat, so I say “so what”.
S: You feel like people don’t respect you because you are Chinese?
J: Some people, like the people who don’t respect me the most are people who is one person. He kept randomly walking up to me just to say “hi Chinese person, do you want some more tofu and baked beans and would you like sudoku book with that? Have fun being fat and wrestling sumo player”.
S: So he tells you that every single day?
J:Well, like probably like two or three times a week. So basically once every two days or three.
S: And how does that make you feel?
J: I’m used to it because a lot of people say that. Well not that harsh but stuff like that.
S: Like how many people do you think say any kind of thing about you and about China everyday?
J: It’s different now. There are some days than others, Mondays and Fridays are the worst days for some reason. And on Mondays and Fridays around five of them would be at lunch or recess. And people at my class would be around two or three. And Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday are four and other people at my class would be like three.
S: So it happens everyday.
J: Yeah. The only ones actually mean are the ones who does it every single two days, three days and probably two out of three of the people who are saying are just saying as friendly teasing.
S: But they are still saying racist things,right? You think this is racist things, right?
J: Yeah but they don’t mean it to be hurtful, they are just joking around.
S: Doesn’t it make you feel different from them though?
S: So it still hurts?
My brother loves everything that has to do with math and numbers. I noticed that he counted exactly how many times he was teased at school. You don’t- I don’t- forget comments like that. When I was in second grade, a girl pushed me off the monkey bars at recess. I’ve never seen her before but she didn’t want to be my friend. She said, “Why is your face so flat? Go away Chinese girl”. I don’t remember much about grade school, but I’ve always remembered that.
S: So I’m hearing that you don’t like the food.
J: Stereotypical jokes. The parents.
S: The language.
S: So would you rather not be Chinese? Do you rather be just regular American? Just White?
J: Kind of.
S: You don’t think you miss things about your culture and stuff?
S: You don’t care that you are from China?
S: Don’t you think that’s disrespectful not to care?
J: Yeah! Well, I can hide the fact that I don’t care but inside I really don’t care. I can’t change what I actually feel unless something happens that actually allows me to change.
S: Why do you think America is so much better?
J: Well it’s not stinky, it’s not polluted.
S: It is polluted in America
J: Well it’s not like you can smell smoke everywhere.
S: You really think you can’t smell dirty things in America either?
J: Are you angry right now? Or are you just…
S: I think it’s just really sad that you feel this way. Do you understand why I think it’s sad?
S: Can you explain why I think it’s sad?
J: Because I’m from China and I should actually respect the country I’m from.
J: And that I should like it. But as I said, I can hide it, I can just say right now I like it, but obviously in deep down I hate it.
I know my brother is not me. I know I can’t change his mind with single conversation. But I recognize so much of my own feelings in his confusion. And I know why I got mad at him. Because he doesn’t have to think this way. He doesn’t have to hate part of himself. I wanted him to know that his classmates aren’t right. That America is not better than China. And there is no such thing as real American. It took me so long to understand my feelings about being Chinese. I love my name now. I would never want a boring american name. I call my brother Qiqi, his Chinese name, when we are by ourselves. I hope he grows to like it.
This piece was produced and edited by Shining Li. Special thanks to Qiqi Li.
By Shining Li
Music: “Continental Drift,” by Nic Bommarito