Split by Jenna Bao
The Dumpling Café was packed with Chinese people and Caucasians alike, so much so that it was almost impossible to move in the tiny entryway. That’s not surprising; it was a Saturday evening in China Town, a place characterized by tiny restaurants and practically nonexistent service. What’s unexpected, though, was the way the Chinese waiter took one glance at me and asked how many were in my party, in Mandarin. I barely tried to mask my surprise, holding up three fingers and stuttering out a “三” (three in Chinese). He wrote down ‘party of two’, so I grimaced and proclaimed it again louder, before hurrying back to my group of Caucasian friends. I spent the rest of the meal feeling both forbidden to speak in English and uncomfortable fumbling over Chinese orders and declarations of thanks. By the time we left, I managed to feel both accomplished and fake.
This trend continued as we found a bakery, and I was simultaneously introducing my friends to bubble tea and being unable to remember how to tell the cashier ‘taro’. For some reason, I refused to resort to English, because after starting in Chinese I would be a failure for giving up. As I tried to explain to my friends, if I spoke only in English, I would be judged for being a full-on ‘banana’ (an Asian American, yellow on the outside and white on the inside), and if I messed up in Chinese, I would be a bumbling idiot.
I didn’t even stop to wonder why people could assume that I was fluent in Chinese, even if I was. I didn’t wonder why I didn’t correct them. After all, what kind of Chinese person am I?
And therein lies the problem, I suppose. Am I Chinese? My genotypes and phenotypes certainly declare that I am. After all, my Chinese parents immigrated to the U.S. for their PhDs, their entire homogeneous families being based Shanghai or Beijing. I have the stereotypical dark small eyes and straight black hair, and yet, the government would recognize me as an American. I go to school anddstudy American history and English literature, and I plan to spend the rest of my life in the U.S. However, much more of who I am rests in the murky gray. I have tacos or sandwiches for school lunches and rice and noodles in the evening. I love both cheese (which my dad can’t stand) and pork intestines (which my friends shudder at). I fell in love with Asian pop culture by watching Korean television and listening to Chinese pop, yet I adored American dramas and Taylor Swift. Many, perhaps even most, of my close friends are Asian or the children of immigrants (who knows if that was subconsciously purposeful), and yet we all speak English and hang out in normal, American teen ways. Of course there is the term Asian American, but it’s never been that happy 50-50 blend. The reality is more along the lines of a ying-yang symbol (a coincidental analogy), two drastically different sides for two lives. People are constantly having me make a choice, to be in one world or the other when I am with them. Other times, like in China Town, they just decide for me.
Ultimately, I would be perfectly fine if it wasn’t for what other people expect. In the country I live in, people see me or hear my name (Bao), and think of a nerd with straight black hair and glasses who spends her spare time studying IT or med school textbooks. On one hand, I do meet a number of those expectations. I don’t know how much of that comes from who I really am, who people think I am, or who I’m surrounded by. Probably all three. And yet, it leaves me constantly worrying about both supporting stereotypes and deviating from them. After all, people are hardly impressed when I win
awards, and colleges already expect more from me, so what would it be like if I didn’t do those things? If I disappointed them? The funny thing is, other Asians expect those things from me as well, but they also believe that I’ll speak Chinese, understand them, be just like them (Asians like to clump together).
My brother has always been more Chinese than me. That’s difficult to explain, particularly genetically, but it’s inexplicably true. He has classic Chinese traits of being the perfectly put-together,
introverted, humble, math-science skilled, pre-med student. Needless to say, Chinese family and friends always comment on what an impressive young man he is. I, on the other hand, find myself being loud, big (personality-wise), fairly aggressive, in love with liberal arts, and an embodiment of the Western ideas of ‘individuality’ (I may or may not be missing a few screws up there, but I kind of love it so far). My parents have certainly never faulted me for that, and I don’t plan on changing for anyone.
And yet, why should I have to worry about that? Why should I be forced to know what I am, and why does that have to define who I am? Why should anyone be able to know or expect things from one glance at my exterior? I, or any other person, shouldn’t have to be something because I have a skin color, type of family, or socioeconomic status, shouldn’t have to be scared to disappoint. We just need to understand, or at least appreciate, the complexity and individuality of every individual, regardless of racial identity, or lack thereof.