Recently, someone I just met, asked me if I’m Taiwanese. I am. “I could tell,” she said giving me a knowing look, one Taiwanese person to another. I was amused and puzzled at this statement since my own family doesn’t think I’m Taiwanese enough. Like many second generation immigrants, I’ve constantly hovered between two borders, never fully belonging to the country of my birth nor the country of my ancestors. Not American enough and not Taiwanese enough. Most Taiwanese people are ethnically Chinese, so the derogatory term for second generation kids who aren’t considered Chinese enough or Taiwanese enough is ABC or American Born Chinese. Sounds innocuous, but it’s filled with disdain.
Even though my first language was Taiwanese, the moment I stepped foot in school my parents started speaking to me in English. They were of the old school of thought that it was better for me to learn English only and not get confused by Taiwanese or Mandarin. When aunts or uncles came over they would ask me questions in Taiwanese and when I faltered or responded in English, they would shake their heads and say, “ABC!”
In elementary school, I didn’t look like most of my classmates; they were mostly white. A boy on the yard called me a “chink” when I was in second grade. I didn’t know what it meant, but it didn’t sound good. On television and in the movies people didn’t look like me. In middle school when my family moved to Houston, Texas I saw the white kids get on one bus and turn into the gated neighborhood with beautiful, spacious homes while the rest of us, almost all kids of color, went on to the neighborhoods filled with apartment buildings and condo complexes. The world I lived in outside of my home was telling me all the time that I wasn’t American enough. So I did everything I could to be as “American” as possible. I eschewed the food my mom cooked. I refused to learn Mandarin. When I was sent to Chinese school in 8th grade I could never remember how to write my name from week to week. As I look back, I think my affective filter was creating a huge wall for me. I even tried to bleach my hair. For the record, Sun In, did not work on black Asian hair. (If you remember what Sun In was, you’re my kind of people.)
None of that mattered I was still not American enough.
It wasn’t until college (college!) that I finally began to feel more confident in my identity. I met other Asian-American women who were like me except they spoke their home languages without embarrassment. They talked of their favorite Chinese foods, Korean foods, Vietnamese foods with pride. Being with them helped me to embrace the parts of my ethnicity I had been trying to hide for all those years. It was liberating. Years later, while visiting Shanghai with my brother as adults, we were often questioned about where we came from. Our Mandarin was spoken with an accent that was hard to recognize. Were we from Hong Kong? “No, we’re from America,” we would say. Nine times out ten, the person would answer, “But you don’t look American!”
Still not Taiwanese enough and not American enough.
Most of my students were first or second generation immigrants. They came from Honduras, Mexico, El Salvador, the Philippines, Korea, Egypt, and more. Many of them struggled with some of the same issues I did so many years earlier. After so many years making sure they understood that they were enough exactly as they were, I finally came to realize that I was enough. Period.