Hey there! I'm Vivian. Sometimes I write about life and sometimes I write about teaching.

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.

This is a photo of my late stepdad and his wife from a few years ago when my brother and I visited them in Taichung, Taiwan. Papa (pronounced like potato in Spanish) loved his Filet-o-Fish. He moved back to Taiwan after decades of living in the U.S.
I wonder if he ever felt “not Taiwanese enough” after living in the United States for so long.

  1. arjeha says:

    It is a shame that we all can’t just say that we are human and leave it at that. My grandparents came from Ukraine and spoke very broken English. Although I could understand them, I never learned to speak it. We should be able to be content with who we arn and not need to make any apologies for that.

  2. tenilleshade says:

    Our journey towards fully belonging to ourselves is complex and multifaceted. I imagine being a second generation immigrant makes it even more challenging. As I read your beautiful, reflective blog, I thought about Sara Ahmed’s work on hyphenated-idenitites. If you’ve never heard of her, check it out. https://blog.heinemann.com/sara-ahmed-on-identity-and-experience

  3. amyilene says:

    Thank you for such an immersion into a world that I cannot inhabit. Your words are crafted just so,
    allowing this white, middle-aged Jewish woman to feel the tension of your experience. And yes, I completely remember Sun In, which was no match for my curly, brown, mediterranean hair.

  4. Belonging can be such a mixed bag of experiences. I really appreciate your candor in telling your story. The title caught me with the reference that took me back to the Jackson 5 and I was interested to learn this new meaning of ABC. Asian invisibility and/or exclusively stereotyped portrayals in American pop culture do us all a huge disservice. Those of us who straddle worlds/cultures/languages/systems often struggle with not being enough of one thing or the other. At the same time our experiences can help us build both/and possibilities for those we meet, teach and care for.

  5. I was completely fascinated with your post – thank you for sharing your story. I love how you ended with humor – what is more American than a Filet-o -Fish!

  6. mrbrackbill says:

    I deeply appreciate your perspective and ability to share it. You most definitely are “enough”.

  7. payanar100 says:

    Thank you for sharing your story. Sun-in did not work on my dark brown hair either 😉 My husband moved to the USA from Spain to be with me. Over his 20 years in this country he has had many of these feelings of not belonging or being American or Spanish enough. It is a struggle that many people go through and I appreciate that you wrote about your struggle here.

  8. Alice says:

    This is a fantastic post. I like you how you describe your struggle to fit in while straddling two worlds and then finding your place. I know many people, myself included, share similar sentiments. My grandparents only spoke Spanish so I picked it up from them. However, English is my first language and I don’t feel I speak Spanish well enough to claim I’m fluent. Kudos to your for showing your students the importance of embracing their identities.

  9. Rita K. says:

    I appreciate the insights your slice gave me into what life is like when you speak another language and try to adjust to American life. Beautifully crafted and insightful. Thank you.

  10. This piece 100% spoke to me. Straddling two cultures is a life balancing act. Realizing that you are not alone makes it easier. Thank you for sharing your perspective. Our students benefit from diverse voices out there as mirrors and windows.

  11. Lainie Levin says:

    First of all, I’m going to say this: Sun In did NOT work on nappy Jewish hair either. Now, with that out of the way…I’ve heard that “ABC” slur from friends of mine about their interactions as Chinese-Americans. Your post here – wow. It brings out so many thoughts, so many layers, so many levels. I think about my best friend from college, who was a first-generation Thai American. Her parents wanted her to be able to assimilate, so she was pushed to communicate in English, and now she feels separated from the Thai community. Other immigrant or first-gen friends of mine reflect exactly the push-pull that you do, never quite feeling like they fully have their feet in one identity or another. But…what I love the MOST about this post is at the end, where you offer your own experience to your students. And it’s not to suggest that growing up erases any difficulties, but you validate their stories, you allow them to be SEEN. And THAT is a beautiful gift you can offer.

  12. […] the Chinese newspaper days before we heard about it from The Enquirer. I think in our attempt to fit into dominant American culture we didn’t want to be seen as the kind of people who followed “ancient Chinese […]

  13. Shaista says:

    So, so, so relevant decades ago, relevant today! Beautiful.
    By the way, there’s another term: ABCD, for American Born Confused Desis, which is used for second generation Indians born in the US. Many of my nieces and nephews are technically ABCDs.



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