Irvine, CA — Every year, at four in the morning, my dad wakes up to quietly watch the Chinese New Year gala alone. Every year, I get a red envelope stuffed with American bills and continue my day without a second thought. And every year, when my dad comes home from work, I offhandedly ask him how the gala was, he’ll say the filming was bad quality, and we’ll keep eating dinner.
Chinese American feels like a label I want to fit but can’t. I’m practically illiterate in Mandarin. I don’t remember many Chinese folktales. In China, I’m a “waiguoren” - the Chinese term for foreigner, an American Chinese (American first, Chinese last) who knows nothing about her motherland. Yet, my lack of familiarity with my Chinese heritage doesn’t necessarily make me more American. Sometimes, I think the strongest connection I have to my heritage is my guilt over losing it.
Or, perhaps I embody the only logical mix of confusion and unbelonging a Chinese American should feel, given what came before.
To many early Chinese immigrants of the 19th century, America was not a final destination, but a pit-stop to financially support family back home. Yet, many immigrants couldn’t find the economic footing to return. They were branded as “others”: depraved, dangerous, and faceless. In 1854, Horace Greeley, a prominent New York Tribune editor, defended the notion of “yellow peril,” the anxiety that East Asians were fundamentally threats. “The Chinese,” Greeley wrote, were “uncivilized, unclean, and filthy beyond all conception.”
These ideas fueled “yellow peril,” paving the way for the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the first major law to bar migrants based on ethnicity. It endured into the 20th century. The "national origin system" didn't really change until 1965. My parents were born only two years prior. In the context of my own life, the exclusion of Chinese people from America wasn’t distant.
Chinese American identity seems fraught from the start. Attempts to assimilate were often met with slurs and worse dangers: homes and businesses set alight in the nation’s Chinatowns. The slurs live on, now bearing normalcy, even acceptance. Recently, a non-Chinese friend asked me how to say “happy birthday” in Mandarin. “Is it ching chong ling long?” this friend asked, seemingly without realizing the slur’s history. Throat tight with hurt, reluctant to start an argument, I didn’t respond.
That particular slur was commonly thrown at early Asian Americans living in the shadow of the Gold Rush. My friend, like others before, had used it like any other phrase: thank you, good morning, ching chong. Nevermind that slurs like “ching chong” declared Chinese immigrants unworthy of integration into America. However, there’s another side to this interaction: the complicity of Chinese Americans, people like me, who aren’t sure they deserve better.
Several months ago, my close friend was at McDonald’s with other peers, when a lady sat down beside them. “Fucking chinks,” she apparently said, loudly ranting about burning down a Korean bakery in Chinatown. “I dare you all to hit me. I’ll knock you all over the head and call the cops.”
The significance of this particular instance lies in the reaction it produced. No one at the table spoke up. They hastily finished eating, silent despite her tirade, and left quickly. Perhaps others would have done the same, but, in taking the abuse, my friend saw something meaningful tied to her race. “The fact that we kind of just sat there and took it while whispering amongst ourselves rather than fight her, which [people of] other races may have done, that was really big for me,” she told me, in a recent conversation about discrimination we’d personally faced.
Chinese people were, from the moment of arrival, set apart: visibly different, linguistically hampered, and officially un-American, via popular rhetoric and federal policy. Although decades have passed since the most intense era of Chinese ostracism, certain sentiments live on, with new power. These feelings have been passed through time, persisting in contemporary vocabulary, actions, and microaggressions. Prejudice against Chinese Americans often does not seem to incite outrage, even from those receiving it. I’ve learned perhaps unbelonging is inevitable.
Last summer, I interned at the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California (CHSSC), based in the Chinatown district of Los Angeles, in hopes that by working with tangible remnants of Chinese presence in California, I’d move closer to my roots. CHSSC’s libraries contained relics from historical sites like the Angel Island Immigration Station. During their lengthy detainment periods upon Angel Island, Chinese immigrants often carved poetry into their barrack walls.
At CHSSC, I found a compilation of these translated poems: "Island" by Him Mark Lai, Genny Lim, and Judy Yung, many speaking of piercing sorrow.
Some immigrants still hoped, however, for a better life. I bookmarked one poem in particular, written by One Named Huie. “Gain or lose, how is one to know what is predestined? Rich or poor, who is to say it is not the will of Heaven?” this prisoner wrote. “Why should one complain if he is detained and imprisoned here? From ancient times, heroes often were the first ones to face adversity.”
I don’t wish to compare my own ordeals to those of a prisoner’s. Reading the poem, though, I felt symbolically connected: trapped between two worlds, in a sense, unable to express myself in either. Yet, the poem gives me hope that reconnection isn’t lost. I used to think of my Chinese self as a mismatched organ in my body — I rejected it. I realize now that I’ve inherited a sense of unbelonging that has become infused with my heritage. Like the prototypical early Chinese immigrant, I cannot truly root into the American fabric. Still, this Chinese New Year, I think I will feel differently than I have before: I will be connected to something else, equally as Chinese in spirit as the festival.