Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Childhood, On the Inside

A moving multimedia piece was featured in The New York Times yesterday, entitled "Chinese, On the Inside." It features Catie and Kimberly, 11 and 9, who were adopted from China by a couple in Maine, and the family's attempt to keep them connected to their Chinese cultural background.

Wow, I don't even know what to think. This video stirs up plenty of intriguing emotions: heartache for sure -- 心酸 -- but also great affection. There are inklings of commonality, as well as immense difference.

My first reaction (and it is only a first stirring): something has been taken from them. Can they be whole without that part of their identity? Who are the individuals who purport to be their parents? What would it be like for a child to live in such a household, and was it a responsible choice to make?

I want them to have what we had growing up -- a household with immigrant parents, filled with a mixture of English and a tongue from a homeland, a place at once distant and near; the clash and negotiation of cultures; parental expectations rubbing roughly against American life; meals and habits and norms both tacit and spoken, governing cleaning and prayer and responsibility; no need to explain, it just is.

Maybe they had a wholly American experience with non-immigrant parents; maybe they're better for it in some ways, raised by someone other than Amy Chua's tiger mother (but that's an issue for another day. I'm grateful I didn't have a tiger mother either).

They certainly wouldn't have either experience -- the Asian American or the Protestant American one -- if they had stayed in China, consigned to an orphanage upbringing. That alternative future would have been far bleaker. So I cannot begrudge their parents, and wish to commend them: there are in this world, generous hearts such as theirs.

Moreover, these parents from Maine are trying; they are seeking some way for that Chinese cultural spark to stay alive, stay valid, stay meaningful. How much harder it must be when it is not second nature, but second hand, when trying to convey an upbringing that is not your own!

This video struck a note piercingly clear: we are Asian Americans. Those of us who live here, who grew up here -- we aren't Chinese. Chinese people don't talk like Kimberly. There's one scene in particular, where she talks about how she feels about Chinese identity and relating to her classmates, that really struck me. The reason I identify with that child so strongly is because she sounds like my childhood friends, she sounds like me. She is utterly, desperately familiar, and even if she grew up in a Caucasian household, the way she speaks, her cadence and tone and voice is is so achingly familiar, and all I can think is love, and love, and love.

At the same time, I know there must be distance, a separateness born of experience so markedly different. The author of the article brings this into focus: she is from LA and grew up in a community like ours, so for her to see these lives unfolding is the same confusion that pushes us to introspection.

This dear child! I wonder if she will laugh when she watches Wong Fu videos. Do Phil, Wes and Ted speak to her the way they speak to us? I wonder if she saw Totoro at age 4 and was in love with Miyazaki for the rest of her life. I wonder if she knows to address visitors as 阿姨, to call her maternal grandparents 公公 and 婆婆 when they visit. Does she take her shoes off at the door? Does she know that wide rubber bands open jars, that napkins and ketchup packets can be saved?

I wonder if she feels any obligation to a distant entity in Asia, not only as a locale to visit one day, but because what happens to that country matters -- that nagging concern of cultural loyalty borne into national feeling. I wonder if she knows that "Chinese New Year" is in January or February every year, but doesn't want to feel obligated to translate or elucidate or explain "all those customs" just because she is the token Asian kid, would you goddamn stop orientalizing us, she just wants to go home and be Asian and not have to parade it out in front of the class as a paean to diversity. Can she walk down a Cupertino or Arcadia or Flushing street and feel at ease, even if she's never been before, because this is a world already known? I wonder when she first tried pearl milk tea, or 叉燒包, or siu mai, and even in its wondrous newness, this dish was never "exotic", it was always "home."

I can hardly imagine the non-immigrant Asian American experience, but I think that scenario is what our kids will have to live. The process of adaptation and assimilation ... these words chill me, because I wonder if it means forgetting and overlooking and dispensing with the past; if the line stops here, and cultural memory fades into the background. Once a vibrant part of life, can it persist if it isn't lived?

I want her to have what we have, for now at least -- to be part of a community of understanding, a cultural nod, a knowing wink, a billowing sense of "Yes, I know what you mean!" As should be for any human being, she is free to choose to live the life she wishes, but that means having a choice in the first place. Different paths, possibilities, options, opportunities, must exist for choice to exist.

From there, she can navigate streams of identity -- to recognize what animates her, to choose to hold on to what matters, what resonates and gives meaning at the core of things; and conversely, what to discard and release into a world of temporal stardust. It's finding "her", and realizing that sense of "her" is a note in a chord in the chorus of a song that stretches across time, across generations, across oceans.

Some day, she may have these questions, even if she doesn't grow up with the same concepts or stories. For now, there's life, and that's a start. There is time, still, to link the past to the present -- to be connected, to feel rooted, to have a sense of belonging -- peering back, leaning in, hurtling forward, enroute to the future.

She shouldn't have to be Chinese; but she should have the chance to be Chinese American.

*The English word "Chinese" doesn't have enough nuance to capture these distinctions. We are 華人 (our parents 華僑, our generation 華裔); but we aren't 中國人. Yet 華 hua identity matters -- the customs, ideas, ways of thinking and behaving, norms and expectations, because it's what connects us all across the world, whether we are people of Chinese descent in Malaysia or Canada or Hong Kong or Taiwan or Singapore. 華 has diverse expressions in all these places, but at its core, when exploring issues of culture and identity, can still unite us.

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