“I am NOT Asian…am I?”
My nephew exclaimed in horror from the backseat of our Honda. At seven years old, he’s not yet big enough to sit in the car without a booster. I thought however, that he was old enough to have noticed our Asian-ness. His question caught me off guard.
“Oh sweetie…yes, yep, you are Asian. We’re all Asian.” I said, gesturing to the rest of the snack-munching car occupants. We were on our family beach trip, and incidentally pretty much the only Asians in town. The population at this particular beach was definitely whiter than the sand. Earlier we had passed a gated swimming pool, and joked about breaking in that night. My dad said “Nah, better not. They’d definitely recognize the one Asian family on the island.”
This is what prompted my nephew’s question, and he was completely shocked by the answer.
“But I don’t even speak any Chinese!” he insisted.
“You do a little! …you can say xie xie…”
“I don’t remember how to say anything!”
At first I felt sad hearing him deny his roots, but then I remembered feeling that same defiance at an older age when people tried to align me with ideas about Asians that I didn’t relate to. [I’m sure your parents just made you do homework all day. Naw dude, I spent the day painting landscapes with my mom all over the kitchen walls!]
So I didn’t push him to remember his Chinese. And I didn’t want to talk about physical differences and make him self-conscious of his hair or eyes. I felt like it was a pivotal teaching moment, which made me nervous about screwing it up. He’s so adorably innocent, and props to my sister for providing him with a wonderfully diverse group of friends. He knows that each kid has his or her own look, but he doesn’t group and label them.
Once while watching a dance show on TV, he said “Wow, did you see what that black guy did?” I looked up to see a guy in a black hoodie doing b-boy tricks. HE IDENTIFIES PEOPLE BY THE COLOR OF THEIR CLOTHING. God I love him! So adorable.
I didn’t want to be part of ruining this innocence. I still feel bad about being the one who accidentally taught him the word “stupid” at age 2, his first negative word. So the pressure of teaching him what it meant to be Chinese American was making me a bit stupid now: a parade of unhelpful stereotypical “Chinese” words was commencing in my brain. Panda! Chopsticks! Soy Sauce! Fortune Cookie! Kung Fu!
I was trying to think of peppy things to say, because for some reason the atmosphere had become bad-news-at-the-doctor-ish. I could feel my sisters similarly struggling. We wanted to give him evidence of our heritage in our daily lives, so, holding our various bags of crunchy snacks, we started talking about some of our favorite things to eat.
“You know those awesome spring rolls your Mama makes? Those are Chinese!”
“You like zongzi too, and won ton and bao zi.”
He perked up. “Oh yeah! And I like sushi.”
“Mm hmm! That’s Japanese. Also Asian.”
“Yeah, and I like seafood and fried chicken. Filet o’fish!”
“Oh my gosh yessss I love filet o’ fish! And fries! And your mama loves burritos!”
Pretty soon we just got excited and carried away by talking about our favorite things to eat, from the Jamaican place near home to the barbeque joint by the beach. And I realized we didn’t really need to teach him what it meant to be Asian. He’s going to create his own definition, just as we did. And it’ll be different from his mama who loves Capoeira and Kimchi, and different from my other sister who speaks French beautifully and Chinese comically. There are parts of Asian culture that resonate with each of us, and we’ve embraced these as part of our characters. But there’s no teachable or right way to identify as Asian. It doesn’t define or confine us. We're lucky in this day and age to be able to absorb things from so many different cultures. I definitely identify with more than just Chinese and American, and I know there are ethnically non-Asian people who probably identify with Asian culture just as much as I do.
Sometimes I feel guilty for not being more “in touch with my roots”. But while it’s important to respect what came before us, it’s equally important to branch out from these roots. So instead of trying to show my nephew ways in which he’s Asian, I’m going to let him discover and create that himself. And I can’t wait to see what his version ends up being.
As for me? I manifest my Asian by flashing the peace sign during mild road rage instead of the finger. I'm also a damn good driver ;) What’s your Asian?