Amy Tan Phase

Sometime in the past school year, a group of Chinese tourists stopped me as I was crossing Elm Street to walk back to Old Campus. A woman asked me, in Chinese – “你会说中文吗?” Can you speak Chinese? I nodded vigorously and answered, “可以!” I can! The exclamation point is telling. That this woman recognized that I was Chinese, simply from my appearance, excited me. I was thinking yes! Yes! I am like you! I speak your language, my language, our language! She asked me where they could eat lunch. The moment I tried to point them in the direction of Church Street, I realized I had forgotten how to say some very basic things like turn right, and it took me a few seconds to remember. The words tripped out of my mouth and felt foreign and awkward on my tongue. I felt ashamed and sad, though they understood me and tottered off to where I had directed them, I suddenly noticed the rust forming on the language that had been my first. The language that is supposed to be mine. I’m losing it. I’ve been losing it. Little things will continue to remind me of this. I will try to write a basic sentence and find I can’t remember the simplest characters. I won’t recognize or be able to read some phrases in the level 1 Chinese textbook. Perhaps one of the biggest jolts is to realize that so many of my friends, who aren’t Chinese – 外国人 – waiguoren, foreigner, can speak Chinese better than I can, know more than I do.

Being away from home for the year also made me realize another thing – I miss Chinese-ness. I hadn’t noticed how much it had been a part of my daily life. Sometimes when I was the only one left behind in the suite, reading, or writing, or doing a problem set in my room, the darkness and the quiet was unsettling – unfilled; when at home, I was always working against the backdrop of the Chinese satellite channels, the commercials that didn’t change for years and years, the shrieking and crying from those melodramatic series my mom loved, the theme music to various programs. If it wasn’t the television, it was my mother on the phone, speaking in Mandarin to a friend’s parent or jabbering in loud Cantonese – the dialect that everyone thinks of when they think of stereotyping Chinese – to my aunt. During meals throughout the day, my parents like to watch Chinese talk shows. Though I had always tuned out of the specific words, it was suddenly palpable how much I missed the lilt and cadence of the language in the quiet of my dorm. I would walk past the Chinese tour groups on campus, and on hearing Mandarin or Cantonese, I would stop just to listen to them for a few minutes. When the dining hall food stopped being the amazing novelty it had been in the first few weeks of college, I found myself craving my mother’s cooking. The Commons dining hall had an Asian food station. Once they cooked “Cantonese style chicken wings” and I piled my plate, because this was one of my most favorite dishes. Unfortunately, it tasted nothing like what my mom made. I craved dim sum food – egg tart, proper Cantonese chicken wings, rice noodles, properly stir fried beef, turnip cake – even steamed rice, though I had always hated having to eat the bland food as a child.

I go home and try to speak Chinese more to my parents. I lurk the photos of my friends studying abroad for the summer in China with fiery jealousy. This should be me. This is my homeland! My friend teased me as I expressed to him my huge desire to become truly fluent in Chinese again and go back to China to truly appreciate my heritage, calling it my “Amy Tan phase”. I do admit to loving The Joy Luck Club.

Growing up, I never felt exactly torn between two different cultures, the way characters in novels frequently described. I wasn’t aware enough to notice it at the time. I naively invited all my American friends over to my home. Friends would occasionally make faces and ask what random dishes in our refrigerator might be, but it never bothered me. The jokes didn’t affect me either. I just laughed it off, not really understanding. In retrospect, knowing what I know now, I could have been deeply offended. Once my neighbor came up to my dad and me, on our street block party, and said, “Hey, I have this funny joke about Chinese people.” She pulled her eyes up to make them slanted and said in an awful Chinese accent impersonation: “Me Chinese, me play joke. Me put pee pee in your Coke.” There were the various other terrible stereotypical questions too – “Say something in Chinese for me!” “Is it true that sticking up your pinky is like sticking up your middle finger to Chinese people?” “Do Chinese people really eat caterpillars/dogs/cats?”

Somehow, these things didn’t manage to affect my sense of identity at all, and they certainly didn’t stop me from holding Chinese lessons for my best friends during recess in the fourth grade, which they all still remember to my embarrassment. I brought my Chinese school textbook to school and taught my friends how to count and write the numbers in Chinese. My friends giggled at the sound as I demonstrated how you were supposed to use the third tone to say the number five – wu. When I was trying to explain the phrase ‘五口人’ , which just means ‘five people’, I told them it directly translated to ‘five mouth people’. This was the most hilarious thing and everyone ran around yelling ‘five mouth people’.

Looking back on it now, the most amazing thing is how all these events failed to make me realize that I was somewhat different from everyone else. My neighbor would ask me why I didn’t wear Limited Too clothes, and I would quite candidly tell her that they were too expensive, which is what my mother told me, and hence, must be true. I marveled at the fact that my neighbor had a drawer full of at least 20 different swimsuits, when I only had two swimsuits, and how she had a room littered with Beanie Babies and Build-A-Bear bears, when I only had one Build-A-Bear bear that I got as a birthday present. But I believed it wholeheartedly and genuinely when my mother said that that was a waste of money and I didn’t need it. I got into a fight with my neighbor about whether college was necessary to be successful in life, she insisting that she knew people who didn’t go to college and had good jobs, and I deafly repeating the very stereotypical mantra of my Chinese parents – you have to get good grades and get into a good college. My obliviousness and naiveté saved my early childhood self-esteem.

This wouldn’t last long. I slowly began to notice the differences. It came at first, when I missed pop culture references that were clearly obvious to everybody else, such as discussion about the latest Lizzie McGuire episode or when Avril Lavigne’s new album was blasted at a birthday party. I would simply pretend I knew what everybody was talking about and then learn what I needed to in the privacy of my home, using the internet or television. I learned the common, socially accepted opinions about various things. I would repeat these when the subject came up. I observed how my friends or television characters interacted or acted in certain situations and mimicked them. I went on a Limited Too shopping spree before middle school with my mother. This was enough for me, and I felt that I fit in decently – though again, in retrospect, I don’t think I did nearly as good a job as I felt at the time. The learning process was still very slow going. I wore tourist t-shirts and skirt ensembles with ugly sneakers to middle school, again completely unaware of how dorky I clearly was.

It was somewhere in late eighth grade, though I couldn’t point to a specific moment, where I gained some sort of consciousness at realizing that I was rather socially awkward because I just didn’t know things and wasn’t comfortable with what a lot of my classmates thought was fun and cool. In middle and elementary school, I had never indulged in the weird American thing called “hanging out”. No one had ever invited me, and I had always been busy and unwilling to attend even if I was invited to a birthday party. I felt uncomfortable at these things, and I preferred to spend time with my Chinese friends. I went to Chinese parties, went on vacations and trips with my Chinese friends, and played tennis with them. I felt comfortable in their presence, more confident and sure of myself. I wasn’t putting on a play or mimicking anyone, in fact I was the popular and cool one. A middle school friend kept inviting me to see the Harry Potter movie with her over the summer after middle school, but I made up all sorts of excuses and then flat out ignored her until she stopped asking.

In high school, I made new friends, and I was invited to hang out – a lot. At first, it was foreign, but my old plan of pretending I knew what was going on and then going home to research, if necessary, worked well. I learned that movie and a meal were common ways to hang out, and that girls liked to go shopping together at the mall – a novelty considering my mother and I typically only went shopping at big discount stores like Target or Ross or JCPenny, and shopping days were only once-in-a-while planned affairs when necessary. I became more familiar with the new mall names that everybody liked to wear instead of Limited Too: American Eagle, Abercrombie, and Aeropostale. I observed my friend to understand how shopping as a teenage American girl was conducted: walk through the store, pick out clothes that look appealing, go in the dressing room to try them on, show them to your shopping partner, receive compliments and compliment your shopping partner’s choice, then buy it. It was bizarre not shopping with my mom, who used to essentially pick my clothing for me, and buying clothes for fun was a strange concept – but I liked it.

I ended up liking a lot of new things. I joined the debate team and fell madly in platonic love with the debaters. These people made me laugh so hard my stomach hurt every minute I was with them. We went on trips to various universities for debate tournaments where shenanigans entailed giving a person a faux hawk for the fun of it, reading Tucker Max’s escapades out loud on a bus past midnight, and making up stupid inside jokes that are funny only with the context of memory as only young people can. I began to “hang out” more often, with my new friends. I went to the homecoming dance and decided to actually dance – something I had always avoided in middle school.

In the course of these changes, I felt myself drifting away from my old Chinese friends. I attempted to incorporate the new fun things I had learned into my time with the Chinese group. I tried to take them downtown to hang out, instead of spending time inside the house. They were bored by my desire to browse Urban Outfitters before the movie started, and were unenthused at the idea of stopping by the Cheesecake Factory after the movie to have some cheesecake and snacks and conversation – it was a waste of money. When we vacationed on a cruise together, I proposed we go to the teen dance party, but was rejected because nobody wanted to dance. I was growing increasingly bored at Chinese parties, where we mostly sat around and watched movies or talked about inane things like school and more school and school-related things. I now preferred spending time with my American friends. They were more fun, more spontaneous, more interesting. Eventually, I attended the Chinese parties less and less frequently until I stopped going altogether. I continued to indulge in more American things, going out more frequently, learning to apply makeup and paying more attention to my fashion style. When I started dating an American boy in late junior year, I felt like I had truly jumped off the deep end.

My parents were not crazy psycho tiger parents. They let me indulge in all the American things because they trusted me, and they knew that I was still working hard as ever at school. All the mantras and beliefs that I had held as a child, however, suddenly had caveats, were no longer so straightforward. I was learning that doing fun things like seeing movies or shopping or going to the beach and dating was fine, as long as I was able to keep up my grades too. A balance. The balance, however, was difficult to maintain, especially as both rose in increasing importance to me. While home had always been the more dominant place I spent my time, with the start of high school senior year and lots of American friends to hang out with every afternoon, I started skipping my mother’s daily dinners and eating a lot of American food. I would leave the house and be out and about all day, returning home in the darkness when everyone in my house had gone to sleep. My mother started getting a bit upset at this, understandably. There was the health and nutrition factor, but there was also the guilt I felt at missing a family dinner. I stressed trying to balance the amount of time I spent at home and the time spent out with my friends, sometimes alternating days and sometimes trying to hang out with my friends before or after dinner – which usually meant rushing home or rushing through dinner anyway. There were days I went home to eat and then promptly left again.

Dinner in my home is usually a family thing (though I believe the times have changed now), with the off occasion that my dad would have to stay late at work or have some other business to attend to, but from what I can remember, the majority of the time we ate it together. We watched Brian Williams on NBC Nightly News, or sometimes my parents would watch Chinese talk shows instead, as we ate. It was where we shared news or information we wanted everyone to hear. If I had won an award or had a funny story to tell, I’d save it for dinner. Dinner was where family vacations were discussed, school problems, Dad’s lectures, and random discussion on current events and politics.

I realize that all my drifting away from my family is rather non-unique and could be applied to growing up in any other family, without consideration of ethnicity. To me, however, home and my family are forever and inseparably intertwined with being Chinese. So as I began spending more time away from home, I felt like I was becoming more American – too American sometimes. My mom made an offhand joke once, I forget what it is I did now, but she laughed and had said I was “so American”. I felt a twinge of embarrassment, then, and it has only grown since I have now moved out completely. I am beginning to notice how little Chinese I actually speak at home, despite the fact that I used to tell people that I was fluent. This is most certainly not true anymore. Although I’ve tried speaking Chinese more often at home, I inevitably have to switch to English when I can’t remember phrases and words. Moreover, I’m noticing how my parents were actually speaking to me in English the majority of the time as well. I’ve stopped telling people that I was fluent in Chinese, though I can’t accurately describe my proficiency anymore – conversational? Can I tell people that I am a Chinglish-speaker?

Despite all my worries about being too American, I do love so many aspects of “American culture” that have become a part of my identity as well. For the first few years of my life, I had always been shy and quiet, declining to voice my own opinions and thoughts for fear of boring – or worse, offending – people. I never felt I had interesting things to contribute to the conversation. I refused to dance or sing in front of other people – too embarrassing. I was self conscious and awkward, but I have learned, through hanging out with my American friends, to dance and sing as badly and exuberantly as I desire, because no one thinks less of me. Perhaps part of the fun is the freedom even, in knowing that I am acting idiotically, but not caring. I have been more talkative, outgoing, and less afraid to converse with strangers or to make new friends and introduce myself to new groups. I’ve learned how to have fun and take myself less seriously.

I think the most valuable thing my American friends gave me was American confidence and outspokenness, the belief in expressing and being true to yourself without caring what other people think about you – not worrying constantly about your “face”. Once, I had tried to hide and pretend I didn’t care about anything in an attempt to never be judged by anyone. People literally called me a robot. But I am not a robot, and I have since learned that it is okay to be more than a robot. I learned to not care so much about the judgments of others. I love and I feel and I think and I dream and I hate and I am proud of all of this – this is me, this is my identity.

Part of that identity, is, and forever will be, Chinese, and I don’t want to forget that. Traditional Chinese values call for a balance, the yin and the yang. I am composed of two cultures – American and Chinese. It’s been, and always will be, a struggle trying to juggle these two. I’ve spent so long trying to cultivate the American, my previously weaker side, but now it’s time to embrace openly the other weakening side too, to be true to this part of my self. This isn’t my Amy Tan phase. This is who I am.

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7 comments

  1. MeeisLee · · Reply

    Nice essay :). I saw your link from Rookie’s article of the similar theme of balancing cultural identities. I think I am in that situation myself, with an extra culture to boot, but I’m still figuring things out. It’s like when I try to embrace one culture, the other two suffer. And then I wonder, “What does it mean to be ____ (insert culture/race/ethnicity here)?” and I’m not sure if I’ve found that answer yet, but I’m trying. And I’m sure you will find your own rightful balance as well :).

    1. Thank you! I agree, it’s an internal struggle that some people don’t understand, but in the end it makes us all the more interesting, I think. :)

      1. MeeisLee · ·

        Of course. All struggles lead to something better :). I think if I (and others) was (were) to disregard it, it would be a disservice to ourselves and to society. It would be a step to conformity and though it may seem like an ‘easier’ path it would result is something worse and forever oppressing our minds. After all, I think, therefore I am. And now that I think (pun not intended) about it, that phrase seems out of place but I was just getting at conformity = lack of identity/ self thought and thus you do not exist.

  2. I’m also here via your link on Rookie’s “Identity Theft.” I found the second paragraph of your essay so relatable, I almost thought I was reading about myself! I grew up in a very Chinese neighborhood in New York City, with a lot of Chinese/Chinese American peers, so it was also difficult for me to adjust when I started attending a mostly white college in upstate New York. One time, I did a double-take when I heard another student speaking Cantonese on the phone because I was so happy and surprised to hear it. I’ve since transferred out of that school (for reasons unrelated to its lack of ethnic diversity/familiarity), and am now attending a local college where there are mostly students of color. It’s made for a much more pleasant experience–I never knew just how much Chineseness and ethnic diversity factored into my life until I was taken out of my home environment for a couple of years. It’s definitely caused me to examine what it means to be a Chinese American and how I can learn to balance various aspects of my identity.

    1. It’s funny how you don’t really notice it until you’re removed completely. It’s kind of made me realize that I want my future kids to grow up with it too.

  3. MeeisLee · · Reply

    Hi again! Just wanted to let you know that I’m using your essay and the related Rookie article as inspiration for my college personal statement! I’m between the topics of cultural identity and racial expectations. Trying to get out of a writing rut so I’ve been rereading both. I’m curious to know if you have any tips :). Totally fine if you don’t since you’re already helpful in posting this to begin with :).

    1. I’d be happy to try and help, email me your questions! clahzhang@gmail.com

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