Washed out: walking the line between Asian and American


Ilena Peng

It’s different cultures that make the world go ‘round at the end of the day. -Samantha Fox

When I say “Asian-American,” I hope that you’ll take that to mean equal parts Asian and American — the key word being and. But I’ve come to realize people selectively focus on either the Asian or American half. Asian-American is one phrase, one identity. Why should anything or anyone have to be either Asian or American?

Amid inquiries from my classmates in Hong Kong last summer about my seemingly remarkable ability to speak Mandarin, I realized that to them, I wasn’t Asian-American. I was American American, and that meant speaking Mandarin was incredible. Never mind that I grew up taking Chinese classes every weekend or that I speak it at home every day, in their eyes I was more American than I was Asian. And maybe I am. After all, when a Taiwanese classmate asked me whether I was full when I returned to my class, I was confused until my mom told me “are you full?” is the equivalent to the conversation starter, “So, how’s the weather today?”

Yet the U.S. is a place diverse enough where we don’t consider ourselves “American” on a daily basis; rather, we identify with whatever culture we originated from. If someone asks me where I’m from, my first answer isn’t the U.S., even if I did grow up here — which isn’t to say that I’m not proud I’m American.

It’s just that in this diverse country, “American” isn’t something most of us truly identify with. After all, MVHS is referred to as an “Asian school,” not an “American school” even though most of us were born in the U.S. Besides, I’ve learned that when those people ask where I’m from, the U.S. isn’t the answer they’re looking for. They ask because I look different from what’s considered American. Answering “the U.S.” would only warrant a question about where I’m really from. At least I save time this way, even though I never actually go into detail about where I’m actually from since a long list of my heritage probably also isn’t the answer they were looking for.

But I am Chinese, so shouldn’t it be only logical for them to assume that I can speak Mandarin? Throughout those few weeks in Hong Kong, all I felt was a sense of guilt. I was from these two countries and I could communicate in Mandarin, yet I couldn’t speak either of the native dialects nor did I understand their slang. Those classmates thought of me as American. Did that mean they thought I was white-washed? More importantly, am I?

Yet I’ve never tried to become white-washed, to fit into stereotypical Western society. When I say that my Mandarin isn’t great, it isn’t because I’m trying to hide my culture in an attempt to fit in. It’s just easier to admit that I’m not as culturally in touch as I perhaps should be. At least then, I’m giving you a heads up that I’ll probably get something culturally wrong — like that thing about asking if people are full as a conversation starter.

That way if I get the facts wrong, people will be a bit more lenient towards my lack of cultural tact. But I’m trying and I think that small bit of effort is enough to show I’m trying to be both — not just Asian or American.
I’m still disappointed that I haven’t learned another two languages so I can talk to my grandparents in their native languages. I don’t understand a culture where a dinner table conversation is more like yelling, where middle school kids take buses by themselves to night markets at 8 p.m. I’ll probably never start a conversation by asking you if you’re full. But I do think starfruits are better than apples, and that egg waffles are better than pancakes. I’ll never eat Chinese noodles with a fork. I’m alright with all of that — it’s a part of me now. So I guess I’m not white-washed. I guess I’m just caught between two homes.