“How many letters are in the Chinese alphabet?”
I vividly remember when a boy in third grade asked me this innocent question. For one, it was amusing, for another, it revealed–or the first time–how profoundly different my heritage could be from the culture I was in.
I responded to him that the Chinese writing system did not employ an alphabet, but used thousands of unique characters. He continued to insist that it did, it had to have one. After all, wasn’t Chinese writing just an alphabet with a vast array of thousands of complicated and confusing letters?
Of course, I was not mad at the boy for asking the question. I couldn’t blame a third grader for not knowing these linguistic differences when so many Chinese-Americans themselves, including myself at the time, barely understood them. I was simply intrigued, my curiosity stimulated. I later understood that his response prodded me to study my own heritage language, its literary traditions, and the sheer magnitude of linguistic differences between it and English and other European languages. Together, these differences beckoned me in a different direction in understanding Chinese and Asian identity in America.
The Chinese language is just so different, and this vast gap results in a lack of understanding for most people, which is reconciled by a degree of mystification and exoticism. But exoticism at its very core is a form of distancing. Asian-Americans, despite our living here in America, are seen as explicitly different. We are separated by a vast ocean, where on the other side are countries that use mysterious and needlessly difficult languages and observe a variety of customs that have no American counterparts. And the ones who are here are just extensions of the same people over there–different and foreign.
So I asked myself, what prompted that third grade conversation? I don’t remember exactly, but it probably had to do with the new Chinese boy, who’d spend class drawing pictures from book covers or writing in Chinese (at a level I could understand, I proudly noted). Despite being the only other person of Chinese descent, I desperately avoided being associated with him. He was one kind of Chinese. I was another. He couldn’t speak English. I was a native speaker. His family only just moved here from China. My family had been here for at least a decade. If he was to be seen as a foreigner, so be it, but it was clear that I had not a whiff of foreignness on me.
Except there was–even if I hadn’t realized it. The reality–that my type of Chinese or Asian wasn’t safe from a certain level of distancing–hit me as I grew up. Whether it was the almost homogeneous advanced level classes, or the implicit understanding of orchestra as an activity for the children of Asian immigrants, it was clear that to the general American public, the AAPI community was a very homogeneous group of inward-looking members with esoteric traditions and behaviors. My school cafeteria bore an uncanny resemblance to that in Mean Girls, in which groups like Asians, whether by their own choice, the pressures of others, or a combination of both, hung out mostly with each other and sat at the same table. The apparent success and discipline seem too perfect, too characteristic of a model minority, too free of the problems shared by both the majority and other minority groups. Hence, a divide is created, both by certain behaviors of some in the AAPI community and by the perceptions of others. This is reflected in the bamboo ceiling–the stubborn absence of AAPIs in positions of leadership and the consistent lack of figures in mainstream culture. This observation first fills me with indignation about my place in this society, but then just leaves me discouraged.
Asian-Americans are perpetual foreigners. The novelty of our heritage, the opaqueness of our languages, and the assumption of our guaranteed success make us very vulnerable to this dismissive stereotype. I am also aware that some Asian-Americans distance themselves from their heritage and struggle not to be associated with it, furthering the idea that Asian cultures are too far removed from American culture, and are somehow incompatible. And it is with this fact that I strongly believe that we in the AAPI community can be proactive in transforming our image and perceived place in this country. And so, with that in mind, maybe I can learn to stop tucking my Chinese writing away when I hear someone approaching.