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The In-Betweener: Experiences of a Third Generation Chinese American

I was always embarrassed when my Cantonese-speaking grandparents would pick me up from school. Their heavy Chinese accents brought shame to my face whenever they tried to search for me in the hallways. I remember one moment when my grandmother was searching for me in the hallways of the middle school. In her heavy accent, she yelled, “Sydney, Sydney, Sydney!”

“I’m coming!” I responded back, while simultaneously shooing her away from the sight of any schoolmates.

When I was in high school at a majority white Quaker school, I emphasized different sides of myself more depending upon the people I was around. I suppressed my cultural pride until eleventh grade. For a long time, I saw myself as “like a white kid.” I focused on “Americanizing” myself by distancing myself from my roots. I would push away the home-cooked dishes that my grandparents made for my brother and me. I wanted to be more American, rather than Chinese. Sometimes, I wished I had blonde hair with blue eyes and snowy white skin. In essence, I wanted to be white. Whiteness comes with many privileges, such as those described in Peggy McIntosh’s article “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” Think of how the majority of television shows feature white characters, with people of color like me as stereotypical sidekicks. Postcards, posters, picture books, greeting cards, dolls, toys, and even children’s magazines feature mainly white people here in the United States. Since these images were what I consumed daily, I strived to try to “become white.” It is still relatively rare to see reflections of people like myself in American media today.

The author in Hong Kong

In the summer of 2015, I traveled to China and Hong Kong with my mother’s side of the family. In China, the national language is Mandarin, but my family speaks Cantonese. When my family went to a shopping mall in Beijing, I was left in charge of finding out prices since I had taken four years of Mandarin classes. All the stores stood side by side in little stalls as chatter filled the air. Pointing to a sports jacket I wanted, I asked the salesperson in my American accent, “How much is this?” The salesperson spoke too fast, and I had to say, “Can you please repeat again?” about two or three times. I felt like an outsider even though I was back in my motherland. In China, I felt like I was not “Chinese enough” because of language barriers and not knowing Chinese cultural traditions.

The Great Wall of China

In Asia, I had Chinese privilege, which—funnily enough—operates much like white privilege does in the America. I had the ability to see myself in a variety of representations in Hong Kong. It was an odd yet refreshing feeling to have this institutionalized power, since I don’t have the same ability in America. In America, I’m confined by stereotypes, whereas in Hong Kong, none of those existed. Going from a doubly disenfranchised person as a woman of color to validated in every sense of the word was the weirdest feeling. It was strange to be in a place where everyone looked like me. As I walked down the streets in Kowloon Island, I saw many pale East Asian women with pin-straight hair like mine in Western clothing like mine. This is a privilege I was not afforded in America, but it’s also a privilege not everyone in Asia experiences—colorism, a preference for light skin over dark, permeates Asian society.

The family in Victoria's Peak

When I traveled to Hong Kong, it felt like a home I had been searching for. Because of Hong Kong’s close ties with the Western world, I felt like I didn’t have to straddle my American and Chinese cultures. They could finally co-exist without having to choose between one or the other. My insecurity with speaking Cantonese washed away when I was in Hong Kong, knowing that my American accent was accepted. As I ordered dim sum in the many restaurants that sprawl throughout Kowloon Island, my American accent was not frowned upon. I could speak English or the little Cantonese I do know without being met with judgment from either white folks or Chinese folks. I could proudly wear a qipao here or wear my usual attire of jeans and a t-shirt. I am not ashamed of my culture in Hong Kong like I am back at home. For the first time in many years, I am proud to be Chinese. I am proud of my mother’s birthplace, and the history behind our family.

A family dinner in China

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