There was a part of her that didn’t feel Chinese enough, which was strange, because she was full Chinese. But she was more so American. When she was little, she made a birthday card for her grandmother that said “happy birthday way-paw”-- she tried to spell out 外婆 (wàipó), but it didn’t work out too well. And in preschool, she found it embarrassing when her aunt brought in 蛋挞 (dàntà) for her birthday because Costco cupcakes tasted much better than egg tarts. It was just so confounding. The way that she would have turkey and mashed potatoes for dinner on Thanksgiving, but forego leftovers to eat dim sum the next morning. The idea that praying to the moon during the Mid-Autumn festival could give her good grades until next year. The fact that she was Chinese and American, but didn’t really know the meaning of either.
She grew up in Hawaii, jam-packed with Asians. And her high school was full of kids from China, who were ostensibly more Chinese than her, who doted on her for not knowing Mandarin. In her defense, she spent two years learning Chinese from an old man teacher who would spend class going through his daily repertoire of “to get something fixed for free, you just keep sending emails” and “twenty years ago I had hair.” Once, her classmate fell asleep (right in the front row) and her teacher said, “Let her sleep, she’s getting an A anyway. That’s what matters.” She dreaded that class. If her teacher wasn’t telling stories, he only taught hanyu pinyin, basically the English version of Chinese. And it seemed like she wasn’t learning a thing. No matter how many times she tried to pronounce “Bái xiānshēng shì zhōngguó rén” Mr. White is Chinese correctly, her parents couldn’t help but laugh at her.
It made her feel bad that her brother had a better Chinese teacher. He’d come home from school and spout out vocabulary that her parents would understand perfectly. She was the older sibling. “姐姐,” (jiějiě) he’d call her, with perfect intonations. At this age, she should have been the one teaching him Mandarin. It made her feel worse that her mom said, “You spoke more Chinese when you were younger. Now, you know nothing.” It was as if she was progressing backwards. Like she was losing parts of herself she never fully owned. It was terrifying to think she would go most of her life never knowing the language that sang in her blood.
As she lay on her stomach on her college dorm room floor, clutching her phone, listening to the robotic voice repeat 菠萝 (bōluó) and the tiny panda on screen say “很好！” (hěn hǎo) for guessing “pineapple” correctly. There were many moments when her Chinese side would seep through. For days straight, she would play the Chinese songs she listened to in her childhood, even though she could only mumble through the lyrics. She asked a handful of Chinese students for their numbers, wanting to invite them out for lunch and practice the language over steaming plates of dim sum.
In September, she bought a single mooncake for herself just to feel in the mood for the mid-Autumn festival. And the next day, she told a classmate about her Chinese name, how 美峰 (Měifēng) translated to beautiful bird, and that she liked the meaning because it made her feel graceful.
She could finally admit it. She was undoubtedly immersed in Chinese heritage. She was Chinese, from the surface level--her tan skin, her straight black hair--to the deeper aspects--she’s from America, but her mom was from Laos, and her grandma was from Laos, and her great-grandma was from China. She realized that the confusion may have been self-imposed; what she imagined all along wasn’t true. No one told her she couldn’t be both Chinese and American at the same time.