Living in TWO Worlds
By Tammy Lee
Growing up, I always felt like I didn’t quite fit in, or rather WHERE I fit in this great big world of ours. As a first-generation Asian American, no matter what I do, it’s as if I’m living having to straddle between two worlds with one foot tied to the traditions and customs of my parents’ birthplace, China, and the other in the country of my birth, the United States. Even though my parents had immigrated to the United States many, many years ago, they brought along with them their old-country traditions and had hoped to raise us, their American-born children with those same ideals.
My parents’ beliefs are very much rooted in the “traditions”: the importance of family solidarity (the younger generation is ALWAYS to show respect to our elders and family is the source for EVERYTHING), morality (“saving face”), and conformity of “prescribed” roles. Obedience is non-negotiable and a must. Of course being the outspoken child that I am, whenever I dared to voice an opinion that happen to differ from my parents, they became very upset because they thought that by not sharing their views, I am being very disrespectful and rebellious and that rebellion was a form of rejection of their heritage and beliefs by me, their “Americanized” child! Needless to say, being outspoken and opinionated got me into trouble a lot with my parents while growing up and now as an adult, it still does.
My parents just could not understand that it is definitely possible to embrace both cultures and it didn’t have to be a choice between one or the other. To my parents, when they immigrated to the United States, they held onto an idealized version of traditional values that they brought from China and hope their American-born children will adopt those same values, even though these values and traditions have undergone considerable change since they left their home country. Inter-generation conflicts as well as cultural conflicts while I was growing up were inevitable as I constantly found myself struggling to find some sort of balance between the “demands” of American culture (and “fitting in”) and the ideals of my tradition-minded parents.
It’s a tough role to be in as a first-generation Asian American because for my entire life, I have navigated “unchartered waters” so to speak, as I’ve had to grow up assimilating and adopting a “new culture” that is vastly different from what my parents knew and were accustomed to. What I viewed as “normal” teenage rebelliousness or lifestyles often became intensified because my parents happen to have come from another country. The “culture” (clothes, makeup, music, dating, etc.) in which I was growing up in was so unfamiliar and very foreign to them and as such, they strongly disapproved of the American values and practices they felt were “taking over my life” and are always hoping that one day soon, I would eventually “come to my senses!”
Imagine if you will the precarious situation I was in. In my eyes, I saw myself as “American as apple pie” because I was born in this country. However, in the eyes of my parents (because that’s how they were viewed and as their child, I am an extension of my parents) and to the rest of the world (based on the color of my skin, etc.) as “American” as I thought or felt I was (and wanted others to believe and see), unfortunately I was seen as the “outsider” and the “immigrant” by others and was often told to “Go back to your country!” That statement baffled me immensely as I wasn’t sure which country the people hurling the racial slurs at me thought I was from and wanted me to go back to.
It took me a long time to really embrace who I am, a first-generation Asian American. I’m not going to lie. I know that sounds strange because I often wondered was I “American,” “Chinese,” “Asian American” or “American of Asian Descent?” I don’t consider myself an “immigrant” because of where I was born. However, this didn’t stop the turmoil or the struggle I felt about who I am and WHICH “side” of me I needed to identify with more.
What compounded the confusion was NOT learning about Asian American history in school growing up because it made me think what my parents were telling me was true about being an “outsider” in this country. Otherwise, why wouldn’t American history as we’ve been taught for years as this country was being formed into what we know now tell about the struggles and obstacles of Asians along with their countless contributions be included?
I struggled with my identity for many years and it wasn’t until I got to college (the first time – pre kid) and hearing stories about the struggles and contributions of Asians to this country and the “Chinese Exclusion Act of 1852” (the first law in the country that singled out a specific ethnic group and banned their immigration into the United States for YEARS) that made me reflect on my own rich family history. It was then that I understood why my parents felt as they did in not wanting their children to lose their identity and culture and to embrace it–To be proud to be Chinese. It was only then that I could finally appreciate and be grateful for the sacrifices that my family has had to make in order to come to this country so that my siblings and I can be the first members of our family to be American-born.
Due to the conflict I grew up feeling being caught straddling between two worlds and having to choose between one or the other rather than embrace the Chinese side of me and the American side of me, I have made it a point to NOT do the same thing to my own son who is multi-racial–he’s half Chinese and the other half, he’s the rest of the world. When he was a little boy, the running joke between my son and I was that he said he was a “Heinz 52” because he wasn’t grown or big enough and couldn’t call himself a “Heinz 57” just yet.
I vowed when I became a parent that I was never going to impose my beliefs about culture and identity onto my son or to make him choose between one or another. There are some traditional things we follow and others are a “fusion” of ideals I adopted along the way while growing up here in America which is a blending of my parents’ traditions with my own into something I can live with and still be me. My son *knows* who he is and that he is made up of many different cultures and no one is going to tell him who they think or believe he is. For his entire life, my son is so proud of the fact that he is a big ol’ melting pot of everything good all wrapped up in the form of *my* child.