“On the nametag, write down your residential college, what year you graduate and your WeChat username,” I hear someone tell me.
“My WeChat username? What, are people going to address me by that instead of my actual name? I don’t even have a WeChat,” I whisper to my mom as she scribbles her name, “Ezra Stiles” and 2021 on her nametag in thick black Sharpie.
It’s family weekend, and my parents and I have just arrived at the Asian American Cultural Center for the Chinese parents meetup, as it was described in its “formal” announcement on WeChat — the Chinese equivalent of Facebook Messenger. After sticking my nametag onto my shirt, I peer into the room on my right. The plastic tablecloth is littered with Asian delicacies: traditional pineapple cakes, sesame wafers and a crate of mandarin oranges.
Peering into the room on my left, I finally find a group of people my age. We roll our eyes, laughing at how, of course, the Chinese parents had to have a gathering, and we commiserate about how we’re being treated like kids.
“I tell my mom to leave the WeChat group almost every day,” I laugh. “It’s just unhealthy. She knows more about Yale events than I do!”
However, under the blanket of mutual laughter and complaints, I am conscious that these cheap jokes at the expense of Chinese parents and Chinese culture are wrong for more reasons than one. As Asian-Americans, we constantly believe that we are the ones who “made it.” We are proud of being more whitewashed than the other Asians, we crinkle our nose at the fresh off the boats and we ridicule the Chinese tourists.
Fighting this attitude — that the “-American” is the most important segment of “Chinese-American” — requires me to be conscious of my actions. It’s about the realization that, even if I consider myself an American, I will always look Chinese. Whether I like it or not, I am connected by a thread to the history of my people and the rise of China half a world away.
As Yale students, we often ridicule Chinese tourists on campus for their odd mannerisms and amazement at Payne Whitney Gym. However, as a person with Chinese parents, I realize that my own parents, bearing our family Canon camera on family weekend, are easy targets of dirty looks from Yalies who believe that my parents are those same tourists. As I show my dad the Chinese letters above the entrance to Sterling Library, I make sure to speak up a bit louder than usual so that passersby will know that I too, am a Yale student — that my parents too, “belong” here. Experiences like these make me more sensitive to the behavior of Chinese tourists. While some of them may be uncouth, the majority of them come to visit Yale’s campus because of an ingrained belief that anything that America can produce is better than its Chinese equivalent. Behind the brand-name bags and the shiny Canons are just people who want to be accepted by Western society.
As Americans, we all crave acceptance from this hybrid society of ours. We hope that this society will see us as Americans first, forgetting that the color of our skin is what first meets the eye. As immigrants, our duty is to love and protect all corners of our cultures, even the ones that American society has deemed unlovable. There is no such thing as a single American culture. As people who understand that American culture has historically meant assimilation and denial of self, it’s our duty to reject that idea of American culture, relabeling it as American cultures. I will always be Chinese-American. However, I am Chinese before I am ever American.
About twenty minutes into my conversation with my fellow Chinese Yalies at the cultural center, we hear a Chinese mother calling for “the kids.”
“You should all head upstairs! There’s a nice game room, and it’s much more comfortable than it is down here.” She makes a face, as if to emphasize how dire the situation is on the first floor.
We grimace, trudging our way to the game room upstairs. The same Chinese mother, alongside two others, follows us upstairs, corralling us with food. One mother places the crate of mandarin oranges on a side table, and the other offers us sesame wafers. A dad adjusts his Canon lens and calls for all of us to face the camera. He snaps a group picture that, presumably, will make its way into the Yale Chinese Parents’ WeChat group.
I smile, observing the messiness of it all. As my friend William Yang once told me, “Our culture is messy, imperfect and rough around the edges. But … it’s us, you know?”
Katherine Hu is a first year in Ezra Stiles College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .