Jessai Flores

Generic. Typical. Overused. Not worth writing about. 

Most Asians in America had to cross the Pacific Ocean and disperse to California. More to the point, there’s a smaller niche of Bay Area Asians who are the bread and butter of every college counselor’s fat, juicy wallets, those Common App seniors poised to tell the story of their family’s immigrant experience. No matter how formulaic this essay may seem, the storyline is still in fact the truth… So how can I write a personal statement while neglecting this central part of my identity? 

Maybe it would be easier if I could quickly explain every part of my identity using a modified version of any of these stereotyped statements, but that wouldn’t be true.  My parents didn’t come to America as visa-seeking graduate students; no, my extended family doesn’t sell Chinese food; and yes, I am from the Bay Area, but my life wasn’t filled with STEM and prep courses. 

Growing up in China didn’t make me a foreigner to America. In 1989, my grandmother bought a one-way ticket to San Francisco and eventually settled into the boroughs of Silicon Valley. Every summer since the age of two was spent by the pool, on a trampoline, chasing down ice cream trucks or memorizing planet-themed street signs. My heartbeat never quickened out of fear of being denied access to this country, but that didn’t erase the foreigner label attached to me.

Just like the gooey melted popsicle I could not wipe off my hand on a hot summer day, I could not detach myself from the sticky label of “foreigner.” I quickly became fascinated by my second-grade class after moving from diverse Silicon Valley, past the hills of Berkeley, into the uncharted territory of white suburbia known as Walnut Creek.

In 2008, I was a transfer student and the only Asian in my classes. I was Sherlock Holmes, surveying Walnut Creek through a magnifying glass, except it felt like I was the one under the microscope. The heaps of comments from good-intentioned classmates signaling cultural differences made for a rough adjustment. 

Over time, I became the teacher’s favorite, my desk neighbor’s snack buddy and ruler of playground four-square and freeze tag. With each additional Lunchable consumed, the gap between my classmates and me shrunk until one recess. 

“We can pretend to swap bodies.”

“Ok! I’ll be you and you be me.”

“Wait… It’s hard for me to try being you because of your accent.”

I had personified an American second-grader with such perfect accuracy that I failed to remember the invisible line separating us. The comment left a mark, but like any other child, all was forgotten by lunchtime, nothing an Uncrustables PB&J sandwich couldn’t fix. 

Then came the “Age of Painful Self-Awareness” — middle school. During an action-packed volleyball practice, I felt out of place shuffling across the gym floors. The sudden realization that I was different from my classmates hit me yet again during the car ride home when I cried to my mom that I didn’t belong there because I looked different. Paranoia about sticking out and being different due to my Chinese background seeped in. I built an American armor for protection in the harsh environment, determined to paint the outside in a color-matching tone. 

From then on, seemingly innocent comments from my childhood friend about the classroom smelling like Chinese food raised flashing red alerts on my beacon. I built this persona, and they were trying to assassinate me; I had carefully glazed over my exterior, and it felt like they were trying to sweep it away.

I told them I couldn’t smell anything. And when they asked me what I ate for dinner last night, I gave the decoy answer — “pizza.” I assumed a defensive position. And it never stopped.

I pretended to not understand the histories of Chinese people or the cultural customs of Chinese New Year, despite fond memories of setting off fireworks at night while watching 春, the Chinese New Year Gala. 

Soon enough my armor was patched up, and I lost everything I knew of Chinese history and culture. In Chinatown, San Francisco with school friends, I would respond with the same wonder and amusement as locals spoke to us in Chinese. During volleyball season, I would be just as entertained and impressed as my teammates while watching another white girl, learning Chinese since the age of five, speak Chinese like a slowed-down tape recorder of textbook conversational phrases. At least I could avoid the harmless entertainment of “Say something in Chinese.”

Just like the chalk from the blackboard of my first English class, I wiped away a central part of my identity. These intangible emotional sacrifices in rejecting every unique trait and becoming solely the “American” found in dictionaries continue to haunt me. All the history that’s been neglected with each rejection of culture and identity. Ultimately creating a new identity that will never fit into any clear-cut box of race or status.

The proximity of Chinatown as a 40-minute BART ride away meant nothing when I barricaded myself within the reinforced walls of Walnut Creek. My innate rejection of Chinatown physically and symbolically turned out to be a rejection of being classified as separate. Chinatown was not a place of home or even a close resemblance of one, but rather a place of slight familiarity while maintaining enough exoticism to garner outside attention. I could never go home to Chinatown, but its association clings to me. 

A classification that is never clearly sorted into the American landscape but instead sorted away into its own miscellaneous box, tucked away in the outskirts of any city, blasted with the name Chinatown. 

I can only ever see myself as an outsider, like a line splitting my past and future. A border that can be crossed but never fully integrated. My own personal San Andreas fault. The clearly marked separation by dragon-lined gates and strings of paper lanterns between the streets of San Francisco. The formation of a Chinatown within every Asian that remains barricaded, just like the place itself, stunted from developing a sense of identity. The loss of nuance for something in between international, American and Asian. A never-ending search for the feeling of being at home.

Such a cliche.