Growing up in China, I never quite understood why I didn’t fit in.
I ate Chinese food, went to Chinese school, had Chinese friends and did Chinese things. I memorized poems and Confucius passages at school and learned how to play the zither. At night, my grandma would sit next to my bed, fan away mosquitoes with her bamboo fan and sing nursery rhymes about the summer rain in Cantonese. On weekends, I would wake up early to watch my neighbor roll dumpling dough and my mom cut green onions into small pieces for the filling.
What little exposure I had to American culture was when my Jewish-American father would come home after monthslong business trips and read me Dr. Seuss. Until I was 15, my understanding of America consisted of vague memories of The Boy and The Apple Tree, summer trips to my dad’s hometown Portland, Maine, where his white relatives would look at me in wonder and express concern for my broken English.
I was, as far as I understood, Chinese. But as far as everyone else in China was concerned, I was only white, Jewish and American because of my father. For reasons incomprehensible to me at the time, I was “different” in the eyes of those in a society so emphatic about its homogeneity.
For reasons incomprehensible to me at the time, I was 'different' in the eyes of those in a society so emphatic of its homogeneity.
Because of this “difference,” I was “special” and given extra attention. I was also given opportunities that other kids could not dream of. Model agency after model agency approached my mom and photo agencies offered complimentary photos just for brand representation. At school, teachers constantly recommended me to be the emcee of talent shows. I, the rare and exotic kid, was everyone’s most sought-after poster child.
But this privilege didn’t come without a price. I was the prime object of resentment and jealousy for every kid in my class, who saw everything come so easily to me but didn’t quite understand why. I became defined by things I did not choose ― exotic, foreign, different, American, Western, etc. As a young teenager, I attracted hollers of “wa! Gui mui! Hou leung! (wow, foreign girl, how pretty)” from men before I was even ready to embrace my womanhood.
To be mixed and a woman meant my appearance was of the foremost importance to everyone around me ― my mother’s friends would revel in things like how big my eyes were, how petite my lips were or how fit my body looked, but rarely mention my academic accomplishments or opinions except for within the context of my American identity. “Her Chinese scores were higher than Chinese kids! Isn’t it a marvel!” one friend exclaimed, as if I didn’t receive the same education or similar upbringing as her monoracial Chinese child. Other aunties would tell my mom that my academic talent came not from hard work, but from my Jewish ancestry. “Youtairen (Jewish people in Mandarin) are just smart,” they would say. I had no idea what Judaism even was.
When I was 15, my mom finally succumbed to my dad’s desire to return to America and agreed to move to Southern California with us. When I moved to this unfamiliar place, my first instinct was, of course, to seek out what I was familiar with. So on the first day of school, I found a Chinese friend I had met at orientation and sat with her Chinese friends at lunch.
They were all shocked to learn I spoke Mandarin, and there was this discomfort, the source of which I couldn’t quite identify, that made me feel like I was different from them. They were also all in English as a Second Language programs, and I couldn’t relate to those experiences as I was able to opt out of ESL and even get into Honors English. The feeling of displacement in America, for me, was not nearly as strong as it was for them. In a sense, America was where I was always meant to be.
Despite that experience, I continued to involve myself in Chinese spaces ― like Chinese PTA meetings and Chinese families gatherings because my mother would ask me to. The dynamics in those spaces, however, were as toxic as the dynamics in China.
People would speak English to me after they heard my mom and I converse in Mandarin. My Chinese-American peers would tell me how their parents would compare me to them because I spoke more Mandarin. My fluency in my own language and my knowledge in my own culture presumed abnormal. My presence presumed foreign. There was always a lingering feeling that I didn’t belong there, that I wasn’t one of them.
I wasn’t as Chinese as everybody else, although I literally grew up in China.
So where do I go? When I came to UC Berkeley and met Jewish friends for the first time, I figured I would try out their space. I thought they would see me as “Oriental” like my white relatives, but no. No questions about my identity. No requirements to be a certain type of Jew. These were Berkeley Jews, Jews that have seen Jews of color. They knew that if you identified as Jewish, you should feel comfortable in Hillel, the Jewish student center on campus.
How Jewish or Chinese could I truly be if I’m only half of each? My entire life I have wanted to claim one identity as mine.
But still, I wasn’t quite comfortable. There was this cultural disconnection that I couldn’t quite shake ― I didn’t grow up Jewish; I don’t believe in God. I didn’t ever go through the motions of having Shabbat every weekend, memorizing a Torah passage for my Bat Mitzvah, lighting candles for the menorah during Hanukkah or going to a synagogue. Jewish people would see “Slosberg” and assume I was one of them, and I guess I am, but I truly don’t quite feel like I’m Jewish enough. How legitimate is it for me to claim this identity when I don’t even believe in God? How real is this identity for me if I’d never even gone to Shabbat until I came to Berkeley?
How Jewish or Chinese could I truly be if I’m only half of each? My entire life I have wanted to claim one identity as mine. One group I could belong to. But no, I have to be mixed.
I have no choice but to answer intrusive questions of race from strangers, to be misidentified as Latina, Middle Eastern or worse, just “white” and to confront questions from my parents on why I couldn’t be like them and endure this pain of feeling like I’m “not enough.” Not Chinese enough because I don’t fit the mold of the feminine, meek, perfectly-made-up Chinese woman with a light smile and a feigned tendency to shy away from attention; not Jewish enough because I never went to Camp Kesem, don’t have a strong opinion on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or keep kosher. I thought leaving China would be the end of my struggle to find belonging. But I realized the sense of emptiness from lacking community was always within me ― my identity meant that there was always going to be a strange, indescribable feeling of disconnection between me and the cultures of my parents.
One spring afternoon in Berkeley, I was having coffee with a friend who is half Filipina and half Nicaraguan. I was showing her the questions I planned to ask the mixed folks I was interviewing for a film project, and she said, “These questions are good, but maybe you could ask people what they like about being mixed?”
Then it hit me. All the questions I had crafted, on how the communities of mixed people treat them, of how strangers would react to their appearance, how friends made comments about their romantic partners were meant to elicit negative answers. In all the pain of not having belonging and feeling culturally estranged from my parents, I’d forgotten the beautiful things I’d experienced because of my heritage.
I get to wear a qipao and proudly articulate its heritage ― my heritage. I get to explore what Judaism means to me with a group of Jews of color. I get to hear my dad’s stories of living with his Orthodox Jewish aunt and watch Chinese dramas with my mom. I get the ability to transition instantaneously from language to language, speaking to a broad range of people from different backgrounds.
“I’m not half anything; I’m full Korean and full American,” another friend asserted. Perhaps instead of being not quite Chinese or Jewish, being biracial means I can, despite the opinion of my communities, live both identities as fully as I wish.
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