“Your daughter might have to be held back a year. I think she might be retarded.”
My horrified Chinese immigrant parents gasped as my preschool teacher unprofessionally vocalized her concern that I wasn’t singing my nursery rhymes as well as the rest of my peers.
“If I advance her to kindergarten, things will have to change at home.”
The following year, I began elementary school and started to learn English intensively as Mandarin took a backseat. I began memorizing lyrics of pop songs, boy bands, whatever was going on with Britney Spears, as well as the lineups of MTV, Nickelodeon and the Disney channel just to take part in conversation. But over the years, it became much more than that.
There is a private hell that comes with being a first-generation kid. Growing up smack dab in the heart of Silicon Valley, California, my small suburban town — San Carlos — was predominantly Caucasian, nearly 80% to be exact. From first through fifth grade, each day was a marathon as I sat through classes with my peers and attended supplemental speech therapy — primarily to learn the “th” phonetic — which was nonexistent in Mandarin.
“Th-uh, not suh. Though, not zough. Then, not zen.” I’d repeat these hundreds of times a day like my life depended on it.
While most of my classmates ended their days with sports or dance, I went home to repeat everything with my mother and teach her vocabulary that she didn’t already know. I’d build more and more confidence to speak, but then every so often I’d watch in horror as a classmate would mockingly pull the corners of their eyes and felt all my progress unravel.
While most of my classmates ended their days with sports or dance, I went home to repeat everything with my mother and teach her vocabulary that she didn’t already know.
In grade school, I would stockpile brown paper bags from crafting classes to hide the bright pink “Thank You” bags in when my mom would pack my delicious, but “fragrant” homemade lunches. In addition to learning coursework, speech and English, I’d quietly observe the mannerisms of my peers. And whether it was slang, comedic timing or how to be a good friend, I became obsessed with the unabashed personalities of my gregarious classmates as I remained in my private quarters and bonded with the more compassionate wallflowers.
Some days when the pressure felt too immense, I’d keep my head down without uttering a word and count the hours until I was able to free myself of all speculation, bullying and conformity. And as soon as my mom or dad picked me up, I stepped into a portal — greeted by melodic, sentimental Chinese pop songs blaring out of the car like an ice cream truck — that transported me far away and returned me back to the little rituals that managed to remain intact at home.
At night, after homework assignments and reconstructed lessons, my family and I gathered around the TV in crazed anticipation of our trashy Chinese soap operas that all seemed to feature some variation of a doe-eyed protagonist, caught in the center of an agonizing love triangle with two mediocre men. I’d then fall asleep in my mom’s arms as she read me stories about karma, reincarnation and the importance of living a purposeful and altruistic life.
When friends came over, I swapped my Mahjong tiles with unsuspecting Monopoly and Candyland centerpieces.
But when friends came over, I manically expunged my room of all items indicative of culture like it was a crime scene. I pulled out my bin of Disney princess dolls and crammed Totoro and Hello Kitty into the darkest depths of my closet, praying that Toy Story wasn’t based on a true story. Goosebumps, Nancy Drew, Lemony Snicket, and multiple volumes of Harry Potter inconspicuously hid my collection of translated Buddhist fables. Mahjong tiles were swapped out with unsuspecting Monopoly and Candyland centerpieces.
I became queen of the double life.
Slowly but surely, after years of engineering a convincing image, I found my own voice and finally felt like I had my footing to interject in conversations without social anxiety. The feeling of making my classmates laugh at something other than my accent or accidental responses in Mandarin became my fuel for developing my American identity, but in turn, caused me to rapidly neglect and erase my cultural heritage.
Over the years, I found snappy comebacks to the dreaded, “Where are you from, where are you really from?” question; “my mother’s womb” was my favorite and evoked the most eye rolls — but I never failed to realize that I would always be seen as an Asian female before being known for my character, personality, or anything else. At some point, after years of conditioning, my Asian identity became an afterthought as I feigned a sickeningly-perfect valley girl accent and proved to myself that my California-girl identity could successfully take the helm.
In my mind, this path of assimilation was what my parents had been pushing me toward ever since my education took a turn when I was 5. They never recognized their actions, or mine, to be motivated by shame, but rather, it was the drive to succeed — and assimilating was what it took. I grew to love this version of myself and took pride in being surrounded by American friends while still having a soft spot and deep understanding of the immigrant narrative.
In college, speaking Mandarin became so rare that it was like pulling out a magic trick if my friends and I happened to be dining somewhere I could place orders or specify dietary restrictions in my native tongue. But even then, oftentimes servers would come running to my rescue — forks in hand — when they saw noodles landing in my lap from how poorly I attempted to use chopsticks. To some extent, I enjoyed straddling the line of gray area to avoid being grouped into any archetype — confusion was my greatest preventative measure for avoiding racist stereotypes.
In college, speaking Mandarin became so rare that it was like pulling out a magic trick if my friends and I happened to be dining somewhere I could place orders or specify dietary restrictions in my native tongue.
I grew to realize that no part of me fit either identity quite correctly though, and that’s what’s become the most difficult aspect of being first-generation American. Among my friends in my hometown, I stood out as having foreign origins that needed constant explaining, and in Taiwan — my parents’ native country — I looked and felt out of place and spoke Mandarin as well as a 6-year-old, at best.
The longing for relatability became most reflected in my love life, of all places. Whether coincidental or an inadvertent pattern, most of the people I’ve dated in my 20s have either been immigrants or first gens with backgrounds differing from my own. I’ve found that the comfort of being with someone who intimately understands the clash of cultures makes me feel less alone on my journey, and learning about new backgrounds also provides the challenge to acknowledge and embrace differences. Of all the things that’ve stemmed from this valuable experience, I’ve come to truly understand the depths of identity and the way it’s had a role in shaping each person I’ve met.
Though my parents made it a point for us to visit Taiwan as a family every couple of years, I lost connection with my cultural roots. Through the remainder of high school, undergrad, masters, and entry into my career, it became less of a priority to see my family abroad.
Then this past February, I intended to go back to Taiwan to visit my grandfather, but he died exactly one month before my arrival. When I finally made my way to Taiwan, I felt the overwhelming weight of everyone I had lost (my aunt, my grandparents) and brokenheartedly experienced my first trip back without them. Visiting their home — where I had spent so much of my younger years — struck the fault line of guilt, shame and sadness that I had been suppressing for years.
I stared at the lifeless kitchen where my grandma once filled with her vibrance as she would stand for hours on end—intuitively selecting seasonings, stirring savory stews while gently handling decadent desserts and chopping vegetables with such swift precision — it was like watching a one-woman gourmet symphony in flow. Her flavorful meals became the foundations of my mother’s arsenal of recipes.
As I made my way into the living room and sat in my grandpa’s cushioned armchair, I remembered him sipping tea and telling me his favorite stories about my mother in her younger years. In their old rooms — now used for storage — I recalled memories where I’d perch on their laps as they’d dote on me and shove little pouches of milk candies and pineapple cakes into my pockets before my mom could confiscate them. In all of their display cabinets were two decades worth of washed-out photos of me and my siblings, reminding them of the love they had for us that spanned across time and oceans.
On my last day in Taiwan, we journeyed through lush forests of the rolling Yang Ming mountains carrying bundles of incense, flowers and fruits to honor my grandparents. “Mom, dad, we’re here to see you — Alliey’s here to see you,” my mother announced with tears streaming down her face as she lit each bundle. With a flood of emotions and the stings of incense evaporating into thin mountain air, I dropped to her side completely lost in my grief.
As much as I longed for my grandparents, their absence and this shared time with my parents was the deepest reminder that I came from a culture that was not to be forgotten.
I still wonder what took me so long to return to Taiwan. Was there really no point in the last 15 years that I could’ve taken a week to see my family? The glaring answer that I couldn’t lie to myself about any longer was that for years I associated my cultural background with shame and the antithesis of acclimating to American culture. I couldn’t understand then that preserving my cultural identity didn’t automatically equate to the impediment of being a normal American girl. In my decision to divide the two, I allowed judgment to rule my life for so many years, and consequently all of my decisions were made out of fear instead of love.
Instead of deflecting questions now, I take every opportunity to explain any component of my culture to anyone who takes an interest, but more importantly, I make the effort to ask my family about their past experiences and the way immigrating shaped their identity. In so many ways, it is all a way for me to reacquaint myself with parts that I left behind and confidently move forward to define — for the first time — what being Asian American really means to me. It took me half my life to overcome this perception of shame and find a way to honor and celebrate my heritage, but in this journey, I know I will be able to continue this beautiful path to reconnection for the remainder of my life.
Have a compelling first-person story you want to share? Send your story description to firstname.lastname@example.org.