The Act of Falling Between Cultures
Updated: Mar 12
Dear Asian Youth,
Part I: The Early Years
It took a long time for me to fall in love with my name.
It was beautiful in Chinese. It meant unity, and peace, and the image of a glowing moon over a serene lake. It sounded like the soft brush of flowers against your cheek in the spring, like the warm caress of evening sunset rays in summer. It rolled off my family’s tongues gracefully, like smooth honey and pearls.
When I was four, my family immigrated to the United States. My parents uprooted their lives in their mother country and started from scratch in a place with a language they scraped off of nineties’ TV sitcoms. All of a sudden, my name no longer seemed beautiful.
No one could pronounce it. Even with the alphabetized pinyin system to spell out how the characters were said, my name was met with a wince and awkward silence on every attendance sheet I encountered. Within a few years, I learned to react to any utterance bearing the slightest resemblance to my name—Ian, Yen, Yee, Yahan, Yai-ahn, or the worst: complete silence followed by “... last name Li?” My English was barely enough to get me through the day, and I could not communicate with many of my classmates. No matter how hard I tried, my words didn’t come out quite the same.
At first, I despised the English language. It had butchered my name, which had become the soggy, moldy leaves of autumn, and the dry, dead branches of winter. It had butchered my identity, and butchered the promise of a better life, better friends, and better opportunities I was supposed to have. Because as long as my hair was not blonde or brown, my eyes not wide and blue, and my pronunciation not cunningly melodic, I would remain an outsider. Silent stares would follow me wherever I walked, and whispers would haunt me through the hallways—even if I didn’t know what they were about.
I filled the empty silences with books. Determined to prove that I could fit in, I taught myself how to read chapter books, and then novels. In my remedial speech class my schools placed me in, I kept an eagle eye on the shape of my tutor’s mouth, perfecting the forms and sounds of vowels and consonants, and mastering the phonics of the language that kept me in my shackles.
Eventually, my English was deduced to be proficient, and finally fluent. I managed to keep up in English classes and make a few friends. When I opened my mouth to speak, people stopped asking me where I came from. And although my hair wasn’t blonde or brown and my eyes not wide and blue, I began to sound like them.
Part II: The Middle Years
I despised being Chinese. I despised the way teachers would hesitate before my name in roll call, and despised the face people made at my work ethic and drive to succeed. I despised the dumplings my mother would pack for lunch, which almost always guaranteed turned heads and crinkled noses. I despised my above-average school performance, and the way my classmates watched my achievements like a soap opera, building more and more levels to the pedestal they had already unjustly thrust me upon.
One day in freshman year, we were receiving our most recent math tests back. My teacher customarily announced the students who had achieved a hundred percent; and to no one’s surprise, I was a regular recipient. One day, however, I was not. The whispers were immediate, with people quietly making teasing remarks about my “fall from grace,” slipping in snarky comments on my supposed “failure” when no one was looking, and pitifully coddling me over my shortcoming. I had received a ninety-eight. I felt like I was climbing a never ending ladder—every time I was nearly at the top, one more rung was added. I was either too smart to be white, or not smart enough to be Asian—the Asian everyone wanted me to be. I couldn’t win.
I yearned to shed myself of my Chinese identity, but was too cowardly to cease my efforts in my academics. And so began the ironic self-deprecation; the days spent loudly agreeing with the difficulty of exams I in truth studied for; forcing laughter at jokes diminishing Asian-Americans and the model minority; convincing myself and everyone around me I had no talents, no abilities, no work ethic—that I was lazy, a master procrastinator, and sure to fail like everyone else. To others, it was relatability and humility. To me, it was a lie I pretended I loved.
I despised any show of my native culture with my family and in public. I asked my mom to stop packing me lunch. I stopped speaking in Chinese on the phone in public. And I did everything I could to minimize when my parents spoke English in front of others. I was ashamed of their accent for fear that it would label us as outsiders—the same accent I carried for years in elementary school, which I managed to finally shed with hours of immersion and practice—hours that my parents had instead chosen to dedicate to their careers and building a loving home.
I knew they were just as ashamed as I was. And it broke my heart on the inside. It broke my heart every time my mother triple checked if she was pronouncing a word correctly. It broke my heart every time my father asked me to edit his emails and employee reviews—for the very colleagues he managed and led. It broke my heart every time I corrected a word my parents pronounced incorrectly, and heard them silently repeating it to themselves under their breath hours later that night.