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.
It wasn’t until I lived through the most cliché moment a minority individual can experience in this country—when a man had rudely shouted at me on the street to “go back to where I came from,” and my anger had kept me up all night—that I realized I didn’t despise being Chinese. I despised the force with which immigrants and their children are shoved aside and thrown miles behind as they attempt to assimilate into a society that encourages them to fall short from the start.
Part III: The Present Years
My teachers still often hesitate at my name on the roll call sheet. I still get “Ian,” “Yay-ann,” “Yahn,” or “... last name Li?” I once had a teacher who went the whole year without addressing me by my name—I was reduced to “she,” “her,” or a finger pointed at me. But instead of fuming and saying “here,” I say “here” and “here” only. Because now I know, no pronunciation by silver-tongued, cunning, melodic voices can capture the beauty my name encompasses in its native language.
I still edit my father’s work emails, and occasionally correct my mother’s pronunciation. But only when she asks. And I praise them both, and speak Chinese at home as much as I can. I help my family fold dumplings. And the stares don’t bother me as much when I speak on the phone in my language that others don’t understand.
I still face regular pressure at school to achieve perfection and maintain my track record of high achievements—pressure that I suspect would maybe ease if I looked different. But I choose to keep my work ethic and drive to succeed, because my parents gave up everything they had and crossed an ocean to give me a better future, and I owe everything to them.
It isn’t always easy. Although my English abilities have been polished under the guidance of my school teachers, and my free time is dedicated to both Eastern and Western cultures—I have played classical piano for more than a decade, and thoroughly enjoy it; and I love watching Netflix and spending the Fourth of July with my friends—I am not always in love with both my Chinese and American side. Some days, I wake up wishing I had blonde hair and blue eyes to fit the conventional Westernized standards of beauty. Some days, I wake up wishing I was lazier and a bigger procrastinator, so more people can talk to me about gossip instead of group projects. I fall victim to the perpetuation of model minorities, and occasionally find myself openly self-deprecating for the sake of seeming “less Asian” and seeking approval from others.
One day, I hope that families who choose to start a new life here can live out the full potential of the American Dream, instead of having the caveats of that dream hold their own potential hostage. I hope people can walk down the street without being told to go back to where they came from. I hope people can eat what they choose, and study what they choose, and fail and succeed where they choose, without having internalized judgements thrust upon them based on the slant of their eyes. I hope children can grow up here and not feel ashamed to share their native culture in a country that ironically prides itself on freedom and diversity. I hope the youth can grow up in a space without being shoved into a box that is wholly Asian or wholly American. And I hope the price for acceptance is not an ultimatum to choose between the two worlds.
But at least for now, I have fallen back in love with my name. Through winter, spring, summer, and fall, my name remains a calming force that reunites the clashing worlds I grew up in: reconciling Chinese and American, and slowly finding a proud and comfortable space in between.
- Yi-Ann Li