“What are you?” I’m Chinese-American.
“Where are you from?” I was born and raised in Georgia.
“Where are your parents from?” My parents immigrated to the US from Vietnam.
They ask me questions that they think will sum up who I am, but my answers, which are more complex and layered than their expectations, only confuse them. When I say I’m Chinese-American, they wait for me to explain how I am Chinese if I was born and raised in Georgia. They wait for me to explain why I am not Vietnamese if my parents are from Vietnam. They’re comfortable with my hyphenated identity because they’re comfortable with “American diversity,” yet they are uncomfortable with my identity bleeding past the lines and boundaries that they’ve imagined for me.
But how would I even prove that I’m Chinese?
What is “Chinese”?
I’ve grown up surrounded by my family’s Vietnamese tongue. The neighbors and family friends who would babysit me always spoke Vietnamese to me. When I was younger, I spoke Vietnamese: Chào, cảm ơn, cô, chú, không… and my favorite, không biết.
I’ve also spoken English for the majority of my life. In fact, it’s the language that I’m most fluent in. It’s the only language that I can effortlessly read and write in. The idioms and proverbs and metaphors and rhetoric that I always use are specific to English. It may not be my native tongue, but it is the language I am most comfortable with.
Cantonese Chinese is my native tongue. While it doesn’t sound like Mandarin Chinese, it is the dialect that you might catch Jackie Chan speaking in his movies. It’s the language that Hong Kong uses in television and movies , which are so popular, that they become dubbed in Mandarin Chinese and Vietnamese.
But really, what is culture?
If culture is defined by its celebrations… I’ve attended Vietnamese fall festivals where famous Vietnamese singers would perform in the parking lot of the Hong Kong Supermarket, which, despite its name, is a Vietnamese supermarket. Nevertheless the costumed dancers and crackling firecrackers that advertise Chinese New Year* constitute my childhood. I was the child who wanted to stand as close to the firecrackers, but jumped at their deafening noises. But I was also the girl flipping through newspapers to find the best Black Friday deals. My family travels on July 4th to catch the Independence Day fireworks in a different location each year and feel the patriotism.
If culture is defined by values… I value filial piety that is often parodied as obedience and cowering submission to the “strict Asian parent.” I value the independence and meritocracy that America was built around. I admire the spirit of freedom and liberation that so many people long for.
If food characterizes culture… I’ve grown up craving the shrimp in bún riêu, while my sister insists that cà ri is better. My family’s travel snacks are bánh mì and gỏi cuốn. My family also can’t help but always order Checker’s fries and Pizza Hut lasagnas. My nephew and I connect in that we love chow mein (fried noodles) and fried rice.
I already mentioned that I was born and raised in the US. My home has always been the peach state. I’ll always remember the project I did about the largemouth bass being the state fish. Red clay will always be my excuse for my lack of interest in gardening. I’ve only ever been comfortable with driving on the left side of the car, and the right side of the road.
My parents were born and raised in Vietnam. Most of my family still lives there. Every now and then, when my family has the time and money to, we return to Vietnam. While I do not livein Vietnam, the grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins whom I love, who have showered me with affection, whom I almost never see, call Vietnam their one and only home.
So it would seem as if I’m everything - Chinese, American, maybe even Vietnamese.
Yet I’m not “Chinese enough” to be Chinese, “American enough” to be American, or “Vietnamese enough” to be Vietnamese.
Although I speak Chinese, it’s not Mandarin Chinese; when I’m at a Chinese Students Association event, someone nearby helps me to translate. Even though I have no doubt that I am Chinese and that I do speak Chinese, I feel so embarrassed and ashamed for not at least understanding Mandarin Chinese. When everyone shares specifically where they or their parents have lived in China, I don’t know what to say; neither my parents nor I have ever been to China. Even though being Chinese is a core of my identity, it oftentimes remains illegible, invisible, silent.
Although I was born and raised in America, although I converse, read, think, and learn in English, and although “Sally” is more American than it is Asian, I am still “yellow.” I am still “oriental.” I am still an “other” in a place that I call my home, my only home.
Although “Tran” is legibly Vietnamese, although I know my way around the language and culture, and although my family lives in Vietnam, I will never be Vietnamese. I’ve visited Vietnam more times than the number of steps I’ve taken in China, but I will never be Vietnamese; I was neither born nor raised in Vietnam, and, if you trace my family line way back, you won’t find them in Vietnam.
So how am I simultaneously all of the above and none of the above? How can identity be quantifiable - how can I be “less” ethnic or “less” authentic?
The thing is, identity is not quantifiable.
I am no less Chinese. I am no less American. My Chinese-ness and my American-ness manifest themselves in a different way from the way most people recognize “Chinese” and “American.”. Although I’m not quintessentially “Chinese” or “American” or “Chinese-American,” I simply cannot believe that I am less of either of the two.
My identity bleeds past the lines and boundaries that people have imagined for me because, you see, identity is more than boxes, more than images, and more than your imagination. Identity is more than language, culture, food, geography… What is visible is never everything. What is legible is never everything. We define identity with categories, but those categories are never absolute.
I am more than you know, perhaps more than you will ever know.
I am more than I know.
And you too are more than you know.
*Lunar New Year is a more appropriate name than Chinese New Year, as several ethnicities use the Lunar calendar over the Gregorian Calendar.