Chimerican

Alec Yeh - Senegal


August 17, 2009

It jiggled with every vibration of the table. That thing on my plate was out to get me. No way was I going to eat something known as the slug of the sea. It had brown leathery skin, coated in the oil of the sauce. When the light caught it just right, it looked like freshly formed obsidian. I stared at it knowing that if it had eyes, it would be staring right back.

“Just eat it! It’s a delicacy! You know how much it costs? You know how many poor children in China would kill to eat the way you do?” my mom screeched in Mandarin, her eyes gleaming with anger.

“No, I don’t. If it matters so much to you, ship it to them!” My mom looked at me bewildered. I knew she couldn’t understand me, but I said it in English anyways, just to spite her. Though she had no idea what I said, she knew it wasn’t good. She wouldn’t let me leave the table after that. Not until I finished every last bit of the sea cucumber, and all the extra helpings put on my plate.

I straddle the line between the American world and the Chinese world. Every morning, I wake up to go to my predominantly white high school. There, I am American. I speak American. I think American. I do everything as an American would. After school, I go to work at Rancatore’s. Even there, I serve American food. I scoop cake batter ice cream. I blend black-and-white frappes. I brew butterscotch lattes. All the things foreign to my Chinese culture. But once I am home, I am Chinese. Period. My parents demand that I speak Mandarin, even though my vocabulary is limited. I can barely communicate with them and when I try, I sometimes get so frustrated I just recoil into my shell of solitude.

So why do I persist? Why don’t I just give up on my parents? Because they never gave up on me.

My father immigrated to the United States 22 years ago. He came here because it was the land of the free, the world’s melting pot, the only place where a farm boy who never finished grade school could aspire to be something else. Since neither my parents nor my aunt could afford housing on their own, they pooled their money together and bought a cramped yellow house. I live in a two-bedroom, two-bathroom house with my immediate family of five, and my aunt’s family of four. I slept in my parents’ room until I was ten. Both my parents work long hours in restaurants. I see them at most, four hours a day. Once they pass through those swinging doors into the restaurant kitchen, it’s a completely different world. My father would come home with huge gashes on his fingers from chopping scallions, or splotches where oil had burned off his skin. He would walk into the house ready to show me the battle wound he had incurred that day. My parents’ pay could barely sustain a family of five. When we went grocery shopping, my mom loved going to the section with the dented cans to find unsuspecting treasures. When we went clothing shopping, we always ended up in the clearance section with the imperfect garments. My sisters and I would go to school wearing matching sweat suits from Taiwan, with graphics of Hello Kitty and Pokémon. For all I knew, my childhood was normal.

Since growing up, my parents tell me how much of a foreigner I am. Even my Chinese school teacher use to say that I spoke Chinese with an American accent, which was pretty humiliating. I used to pray at a Buddhist temple on Sundays while every other kid went to church. At the dinner table, my parents stick fish heads in their mouths and spit out only the carcass while other parents eat boneless fish fillets. My worlds clash at every possible moment. It is sometimes difficult to find a harmonious balance between my Chinese heritage and my American upbringing.

I would be a different person without both and I can’t help but appreciate my “Chimerican” life. The next time my mom offers me dried chicken tongue, or coagulated pigs’ blood, or periwinkles we would hand-pick from the beach, I’ll stare into her eyes, unafraid of whatever disgusting thing is on my plate, and I’ll tell her, I’m ready.

Alec Yeh