On Becoming Whole

Nicholas Chieng - Brazil


March 26, 2015

Back in the USA, weekly excursions to Boston‰Ûªs Chinatown have always been a big part of my life. As a child, I‰Ûªd always go to Chinatown with my parents and younger brother to get our haircuts, shop for groceries, and eat dim sum, Chinese brunch consisting of shu mai, pork buns, sticky rice, and my favorite, spare ribs.åÊ For me, Chinatown is a cultural space, a place seeped with history and tradition, and more importantly a place where I felt like I belonged. It‰Ûªs very easy for me to separate my Chinese identity and my American identity. But here‰Ûªs this space where my two identities meet and are forced to be whole. And it really forces the question, what does it mean to be both Chinese and American? What does it mean to be Chinese-American with Malaysian and Vietnamese immigrant parents in today‰Ûªs increasingly inter-global world? How will I bring multiple stories as a Chinese-American to my small community of Garopaba, Santa Catarina? Global Citizen Year asks this question in an exciting, bold, and honest way.åÊ Global Citizen Year humanizes the often polarized story of what it‰Ûªs like to be both Chinese and American, but in the context of another immersing in another culture. It‰Ûªs imperative to take with you wherever you‰Ûªre going your roots and education. Essentially, acknowledging and embracing your roots can unlock the world, a passport to freedom because if you don‰Ûªt know your past history, heritage, or culture, then how can you immerse yourself in someone else‰Ûªs? It reminds me of the Redwood trees back in at Pre-Departure Training because if you forget your roots or don‰Ûªt even bother to learn about them, then you‰Ûªre a tree without roots, and a tree without roots cannot grow or thrive. As a child of immigrant parents, I‰Ûªve had to answer the phone, fill out legal/important documents, look at bills, talk to professionalsåÊand order at fast-food chains (Can I get a Big Mac please? Wait. Sorry, hold on. Š_ʾÄ_ŒÄ ŠÈۊ_ö? âüÐø¾Á? Hi ok, sorry can I get French fries instead) because my dad didn‰Ûªt speak English well, and my mother, although having gone to English school, was too insecure about her command of English. Forget the fact that I was still learning my multiplication and division tables, that doesn‰Ûªt matter when you‰Ûªre the child of immigrants. All of a sudden you become an unofficial adult; doctors and teachers begin to look at you instead of your mother at the doctor‰Ûªs office. ‰ÛÏWhat a mature kid! You‰Ûªre all grown up aren‰Ûªt you?‰Û And so eventually, I clung to my American-ness and accentless English (forgetåÊ Cantonese or Mandarin). As an American,åÊI could be a ‰ÛÏregular‰Û kid and watch cartoons or throw a frisbee. As an American, I could succeed in life, but most importantly, as an American, I could be free. When I was eleven, I was called a “chink” by two guys at a playground. I was looking over my friend Danny‰Ûªs shoulder at his razor flip phone, which at the time, was the hottest phone on the cellular market. Everyone who was ‰ÛÏcool‰Û had one. I didn‰Ûªt understand raceåÊoråÊlove. My parents never showed affection towards each other, and ‰ÛÏI love you‰Û was rarely said. Instead my parents showed it through their sweat, tears, and determination way before all the ‰ÛÏtiger mom‰Û stuff. Still, I waved the American flag with a comic book in one hand and a slice of apple pie in the other. åÊAt home, my mother spoke to me in Cantonese and I responded back in English. As an American-born boy of eleven, we had a system. In public, I became the adult‰ÛÓchecking out our library books and Mapquest directions so she‰Ûªd swerve left onto I-95. I wasåÊthe one who informed and guided my mom how to make macaroni and cheese.åÊIåÊtold her what to write to my teachers when I was sick and couldn‰Ûªt come to class. We fell into familiar rhythm, not a syncopated one though. Every musical beat, every word spoken and move made was precise. Eventually, she stopped trying to help me with homework. ‰ÛÏYou‰Ûªre the expert. You‰Ûªre the one with an education,‰Û her voice decrescendoed, ‰ÛÏI don‰Ûªt know anything.‰Û At some point along the way, I lost my Chinese. At home, then the rules were softened. As a kid, I had always persuaded my mother into buying us the ‰ÛÏnormal‰Û food my friends at school brought: cheddar cheese Goldfish crackers and dinosaur shaped chicken nuggets. I always reprimanded her for using anything “weird” like herbal, Eastern medicine that reeked of pungent roots and plants. åÊI always talked back to my mother sometimes throwing swear words she wouldn‰Ûªt know or commenting on an error she made while speaking English, mostly out of cruel spite. After all, I was the wise, cultured American.åÊShe was just the Chinese mom who listened out of love, out of a desire to see her kid not get bullied in a school system that was predominantly white. Looking back, it must have been humiliating for my mother, a brilliant woman who‰Ûªd left everything in Malaysia, came to the US with nothing, and worked despite her sciatica, intense pain of one of the five spinal nerve roots, to be bullied by her own son. With my parents, I cultivated a sense of authority that I couldn’t fully grasp in the classroom. In school, I was shy and reserved, ate white breads, tossed dumplings in the trash can, raised my hand when I was sure I had absolute certainty and control of what I was going to say, played it safe, partly because I was afraid to lose the sense of authority I‰Ûªd cultivated at home. In school, my friends and classmates would sometimes try to speak in a “Chinese” accent. To me, it never made any sense to call it “Chinese” because the one commonly mocked is actually a Cantonese accent, not Standard Mandarin, the official language of China. åÊWhen the “Yo Ma Ma” jokes were cool to crack, I’d always hear that my mother was so Chinese that she has coin slots for eyes. åÊShe was so Chinese she ate pickled sea cucumbers and fried rice. But quite frankly she was also a badass. My mother was so badass that she home cooks every weekday meal, fixes the toilet herself when necessary, sews ripped patches of our clothing back to normal, and ensures that we did our homework and studying every night.åÊ At my high school graduation, when my principal announced that music students could walk over to their respective ensemble, I quickly glanced at my mom, a proud Malaysian-Chinese immigrant whose face was beaming with pride. Halfway through Pledge of Allegiance, I took another glance over my shoulder and noticed my mom with her right hand over her chest, reciting every word. At a playground, at age eleven, being called a Chink was just another opportunity for me to dismantle and learn the English language. To claim it in all its ugly, hateful points. To be bullied and loved back and forth relentlessly by the alphabet. Chink, Chigga, Gook. Coin slot. FOB. What my Chinese mother could never teach me, I had to learn and seize on my own. But the thing is, I felt fiercely protective and embarrassed by her. It wasn‰Ûªt until I re-stumbled upon Carlina Duan’s article titled ‰ÛÏMichigan in Color: Our Sacrifice, Our Color‰Û that I figured out how to articulate this mottled feeling I had towards theåÊtug a war I’ve had with cultural pride and shame. In the United States, my mom was vulnerable, sometimes timid. Couldn‰Ûªt hold the language she learned back in school. My job as her American-born son was not only to teach, but to also defend. I‰Ûªve often been told I‰Ûªm part of the ‰ÛÏmodel minority‰Û. At times, it‰Ûªs assumed that what I do well, I do because I‰Ûªm Asian‰ÛÓnot because I was raised by one of the strongest, most intelligent women I know while living below the poverty line. It‰Ûªs frustrating when I find myself leaning into these expectations and annoying when I find myself overly conscious when trying to break out of them. I am a song of immigrant parents, and I am infinitely dimensional, in love, in pain, always sleeping, wanderlusting, and åÊgrowing up. Chinese is my blood, and in a way, it defines many of my decisions and my movements through this world. But it does lay the entire foundationåÊfor what I choose to åÊgive or give up.

I am here. I am Chinese-American.

I am low-income. I am valid. I am worthy.

I am imperfect. I am growing. I make mistakes.

I am here.

In truth, I’ve been writing this since the beginning of my freshman year of high school. It wasn’t until I reread Duan’s “Michigan in Color: Our Sacrifice, Our Shame” again that I was able to finally articulate my internal struggle of finding åÊacceptance with my cultural identity. Experiences I’ve had here in Brazil involving racial identity, noted in my past blog (Everyday Life: Eu nÌ£o sou JaponÌ»s),åÊhave compelled me to revisit and explore my story of heritage, shame, and family. This adventure has been the longest I’ve been away from home, but I’ve thought so much about how I bring my culture with me and how I can share it with my host family and others in my community.

To my family back in the United States, I love you.åÊ ¾öԍö±Š_Ê.

But here in Brazil, we speak Brazilian Portuguese, and in this beautiful language, I wouldn’t alwaysåÊsay “I miss you” or “I want to go there again”. I would say saudades.

Saudades deåÊvocÌ»s

Nicholas Chieng