Growing Up Asian American (Part 1)

To restart my website, I have decided to do a deep dive into my identity. The point is to be transparent and put myself out there, so there are many parts of my identity that I struggle with, and parts that make a huge portion of who I am. I originally intended this topic to be one long post, but as I continue to delve into my identity as an Asian American, it dawned on me how layered the experience really is. So this is just part 1 of a saga of an undetermined many.

That being said, I identify as Asian American, more specifically Chinese American, and even more specifically Hainanese American. It’s like a nesting doll because each one feeds into the greater part of the other. And because of these distinctions, my perspective and understanding of the world is unique.

I grew up understanding there’s a pride to being Hainanese. Why? I don’t know. But it’s where my ancestors are from, and where my parents and grandparents grew up and lived, and that made it special. My dad ingrained in my siblings and I never to forget our heritage and where we come from. I remember he used to have me repeat in Hainanese, where his village was beginning with the Hainan Province and ending with the little town. He also tried to enforce that we only speak Hainanese at home, but that didn’t work too well. We did try to maintain speaking Hainanese at the dinner table when he was home though.

For those of you who don’t know, Hainan is an island province in China, and for tourist reasons is known as the Hawaii of China. I couldn’t tell you if that’s true because I’ve never been to Hawaii. Anyway, it’s incredibly easy to say, “Well then, aren’t you Chinese?” Well, yeah. I am. But in China there’s a lot of different ethnic groups within the country, and each place has local language and prejudices about other areas. So being Hainanese, though Chinese, remains distinct. Just like when people ask me if I speak Chinese, I do. But I don’t speak the main dialects of Mandarin or Cantonese, so I have to clarify that.

And that’s one of the things that makes it hard to be categorized as Chinese. As soon as I identify that way, people immediately ask me if I speak Mandarin or Cantonese, or come at me with “Ni Hao,” or ask me to translate. And as unique and special as I felt growing up being Hainanese and not knowing many people with the same background, I also felt kind of excluded and othered. Most of my friends and their families spoke Cantonese, and every time I would go to their houses, my friends had to tell their parents I don’t speak the language. Unfortunately, the impression that the adults would get is that I didn’t know Chinese at all, and in part that’s a failure of my parents to preserve the culture. I learned early on how to say “I’m Hainanese” in both Mandarin and Cantonese to clarify any misgivings. I also picked up some of both dialects along the way to not “dishonor” my family.

I know that it’s such a running joke and theme in Mulan about bringing honor to the family, but it’s a real thing. I was socialized growing up that my behaviors and how I presented myself was a reflection of my family. And no matter what, I have to act like everything is perfect so that my parents could save face. That often meant that I had to perform well in school, that I had to put up a façade of being okay when I wasn’t, that I couldn’t talk about any conflict within the home, etc. It was a lot of pressure to grow up with. And I’m not saying that my experience is specific to me, or specific to Asians, but it was an experience that I had that I can attribute to growing up Chinese.

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