Thursday, June 28, 2012

Me and Neil Stephenson

I have many flaws, but "quick to anger" is seldom among them.  It usually takes me a few days before I look back at something and think, "hey, that pisses me off."  And by the time I've worked up some good ol' righteous indignation, it's far too late to do anything with it besides posture grandly in front of my bedroom mirror.

So, when faced with the idea that I might not be culturally American, that my foreign-ness outweighed any sense of belonging I might have here, my immediate and total fury was more than I knew what to do with. I am unaccustomed to fury. I simmer, I don't explode. I gesticulated. I yelled. At everyone. I was going to make Angry T-Shirts, in case someone happened to look at me during a non-yelling moment, they would know I WAS MAD.

Looking back at this, I realize that, in 32 years, no one has ever questioned this. Especially not me.

There are lots of aspects of self-identity that I have questioned, debated with myself, with others, and eventually resolved, for the present time at least, into a reasoned answer. I have questioned my sexuality, my political beliefs, my social allegiances, and while I've never doubted my femininity, I have tried many times, unsuccessfully, to explain why it is so. I know that I am a woman, and it bothers me that I don't know why I know it. I have questioned my Chinese-ness many times. But never the opposite.

You know how there are patchwork-quilt-Americans and melting-pot-Americans? My father is a melting-pot American. The point was not to stitch together differences so that those differences complimented each other, the point was to melt it all together and dissolve the differences. I knew I was American because my father told me so, proudly. I knew I was American because my mother told me so, sadly. My American-ness was one of a thousand things about me that disappointed my mother. Sometimes it felt as if my American-ness was the root of every one of those thousand things that disappointed my mother, that if I were Chinese, I might be her daughter for real, I might deserve to be her daughter. But I wasn't. I didn't.

In my family, the family that I know, we are short, busty, with broad shoulders and smaller hips. I look like my grandmother, like my Aunt L., like my cousin C. I have moles, and freckles. I have broad, flat, feet. I look nothing like a bird.

I wasn't even as Chinese as the other Chinese-Americans. The kids at school with Chinese parents, who, like me, grew up on pink stucco and palm trees and surfers and hamburgers and french fries and Saturday morning cartoons, their parents made them learn Chinese. They spoke the language, they knew how to use chopsticks, and no one ever looked at them with embarrassed curiosity and asked what are you? Perhaps people asked if they were Korean or Japanese or Taiwanese. But it was the specifics that were up for questioning. People looking at me didn't know where to start.

As an adult, I can look back at my relationship with my mother and realize that she was offended by everyone and everything, and that no amount of cultural similarity could have saved our relationship. But at the time, I thought that if only I could be her Chinese daughter, I might be able to make her happy. But all my memories of interacting with Chinese people, or Chinese things, are memories of being different, of not belonging.

I remember that I went to China, once, and discovered that there were no forks at the restaurant. Being very hungry, and unable to use chopsticks, I kept the two wooden pieces attached at the top, and used them like tweezers, pulling them apart and letting them snap together around a piece of food. Sometimes I would just try to stab at things, and spear them on the blunt wooden tips.

I remember sitting at a table filled with Chinese people while my mother talked in Chinese. I couldn't understand a word of it, but every once and a while, I heard my name. My mother gestured towards me, and then everyone laughed. And then they talked some more. I looked down at my bowl and ate my rice with a fork.

I remember the first time I had dim sum without my mother. I had brought friends, who all looked at me expectantly, to lead them with my extensive knowledge and experience. I felt like a fraud.

I like to tell people the story of my mother tapping on the table at restaurants. I only knew this because my father once teased her for doing it at an Italian restaurant. I would tell people the story of the Chinese emperor who disguised himself as a commoner and was waiting on his servant. The servant could not properly bow to his emperor without giving away the disguise, so he made a bowing gesture with his hand. I know this story, because I read it in a cyberpunk novel. The story about demons and straight lines came from the same book. Sometimes it feels as if I have learned more of my "heritage" from white men writing science fiction than I ever learned from my mother.

And it is because I have always doubted my Chinese-ness that I have never questioned my American-ness.  Because it was always presented as a kind of zero-sum game.  My American-ness is to blame, it took up all the room and left no space for anything else.  It is all I have.

No comments: