I spent the first fifteen years of my life trying to ignore the fact that I am Asian. Ironic, considering I was born and raised on the small island of Hong Kong and its population of 6 million other Asians.
I didn’t mind Asians – other Asians. I minded being Asian, because it meant that I had to confront the fact that I was adopted by Caucasians and sentenced to a life of confusion and mixed identity.
Adopted by 2 years of age by Russian Jews living in Hong Kong, I turned my back on my Asian roots and completely adapted to ‘the western culture’, assuming the ‘gweilo’/’ghost man’ persona of colonial Hong Kong expatriats. I cast off my little knowledge of Cantonese and threw myself into learning the English language. It was only in the afternoons when my mother napped, that I snuck into the kitchen to play with the servant’s daughter, or snack on their authentic Cantonese lunches. Some nights when I was wracked with childhood fevers, I consoled myself with Cantonese sitcoms, laughing quietly while the rest of the house slept, unawares of my cultural binging.
Enrolled into a British school, I wanted to have brown hair, to be Amerasian, Eurasian, to be able to say “I’m only part Chinese” and disinherit my Asian roots to be accepted in the community of which I now belonged. Mrs. Chin, the school’s Chinese teacher, was a waif like woman, who wore thin glasses, and spoke in pigeon English. As though this was not enough for the school children to make fun of, she walked with a quick and nervous stride, and had the habit of muttering to herself, especially during our Chinese painting lessons, while the boys laughed silently behind her back. I cringed at the thought of being any part of some absurdity. To make matters worse, my father hired Mr. Li as my private mandarin teacher. He was a short man with thick lenses for his glasses. He looked like a Jerry Lewis portrayal of a ‘Chinaman”, with bad posture and buckteeth. I concentrated on these caricatures of Asians as I grew up and decided that I wanted no part of it.
When I went to Seattle to go to University, being Asian (or at least from Hong Kong) was a novelty and I found myself flashing the “Asian badge”. But it was here that I questioned how Asian I really was. I didn’t speak the language, knew little of the Chinese culture and though I now touted the fact that I was Asian, I felt it was a farce. Did knowing the history of Hong Kong or the fact that I ate dim sum really make me Asian?
My life as an Asian woman continued to attract attention. Now it was coupled with my Judaism, and I was a novelty for being an Asian Jew. One Jewish woman told me that I was a Jewish man’s dream come true – a Jew to bring home to mother, but an Asian woman to fulfill every man’s fantasy. So once again, being Asian was nothing more than an adornment. I had knowledge of Feng Shui, various Chinese herbs and vegetables but no other in depth knowledge of cultural heritage or the language. Even my half Asian, half Caucasian children looked like they were doomed to the same future as their mother – Asian with nothing to show for it, and in a culture where being “diverse” was not really honored. I realized what a failure I had been at enriching my children’s knowledge of their Chinese heritage when they one day referred to a Chinese buffet as “Chinky chow”.
It was not until we moved to Hanoi, Vietnam for my husband’s job, that my children and I had an awakening of becoming Asian. My children, now enrolled into an International school, were embraced for being Chinese and American and encouraged to discover, investigate and share their culture. This sharing and seeking out of information made me once again see how ignorant I really was about my heritage. Was being adopted outside of the Chinese culture make it right for me to disinherit my ancestors, my heritage, myself?
Forty years into my life, I am finally embracing and fulfilling my role as an Asian. I realize now that my heritage is not just with the adopted parents, the stories of their ancestors, but my Chinese culture, the stories that my people grew up with, the stories that are in my genes, the myths and legends that give me substance and faith. It is a foundation to give to my children for them to pass along to their children, my grandchildren, so they can state with pride that they are Asian and know what it means. It’s not about eating Chinese food, or having visited china, but having the pride of the culture, knowledge of the history and constantly seeking to maintain and keep alive this rich heritage.
How am I doing as an Asian? I failed miserably, but now I’m retaking the test to improve the grade and pass – with flying colours.