While I moved to the United States at nine years old, I only learned later that my parents had made the decision to do so six years prior. When the actual day came to leave my life in China, it felt sudden to me. For my parents, the move had two purposes: to provide me with a better education and to give our whole family the freedom we didn’t have in China. From a young age, my parents told me that I would have more opportunities growing up in America than in China. They grew up in the 1980s, during a time when China opened itself up to the world and underwent major economic and social reforms. For the first time, citizens gained access to foreign technology and the global market. As a result, my parents were among the first generations of Chinese people who attended college after the devastating upheaval of the so-called Great Cultural Revolution under Mao Zedong. My parents are successful examples of the “work hard enough and you’ll succeed” mantra. Their mindset enabled me to attend top-tier schools in Shanghai and New York.
Given my transnational background, I have struggled to define my identity. While I was born in China, I grew up speaking both Mandarin and English as my first languages. I think and learn in English, but speak Chinese with my family. I have spent almost the same amount of time living in China and the United States, but my intellectual maturity happened in the United States. This past February, upon receiving my U.S. passport, I finally became a “real” American, even though nothing but a superficial label had changed. I identify with American idealism and its values of freedom, independence, and self-determination. However, I do not know if possessing these values is enough to convince me that I am truly “American.” I often wonder what it even means to be truly “American.”
I began to question my identity early as I attended a British International School in China until the 4th grade. A requirement of attending an international school in China is that one holds a foreign identity. In second grade, we had a class project that prompted us to create a “passport” out of folded paper. While friends who were born in Australia, Japan, or the U.S. drew their respective flags on the cover, I drew a Chinese flag. When my teacher saw my flag, she asked me why I drew it. I could not answer. I thought, “I am Chinese,” and that was it. When I went home, I asked my mom why my teacher thought it was wrong for me to draw a Chinese flag. She explained to me that I am Chinese but have an American identity card. I did not understand what this meant until much later.
In retrospect, I am sad that at such a young age, I was already worried about how others perceived my identity. When I moved to the United States and started school, my sense of identity was upended again. As the sole Chinese-born student, my classmates appeared to view me as a representative of all Chinese people. I felt like an outsider. Even the Asian-American students treated me differently. In most of my first encounters with people who find out I was born in China, I am met with, “But your English is so good!” They find it difficult to comprehend that being born in China and speaking fluent English can co-exist.
On my very first day of sixth grade at the Spence School, it didn’t take long before I felt reduced to a stereotype born of ignorance. One event is forever embedded in my memory. When I walked into my history class and across the rectangle of wooden tables, a girl asked me, “What was it like to live in a Communist country?” I did not answer because I did not know what communism was. Her tone confused me. The question felt rhetorical rather than genuine. The intent felt as if it was meant to highlight that I was different. How could I know that to others, China was the symbol of governmental oppression? I had only experienced family life in China, not the authoritarianism that others think of. The most common generalization of Chinese people is that we are all Communists. Even if this girl was genuinely curious, her question agreed with the perspective that the Western media heavily propagates: U.S. systems are “better” than those of the Chinese, and that there is nothing good that comes from China.
I took it upon myself to learn the truth about communism and the Chinese system, both good and bad. As my mom told me, if the Chinese system had not benefited many people, it would not still be so powerful today. After all, I live a comfortable life because my parents thrived in such a system. Yet, in America, it is immediately considered a grave sin to imply that there is anything good about a communist regime. Even if there are examples of the Chinese government making radical improvements in society, whether through health care or income stability, its oppressive control always takes over in the public eye. Such simplistic thinking fuels stereotypes and biases. The banal nationalism present in our everyday lives, like the use of “our” and “we,” plays into the idea that there is some “other” that is separate from “us.”
In order to combat this mentality, I needed more knowledge and information, which is why it became so important to explore my personal history and heritage. Oddly, I have also had to contend with my own parents’ biases and desires to see me benefit from the social mobility of America’s capitalist system. For years, I have endured the constant nagging of my parents who wanted to know if I had any close American (i.e. White) friends. My father places White Americans on a pedestal. He has told me that these are the people I should surround myself with and aspire to be like. This attitude caused me years of internal conflict. Am I a disappointment to my parents because I could not become “one of them” like they thought I would? I had been brainwashed into thinking that I needed to imitate my white peers in order to successfully assimilate into “the culture.” What culture? I did not exactly know. The Upper East Side? The “Spence Girl” culture? I was never sure.
Even though it took an extremely long time to find my footing in this new country, new school, and new phase of my life, that time was necessary. The process of assimilating on my own terms is an ongoing one and fuels a never-ending internal debate. I do not want to betray myself by completely losing who I am. I needed time. I still do. Until this year, I felt uncomfortable speaking in class because I thought if I said something incorrect, everyone would criticize me. This fear is a challenge I am slowly overcoming. Recently, I realized that most people, especially kids my own age, are often unsure about what their stances are, so I can worry less about what they think of me. Most people are too busy looking at themselves in the mirror to be worried about looking at me. This alone has been liberating and has helped me speak up more.
The recent anti-Asian sentiments and hate crimes (led by Trump naming COVID-19 the “Chinese virus”) changed my worldview and forced me to gain awareness. I never thought I would be a “politics person,” but I understood that I would be abandoning the rights America afforded me by ignoring the issues facing me. After learning about the oppression of African Americans in history class, I began to wonder about similar Chinese experiences. Our history textbook, Give Me Liberty! by Eric Foner, barely skimmed the surface of what I would later discover were the immense hardships that were part and parcel of the history of the Chinese in America.
I learned about racially motivated hate crimes like the Rock Springs Massacre of 1885, a mass lynching in Los Angeles in 1871, and the Kearney Riots in San Francisco in 1877. The hidden and untold history of Chinese immigrants and Chinese Americans is something that I wished I had learned in school. During a research activity on Black suffragettes, I questioned why I had not heard about any Chinese suffragettes. Again, after my own digging on the internet, I learned about Mabel Pinghua Lee, a Chinese woman who immigrated to New York in 1905 and graduated from Barnard with a doctorate. She was a vocal suffragette who, at just 16 years old, rode on horseback while leading the women’s suffrage march up Fifth Avenue in 1912.
I was so surprised that someone like Mabel Pinghua Lee existed, because I thought, according to the stereotype, that Chinese people didn’t fight back. I assumed that Chinese women never stood up for themselves, while other women did. I thought that because Chinese people could not attain citizenship, they were not politically engaged and did not try to challenge the status quo. These were all assumptions I had to revise. I would have learned in class about the struggles of Chinese Americans and all individuals who fought for justice. But I did not. Topics are covered in our history class so quickly that there is often no opportunity to go beneath the surface. I brought this up, and I was received positively.
Through this process of finding my voice, I have started to appreciate my American privileges. The U.S. is truly the “land of the free,” where free speech is a right, choice is a given, and opportunities are endless. I might not have known it when I was younger and less aware of the outside world, but I feel privileged to be able to express my opinions freely, with no need to conceal them. From seeing and participating in numerous protests in the past few years around women’s rights, climate change, and more, I feel hopeful that “normal people” can effect change. In China, it is almost impossible to speak freely and protest without fear of censorship or even arrest. Here, I can criticize the system while also contributing to it. Recently, I have noticed flaws in the nation’s education system. In the past, I did not consider the content of our curriculum and what was being taught, or rather not being taught; it would have never even occurred to me to question what I was seeing. But as an American, I do. I see how important it is to consider different cultures and viewpoints and to tell the stories of the different races and ethnicities that ultimately bind us and come together to form the proverbial melting pot that is our shared America.
Despite the outcries of how revisionist history and critical race theory have dominated curricula across the United States, the truth is that much of our class time is still devoted to citing the actions of white men. We do discuss the Civil Rights movement, but what about looking at all the other minorities who have played a role in building this country? Why are there no history electives for Asian American history? This spring, the NYC Department of Education introduced an AAPI curriculum and is implementing it across public schools. I want to see this spread further, throughout the United States, in private and public schools alike.
In my newfound identity as a Chinese-American, I’ve begun to answer, “Where are you from?” a little differently. It’s an ongoing debate as to how I should answer. When I first moved to the U.S., I would say, “China.” But now, as a veteran New Yorker, I say, “New York.” Though it's a small change, it's a big step for me. Sometimes I’m met with the follow-up question, “But where are you from?” I no longer take offense to this because I am proud of my Chinese heritage. New York is my home, but China will always be in my heart. I’m proud to be from both.
I can dream about having an impact on our education system and I can also start accumulating the knowledge and tools to do so. I can envision a world in which I can truly matter, to myself and to others. And I acknowledge that this is indeed the true gift of being an American.
by Yawen Yuan