Growing up as an American-born Chinese (or more commonly, an ABC) in a small Southern beach town is as easy as one would expect. While I never really had the traumatic “your food stinks” experience, I still set strict parameters for myself on how I could behave so as to avoid the inevitable snotty looks and crinkled noses. I brought peanut-butter and jelly sandwiches and microwaveable mac-n-cheese for lunch, just like every other kid. I shopped at Forever 21 and American Eagle, just like every other kid. During high school, I went through a hipster phase – just like every other kid. In fact, I made sure that my entire life lacked any “ethnic” or “oriental” features. The only thing tying me to my roots was our annual summer family trek back to Beijing, where most of my cousins spoke to me in stuttering English to supplement my broken Mandarin. For the sole purpose of fitting in, I essentially erased my Chinese identity.
Coming to college was a culture shock. I had never been surrounded by so many kids who looked and had the same experiences as me. I had never seen Chinese dancers – not just in the traditional troupes, but in hip hop and street groups – met with applause rather than snickers. I had never seen such a celebration of my culture like the Mid-Autumn Festival at the Bryan Center Plaza. Yet, I still feel a certain disconnect. Sometimes, I’m not “Asian enough” (i.e. I don’t have a WeChat). Other times, I’m “too white” (i.e. my fervent love for eastern North Carolina barbeque). For the first time in my life, I’m torn between these two cultures, and picking one over the other, like I had previously done, is not an option.
There is no nice and neat conclusion to my dilemma. As it is, I am still trying to reconcile who I was with who I can be now. I know that for many other ABCs coming from small town America, this is a conflict they too are currently grappling with. There is still a lot to be done outside and even within Duke’s walls, despite the efforts of organizations such as the Asian Students Association, to combat this relationship of shame with one’s heritage. It is my hope that one day, stories like mine will be treated not with empathy but rather as a thing of the past.