I was standing in line in a Chinese market when I heard two ladies behind me talking about me.
By the way they were talking, they must’ve thought I couldn’t understand them. They were speaking to each other in Chinese, but I understood every word.
I turned around and smiled at them before I purchased my items and left the store.
Scenarios like this happen to me often, especially when I go inside Asian stores.
I’m not sure what people’s first impressions of my appearance are, but I think most people think I’m just part Asian and part Caucasian and that I don’t speak Chinese.
The truth is, I’m Chinese-American and I speak conversational Cantonese. Both my parents are Chinese, but I just don’t look like the typical Chinese-American woman. I’ve got naturally blonde hair, pale skin and blue eyes.
So yes, I understand the confusion when people look at me.
Because of the way I look and my life experiences so far, I haven’t felt that I fully fit into either American culture or Chinese culture.
It was difficult to relate to the kids around me growing up. No one really looked like me.
I never felt like I fit in with students in my classes. They’d talk about popular American TV shows, but I grew up watching Asian cartoons. They’d send out birthday party invitations to the full class, ask about play dates and sleepover nights. All of these things were a little foreign to my parents.
I spoke a lot more Chinese when I was younger. At one point, my dad even refused to speak to me unless I was speaking to him in Chinese. I thought this was annoying at the time, but later saw it as a smart move to get me to practice another language.
I dabbled in a bit of calligraphy, but never learned how to read Chinese characters. I kind of wish my parents forced me to go to Chinese school on weekends even though I told them I didn’t want to go. (What kid would say yes to more school, especially on weekends?)
Now, when I speak Chinese in stores or order food in Chinese, I get peculiar looks. Perhaps it’s because of my appearance. Or it could be because of what I’m saying.
I don’t know as much Chinese as I’d like. When I meet strangers who are Chinese, I feel there isn’t so much of a connection between us because there’s some kind of disconnect.
I’ll get the, “Oh, you don’t speak Mandarin?” or a, “Oh, you can’t read those characters?” or, “Oh, you’re American?”
We may have some similar facial features, but we couldn’t be more different. There’s a gaping hole between us that can’t be filled.
Our cultural experiences could be super similar or the exact opposite whether you’re Asian and grew up in America or not.
I’m not just American and I’m not just Asian. I’m Asian-American, and with that, there’s a feeling of self-doubt. Do I fit in? Where do I fit in?
If I go to Asia, I’m sure I’ll feel even more lost than I sometimes feel now living in America. The U.S. is a melting pot of cultures, yet it’s so easy to feel so lost still.
I got used to the “Why try to fit in when you already stand out?” idea and just kind of went with it.
But sometimes you just want to feel like you belong.
Is there anyone else out there who sometimes just feels lost?