The conversation always starts the same way.
“Where you from, lah?” asks a nameless little lady, her eyes narrowing to inspect me more closely.
“The US,” I always say.
“No, no,” she says, shaking her head insistently. “Where you from, lah.” Usually a hand gestures backwards, towards the air, as if somewhere located behind her are my roots, my history.
This is the point where I always pause. I could insist even harder, like I used to do when I was a teenager studying in Shanghai and living in Asia for the first time in my life, that I am an American. I could let the frustration boil up inside me, like it used to, and shake my head defiantly in opposition to hers, telling her that I grew up drinking Kool-Aid and eating strawberry cupcakes baked by Duncan Hines, with my mom as the middle man.
But I’ve long since learned, in my few trips back to Asia in the ten years since my stint in Shanghai, that if I do that, the conversation will drag on hopelessly, and we’ll reach an impasse, a conversational detente. She is waiting for me to tell her that I am Chinese. But I’m not, I think. Or am I? It’s asking too much. I don’t have a one-word answer for that question. And so, I say what I always say here in Malaysia, at least a few times a day:
“I’m American, but my parents are Chinese.”
Except that’s not really true, either. My parents would probably proudly identify themselves as Chinese, even though my father left Shanghai aboard a ship in 1949 at the age of 2. His older sister, my Aunt Jenny, sprinkles tidbits of her memory of that departure into my conversations with her. She remembers wearing a little red hat, which blew away in the wind as they were pulling away from the port. My father, a large-headed toddler at the time, doesn’t remember much. My mother had even less to do with the mainland, having been born to a Chinese family in Taiwan after the end of the Chinese Civil War.
But both of my parents call themselves Chinese, and sometimes I think it’s as much to identify themselves with an ethnic group as it is to distinguish themselves from who they are not. They are not Taiwanese, because that might refer to the indigenous people who comprise less than 2% of the population of Taiwan. They are not Taiwanese, because that might betray the fact that while they spent their formative years in Taiwan, they formed their family in America, where my sisters and I were born and raised in a warm, brick two-story home in a suburban neighborhood in Greenville, South Carolina. They are not Taiwanese, because they are not Taiwanese.
Now that we live in Malaysia, I think about what I am, and what I am not, more often. I think it’s partially because people ask me that all the time, several times a day. I think it’s also because as an American, I’m used to defining myself by what I do, not who I am. I am a lawyer. I am a lawyer like Star Jones. I am a lawyer like Star Jones, and sometimes I wear suits. Hear me roar.
But here, where I am not working because I don’t have a visa that allows me to, I don’t have the identity of my accomplishments to rely on. Besides, that’s not the question being asked. In America, we’ve moved past the age of political correctness, where asking where someone is “from from” isn’t even really all that common anymore, to asking each other how we fill the daylight hours of our weeks. What I’m being asked is who I am, not what I do. It’s not about my occupation, but how I link my identity.
So, I tell the nameless, curious interrogator that my parents are Chinese, but that I grew up in the U.S., and that’s usually enough to satisfy the question, so that the next question can come. Sometimes, it’s in the form of a statement.
“But you look Chinese, lah.”
This part of the conversation is always my favorite. Usually, I hope my response is enough to satisfy the curiosity of anyone who’s asking. But every once in awhile, the person with whom I’m speaking, who heard my nasally, American accent drifting through the phone, or piping in from behind her during yoga class, or trying to make a new friend, can’t quite make sense of it all. She heard my voice, and she sees this, this Asian staring back at her, who should be speaking clipped English and using Malaysian colloquialisms like lah and reddie. Instead, I’m using like and totally every few words. There’s a disconnect.
I can’t quite make sense of it, either. Yes, I look Chinese. Yes, I speak like an American. I think American. I am American. But I know Chinese, too. I know the culture. I know the language. I’m a third culture kid, the same as an American kid here who might have school projects on what it means to be an American, to remind themselves of who they are. I, too, learned about my culture in school, on Saturday afternoons, surrounded by other Chinese-American kids, and through watching my parents eat mooncakes and glutinous rice. I am reminded by the subtleties of Chinese culture that I encounter in this city. The mooncakes for the Mid-Autumn Festival here make me miss my family, remembering how they used to arrive in brown paper boxes from our wacky Uncle Jimmy every October during the Mid-Autumn Festival. I am reminded of who I am in every conversation I have with my mother. Oreo cookies, on the other hand, make me miss home. I don’t even eat Oreos when I’m in America. But here — the smell, that artificial creamy taste, the crisp of the cookie — it tastes just like home.
So I’m not sure how to end this part of the conversation with this lady today. Yes, I look Chinese. That’s because my parents are, I think. I like it here, because there are reminders of my family and my mixed Chinese-American life back home. In a haze of confusion associated with living in a new culture, there are flashes of familiarity that float in and out of every day. When that happens, I’m excited. I like knowing things, and I like feeling like a memory from my past has helped me figure something out about the present.
There’s nothing, though, that makes me feel more at home then when I get to tell someone that I’m an American. Because I am. I know it. It takes an American to like Oreos.