“Je suis…” A Note on Identity

This semester I took a leap and started a brand new language. Français. I already know how to exchange greetings, talk about going to class, and I know how to express the different genres of books and movies.

Today I said in class, “Je suis chinoise et americaine.”

Why is this a big deal (for me)?

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I didn’t think very much of this statement at the time I said it. Not even in the hour afterwards, but nearly ten hours later, when I was doing something completely irrelevant to the class.

(That’s diffuse thinking in action, psychology folks.)

I realized that I would have never said such a thing in Spanish class back in middle school.

All I wanted in my grade school years was to fit in. I would attempt to hide traces of my ethnicity when I was the only Chinese girl in my grade, and indeed, perhaps seen only as the Chinese girl.

(I’m sure this sounds typical. There’s so much awareness nowadays of how Asian Americans “struggle” in reconciling both parts of their identity. But I had to go through this too – one story does not speak for all, and so the mass cannot always speak for the single story.)

I hated that brand. I understood China as the place where all our cheap products came from, where the largest population of the world lived. I cringed when in history books I saw that my country was where masses of abused, blue-collared, minimum wage workers came from, and over the news, where prodigal young musicians and mathematicians were produced in bulk. Where Tiananmen Square massacre and other horrible things happened.

I wanted my own achievements to be attributed to me and not my race. I wanted my personality to be associated not with a stereotype but an individual identity.

When I first moved to international school I would tell people that I was “American”, and I would just stop there. I remember that people would look at me funny, and say, “Well, you don’t look American.”

Sure, I would say to my old self. That’s what your passport says. That’s simple. But you’re forgetting about this whole other part of China from whence you came.

Living for four years on the opposite side of the globe made me learn that being Chinese (ethnically or legally, or both) does not subtract anything from my American identity. In fact, it adds to my American experience.

Now I can say with confidence and pride that I am “chinoise et americaine”. I’ve known this for some time, but I’ve realized it today.

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