Throwback Thursdays! We’re bringing back some of our favorite pieces from the last 30 years of Scribendi.
Harry Fong – California State University, Long Beach – 1992
Growing up in suburban Los Angeles, I never had an occasion to doubt my personal identity. 1 had a very happy and normal childhood. It was filled with many normal and typically American things: baseball, the light blue family Chevy, and lemon meringue pie. And because I thought that I was an American, I always regarded myself as such; any other thought never even crossed my mind. Yet several years ago while I was serving in the ‘navy, the United States Navy, I was having supper in the chow hall when a fellow sailor sat down be side me. We worked in the same department, but I didn’t really know him. We started to talk. At first, we talked about the Dodgers and Orel Hershiser winning the World Series, but then, as the proverbial ice began to break, he asked, “Are you Chinese, Japanese, or what” Swallowing a mouthful of mashed potatoes, I re plied, “American.” He countered, “No, really, what are you”
Even though I have been an American for every second of my life, I guess that, given my almond-shaped eyes (slanted, if you prefer), yellow skin, and black hair, I must fall into the “or what” category. I think like an American, I talk like an American, I act like an American, and I live like an American, but there is one problem. Because I look the way I look, and I don’t look very WASPish, many “real” Americans find it difficult to accept me. They must find it appalling to think that they are the same as I am, or I the same as they. Thus, they don’t ever refer to me as an American. I am always “that Chinese guy” (sometimes “Chink”) or “that Jap” (sometimes ”yellow devil”). Occasionally, a more liberal-minded person might call me an Asian-American or a Chinese-American, but that still doesn’t fully describe what I actually am. This is a bad situation. I am in a bad situation.
The other day, amid hundreds of miniature golden Buddha statues, the pungent odor of smoldering incense, and the eerie chant of a group of Buddhist monks, my Chinese parents (yes, they are real Chinese) and J buried my grandfather’s soul. 1had never been in a Buddhist temple or ceremony, and my first experience showed my unfamiliarity. I didn’t know how to bow, when to bow, or how many times to bow. I didn’t know how to pray. Was it one hand or two? I didn’t know how many sticks of incense to light. When the monk, speaking in Chinese, tried to tell me what to do, l didn’t understand him.
My experience in the Buddhist tem ple is only one of many similar incidents, but it seems to sum up what being of Chinese ancestry means to me. I am unfamiliar with and ignorant of even the most basic Chinese customs. My Chinese language ability is so poor that I can’t even count to ten. l know that I am supposed to be Chinese, but I sure don’t feel like it.
This is, moreover, a feeling that many of my friends share with me. It is a feeling that many second- and third generation immigrants have. We grow up encompassing every aspect of being American-little league, boy scouts, high school prom, Friday night drag races-and, subsequently, many of us lose our cultural roots and identities. However, many of us go through short rediscovery phases where we seek to find out what it means to be Asian. We read books by Asians, see movies written by Asians, and start shopping in the Asian supermarkets. It is like Alex Haley did with Roots, but with us, this phase seldom lasts. Before long we are back at Vons buying TV dinners, tortilla chips, and six-packs of Corona. Yet, although I may not feel or act Chinese, there have also been times that I doubted my Americanness. I can remember an incident several years ago that still makes me shudder. I was having lunch with one of my fellow yellow America friends when an older man, probably in his sixties, limped up to us, and asked my friend and me if he could show us a picture. Driven by my damned, stupid curiosity, I said yes. The man then pulled out his wallet and produced an old, wrinkled photograph of a man, distraught in pain, lying in a hospital gurney with three limbs plastered in casts and an intravenous unit dangling out of the remaining free limb. The picture was bad enough, but then the man re marked, ”You goddamn Nips did this to me. Why don’t you go back to where you came from!”
After that incident, I remember hearing those words in my mind for the nex.t several weeks, “You god damn Nips did this to me.” It was a very strange feeling. I didn’t know what to say, what to do, what to think. My first thought was that my friend and 1 didn’t do anything, we weren’t Japanese. We had never even been to Japan. That skirted the problem for a little while, but it didn’t erase, or ease, the pain. We knew that we were bear ing the burden for something that we didn’t have any control over. I still remember the bus ride home that day. I remarked to my friend, “I wish I wasn’t Asian.” He replied, “Yeah, me too.”
But this isn’t a matter of what I would like to be or what I think I should be, it is a matter of what I really am. It is a matter of fact. 1 am an American. I am not Asian, Oriental, Chinese, or Japanese. I am American. There is no hyphen. There is no footnote. There is no other word that describes me better. And even though I know that America doesn’t love me it doesn’t change the fact that I am an American. I have been called many things in my life, but I have never been called what I actually am. What I am is an American.