Mishy Wang: Torn between two worlds
The plight of a child of two worlds is a lonely one.
For as far back as anyone can remember, my family tree has its roots in China. It's the home country of everyone in my family, living and dead. Everyone except me. I am a true Minnesotan, born and raised in Rochester — the first in my family to be born outside of China.
I didn't talk until I was 3 years old. My world was a mix of tonal Asiatic tongue and a consonant-rich mix of Romance and Germanic. It took a long time to separate English and Chinese, and even longer to commit myself to one language. If I were a more sensible child, I would've chosen the familiar language, the one my parents spoke to me. But even at that young age, I was a trailblazer, a girl who turned her back on tradition. I took the road less traveled, and chose English.
People wonder how I can understand Chinese, but not be able to speak it. The simple answer? I was never taught. I did not attend Chinese school on Saturday mornings, like most of my other Chinese-American friends, nor did my parents officially tutor me. I hated reading strange symbols and learning calligraphy (being a leftie has its downsides), so my parents decided not to force it upon me. Any Mandarin I know is from 16 years' worth of conversations with my parents, in a dialect I affectionately call "Chinglish." They speak to me in Chinese, I reply back in English. Despite a few vernacular discrepancies, it works surprisingly well.
But understanding is not enough. I can't speak, read, or write Chinese, a fact that tears my heart. I've never had a conversation with my grandparents. I can't participate in dinner conversations, spoken too rapidly for my ear to catch. When other Chinese adults talk to me, I smile and nod, or reply back in English, which abruptly ends a conversation. When I'm among the Chinese community, I feel invisible, unworthy of attention.
It's not just everyday conversation that eludes me. Behind Mandarin is an 8,000-year-old culture that I can't connect with. I don't know the classic legends, the sacred rituals for holidays, the day-to-day mannerisms. My knowledge of Chinese history, ancient and modern, is pathetically small. Even my taste buds rebel against traditional Chinese delicacies. Every mooncake and cup of green tea is only a painful reminder of a culture that is not mine. At times, I feel like a lost little seed, floating, searching for my roots. How do I grow, if I don't know who I am?
The worst part is that I look Asian: straight hair as dark as midnight, brown almond-shaped eyes. Genetically, I am 100 percent Han Chinese, yet there are tell-tale signs that I am not native to China. My darker complexion, eccentric fashion, and vivacity are very Western. The innovative, churning American culture is my culture, the place where my heart belongs. But at a first glance, few people would believe that I'm an American citizen. No matter where I go, I stick out like a sore thumb. And the only thing worse than being ignored is being noticed all the time, for all the wrong reasons.
I don't fit in anywhere, not completely. All my life I've been trying to choose between two places, two cultures: my roots versus my surroundings. And I don't know which is which anymore.
But maybe I don't have to, because I can choose both.
I've always thought that being caught between two places gave me less, but it gives me more. I have two birthdays (Gregorian and Lunar), two New Years, a plethora of delicious food, a mesh of Eastern and Western philosophies, and so much more. The Chinese and American cultures were never two different places. They were two pieces of me, coexisting harmoniously, while I had tried to separate them.
No more will I choose one or the other. I may never fully assimilate with anything, but that's OK. The girl who turned her back on tradition did not throw it away; she simply created her own. She did not find herself by blending in.
She found herself by standing out.
Mishy Wang is a junior at Century High School. To respond to an opinion column, send an email to email@example.com.