To me, being Chinese was never about the color red, or sweet and sour pork, communism, or ancient wonders. It was something I wrestled with growing up as a toothy, cantankerous kid in Texas, climbing trees, catching grasshoppers, trying to fit in amongst all the other neighborhood brats. It was as inseparable to me as my Americanness, but also as invisible to me as a single thread in a finely woven rug.
The first time I went back to China after moving away was when I was 12 years old, 8 years after I had left. I hardly remembered any of my aunts or uncles, or my heritage. They all came to greet my parents and me at the airport. I tried to hide my confusion and embarrassment as they approached me, one by one, and told me what to call them (addressing elders properly is important etiquette for the Chinese.) I became constantly in awe of how much they were willing to do for me, someone they didn’t even know. They would go out of their way to guess at trinkets I would like, and buy them for me while I wasn’t watching, spending their precious few yuan, their savings, on some absurd thing. They drove an extra hour out of their way to procure a special dessert just because they’d noticed I’d taken an extra bite at dinner the other night. They were jumping over themselves to take me shopping. Growing up without much family around me, it was crazy. I felt like a sudden princess. Yet at that age, I didn’t understand.
My parents, having immigrated at ages 31 and 33, were oddly not very Chinese at all. I found out about the Mid-Autumn Festival from friends in high school, and when mooncakes would randomly appear on our dinner table as gifts from my parents’ friends. I would think, “Oh, it must be that thing in August again,” and “Ew, those things look so good but taste like rocks.” I had no idea that the number four, which sounds like the Chinese word for death, meant bad luck, until another Chinese girl mentioned it to me in college. The many auspicious and cultural truths that most Chinese Americans grew up with, I had none of. And I didn’t miss it.
As I’ve gotten older, as I’ve moved away from home, back again, and now to a new city in a new country, I’ve rediscovered what it means to be Chinese. Some of the most treasured and noble character traits I aspire to, I realize, are Chinese cultural norms. And they are so beautiful.
The absolute, gripping love for food, and a big family meal.
Respect for your elders, where you came from.
Service (for others, to others, to the greater good)
Love. Sheer, undying, mountain- and universe-crossing love.
Today, more than ever, I am so proud to be Chinese. My parents will never let me land at an airport without parking the car and waiting at arrivals to pick me up. They will never take the last morsel of food from the table, even if they know I’m full. They will go out of their way to prepare a dish for me that I like, even if it is unreasonably difficult. They will try to cram money in my pocket even though I have absolutely no need for it (now I have learned to accept it, as this is their way of saying, “I love you,” and taking care of me.) They will never let me buy a gift for them, telling me not to waste my money, and that whatever it is is too expensive. They will wake up early, drive hours, wait, give, attend, and anticipate, and they will say nothing. They want no recognition, no reciprocity, nothing but my happiness and joy, and presence. As a child, I often felt that love was lacking, when I would compare my parents to the American families I saw on Full House and Family Matters. But when I became an adult, I made the connection that this was a form of expression that, while quiet and unspoken, was the most powerful, daily demonstration of belonging, care, and unconditional, unyielding love that I may possibly experience in my entire life.
And all I can think is, with immense gratitude, how I can love my friends, family, and community like this. For this is a gift.
Today, I am inspired, and proud, to be Chinese.
Happy Chinese New Year, everyone!
May you get FAT and prosper and love with a full heart!