As Us

A Space for Women of the World

Sarena Tien – Creative Nonfiction

What it Means to be Chinese-American

  1.  The stranger studies my black hair and yellow-tinted skin, noting that I’m clearly some type of Asian. Before she even opens her mouth, I know that she’s going to ask the dreaded “Where are you from?” question.

Sure enough, she does, so I readily reply, “Richmond.” It’s not a lie—I’ve lived there my entire life, in the same red-doored house with a driveway so crooked, cars have backed right into the mailbox on multiple occasions.

“No,” the girl says, still giving me that disturbingly chipper smile, way too happy for someone inquiring about my personal life when she’s talked to me for all of five seconds. “Where are you really from?”

“Henrico?” I say, my answer lilting into a question. My zip code changed from Richmond to Henrico years ago, but out of habit, I always say Richmond—nobody ever knows what a Henrico is, much less where it is.

“No, where did you come from?” Her tone has gone from curious to patronizing, but I still don’t understand her question, so I just stare at her blankly.

Finally, she interrupts the awkward silence, adopting the patient tone of a mother speaking to an uncomprehending toddler. “I mean, like, where did you live before you came to America?”

I sigh. I’m so very tempted to say “my mother’s uterus” just to shock that unnatural smile right off her face, but I can’t quite find the energy or the courage to do so.

 

  1. I have thirteen “brothers” and “sisters,” childhood friends from seven tight-knit families who I grew up with. Weekends and summer days consisted of playing Super Smash Brothers on a GameCube and then tumbling outside to play Capture the Flag. When high school workloads swallowed us whole, we held biannual parties, all fourteen of us squeezing into one room to play Mario Party or Liar’s Poker.

We’ve known each other for eighteen years at the most, ten years at the least. Our similar backgrounds drew us together—we’re all Chinese, all raised in America by parents who immigrated to the United States. All of us spoke either Cantonese or Mandarin as our first languages, but none of us speak English with an accent.

We live in the suburbs of Henrico, in a sheltered bubble of a neighborhood called Summerwood, protected from a world dominated by white heterosexual males. Contact with the outside world consisted of school, where every white person, students and teachers alike, expected us to be top students: the “All Asians are smart” belief was as ubiquitous as the “All Asians look alike” stereotype.

College isn’t any different. People still assume that we excel at math and science and achieve mediocre grades in English. In a way, we’ve fulfilled those expectations: nearly every single one of us is majoring in math, science, or business.

And then there’s me. I love words but hate numbers, so I’m the random French major who can edit essays but can’t calculate fifteen percent tips.

 

III. It’s 10:30 on a Friday night. My childhood friends are miles away. I’m sitting in a stranger’s kitchen, nursing a plastic purple cup full of Brita-filtered water, grateful that the alcohol and the drunk people are in another room.

Although I’m hiding with four other sober people, introverts who are retreating from the threat of social interaction, I’m the only Asian in sight, a stark contrast to the Summerwood parties of my youth where everyone was Chinese. There are no video games or cards here, only bouquets of blue, gold, and orange Hefty cups scattered across the kitchen counter.

I try to ignore everyone, but I can’t shut out a designated driver shouting “I told you alcohol is a sin!” at a boy who’s slurring his words and staggering into walls, futilely denying his state of inebriation. Meanwhile, an extroverted girl flits around the party, a never-ending stream of words marking her path. “I really like your hair! Your sweater’s gorgeous. Did you know that I’m going to go shopping with you, Isabel? And I’m going to take Sarena out on a coffee date, but there won’t be any coffee because she doesn’t like coffee but I’ll feed her brownies because everyone likes brownies!”

Hoping to avoid conversation with the girl, I nibble absentmindedly at the array of chips on the table. I’m only here because I didn’t want to be alone on a Friday night, doing my homework instead of celebrating a friend’s birthday.

I pull out my notebook and start writing my essay anyway.  

 

  1. My half-black, half-German roommate has the exact same skin color as me, but people tend to think that she’s white—well, except for some poor confused student who asked her, “What kind of Mexican are you?”

People treat her decently because she looks white; if she had umber skin, then they’d see her race as a defining part of her identity. Likewise, a lot of people take me more seriously once they realize that I don’t have an accent. But they still don’t believe that I work in the writing center—they think that I can’t be fluent in English because I’m Asian—but the sad truth is that I know English better than my native language, Mandarin.

My college is approximately 3 percent Asian, making me a black-feathered magpie amidst brown-feathered sparrows and blond canaries.

 

  1. “Tián wéi wéi, why this price not right?” my mom says, waving the Kroger receipt in my face.

I shrug. “Wǒ bù zhī dào.”

She frowns at the receipt and then beelines to customer service desk, where she asks, “How come you charge me one-fifty for the agobado? The sign say supposed to be on sale for a dollar.”

Confusion and disdain war across the employee’s face. In the end, disdain wins—the cashier is a white male and my mother is a foreigner who speaks with an accent and bad grammar.

Before, I would’ve remained silent in a desperate attempt to shrink into the shadows and retreat from the world. I know the man thinks that I’m guilty by association—I look as Asian as my mother and therefore must have equally bad grammar. It’s likely that neither of us will be able to explain what an agobado is.

But now I see that I can’t blend in everywhere. An introverted Chinese-American will always stand out, especially in a world that stereotypes anyone who isn’t white. It’s time for me to accept my differences.

“Avocado,” I finally say, quietly but firmly, forcing the employee in the navy-blue polo to look at me.


 

Sarena TienA hopeful trilingualist who spent a year abroad in Nice, France, Sarena Tien is currently working toward a BA at Randolph-Macon College. Her writing is sometimes influenced by her Chinese-American heritage. When she’s not reading or writing, she can often be found folding far too many origami stars.

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