Am I Chinese?

charactersI was born in China and came here when I was six. I drew pictures on the airplane on the way to America. On the side of those pictures I wrote words in Chinese. I do not know what those words mean anymore.

Sometime between that flight and now I stopped thinking, speaking and writing in Chinese.

It's come to a point where it's difficult to talk to my own parents. They don't speak much English. They've tried to learn, but only managed to pick up a few words. My mom can kind of make a coherent sentence because she interacts with customers at work as a cashier. She sometimes leaves little notes on the kitchen table like, "eat soup & chicken."

My dad, on the other hand, knows almost nothing about English. He works at a nearby Chinese restaurant in the kitchen with Chinese-speaking co-workers. Fortunately, he can draw, so he sometimes draws pictures of a TV with a number indicating what channel and time, so I can record Chinese TV shows for him while he's at work.

My parents talk to me in Chinese and I try to respond but often stop in the middle of a sentence because I don't know the Chinese word. Our conversations have gotten shorter and shorter over the years. They call me from work sometimes, and the typical conversation goes like this:


"Have you ate yet?"


"What are you doing now?"


"Did your brother eat yet?"


I can say more but I don't bother. I think the most common phrase I say to them is "stop bugging me." They ask, "What are you doing on the computer? What are you drawing? What are you reading?"

I tell them to stop bugging me.

I guess this is a typical teenage response to parents, but I say it's only partly because I don't want them in my business and partly because I don't want to make the effort of explaining. Explaining means I have to gather my thoughts in English and individually come up with the translation for each word. I might want to say something like "that person is tall," but what comes out is "that person is high." (By the way, "high" doesn't translate into "drugged up" in Chinese either).

Responding to yes or no questions I can do. It's like a multiple-choice question: yes, no, and occasionally maybe.

The worst is family gatherings, usually dinners around the holidays. My aunts will ramble on and on in Chinese (and they have their own undecipherable dialect). They must use thousands of words every time they speak, but only sometimes, possibly, if I am lucky, I can pick up my name. Maybe they talk sh-- about me, but I don't understand or care.

They're kind too, always putting food on my plate, which also kind of sucks because it makes me feel like I can't do sh-- for myself, and then I have to thank them. There's two different forms of "thank you" in Cantonese: "m'goy" and "do jey" (or some might be familiar with xièxie in Mandarin). One is for a gift and one is for a service, but I can never remember which is which.

Have I lost my roots? Probably. My friends say I'm not Asian because my household is the only Asian one where you don't take off your shoes, and I don't like them pearl tapioca drinks or whatever you want to call it. I also prefer nachos over fried rice and Kentucky Fried Chicken over Chinese fried chicken.

On the other hand, my family does drive three Hondas and one Acura, and my English is still pretty crappy. Does that make me Chinese?

No, there aren't any traits or actions that make me Chinese and there is no real measure of how Chinese I am. Nonetheless, there's a tendency for people, myself included, to place me on a spectrum where one end is yellow and the other is a mixture of white, black, brown and green. It's hard to say where I am now, but I find myself slowly inching toward that mixture. But part of me will always remain Chinese. So what if I can't speak my native language and don't listen to Japanese pop music? Being Chinese doesn't mean being bound by Asian stereotypes.

I can't say that I know the answer to who I am, and I'm open to different ways of looking at it. I do wish, though, that I understood more Chinese so I could talk to my parents. But I'm still young. Maybe it's not too late. And barriers are made to be overcome, right?

PNS contributor Min Lee, 19, writes for YO! (Youth Outlook), a journal of youth life in the San Francisco Bay Area published by Pacific News Service.

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