I remember the first time I thought about what it means to be Chinese American. It was when my parents dropped me off at a Taiwanese-run Chinese school one eventful Saturday, when I was around 7 years old.
This story is part of an LAist series called Being American. It’s inspired by the success of our year-long Race In LA series, in which Angelenos shared personal stories about how our race and/or ethnicity shapes our lived experience.
I was whisked into a classroom with other Chinese students. The teacher instructed us not to speak English. Then she commenced her lecture in a language completely foreign to me: Mandarin.
This is not a story about a Chinese American coming to terms with their roots. I speak Chinese. But that Chinese is Cantonese.
I grew up with Cantonese coming from our local 1430 AM KMRB radio station, Hong Kong dramas, and my grandparents belching out the sounds of Cantonese opera.
“Speak Chinese!” my grandma would always nag me, and I did, as I understood Chinese to be.
That confusing day at the Taiwanese-run Chinese school ended with me waiting in the hallway for my parents to pick me up as Dr. Sun Yat-sen, the founder of the Republic of China — Taiwan — watched over me from a photo on the wall. More on him later. As for me, I kept going to the classes, but learned nothing.
What I did begin learning is that being a part of the Chinese diaspora is complicated — culturally, politically, linguistically. My family is a living example of this. As I have learned since, there are many ways to be Chinese American, even in just one family.
From Guangdong Province to the SGV
How did I get here? It started many decades ago in Guangdong Province, long before I was born. My paternal grandfather was a soldier with the Kuomintang, the ruling party in China until the Communist takeover in 1949. He moved to Guangzhou City trying to avoid being detected by the Communists.
There, he was introduced to my grandmother, who lived in nearby Foshan and wanted a life away from the backward countryside. Together they left for Hong Kong, where they had my dad.
Fast-forward many years to the early 1980s, as the Chinese and British governments were negotiating the handover of Hong Kong back to China, and the family was eager to leave. My great-uncle, my grandmother’s brother, had married a Chinese American and was a U.S. citizen. He sponsored my dad’s family to come to the U.S.
My dad arrived in America at a time when the San Gabriel Valley was not the Asian mecca that it is today. There were few Asian students in his high school.
He told me how he felt bullied by the other students, and how people would get up and sit somewhere else if he sat near them. There were a few Chinese students who spoke Taishanese, technically related to Cantonese but very different. The Taishanese students didn’t understand him, and he didn’t understand them.
A few years later my dad met my mom, who is from Zhongshan City in Guangdong and can speak Mandarin and Cantonese, while he was working at her father’s restaurant in Chinatown. Eventually, I was born.
Growing up in a multicultural ‘Chinese bubble'
I grew up in a Chinese bubble that was at once homogenous and multicultural. I remember holding onto my grandma’s hand as we strolled through the maze that is Chinatown’s Saigon Plaza, hearing her bargain with the aunties in Cantonese over the sound of old Vietnamese pop music.
In my mom’s car, we listened to Taiwanese Mandopop singer Jay Chou’s “China Wind” songs, and fell in love with Malaysian Chinese Michael Wong’s hit song “Fairy Tale.” My dad developed a love-hate relationship with spicy Sichuanese food (love the taste, hate the stomach pain).
This cosmopolitan fusion expanded when I entered Rowland High School, as I moved beyond my Chinese diaspora into pan-Asian L.A. I remember the day when my American-born Chinese, Vietnamese, Chinese Burmese, and Filipina friends converted me to the cult that was K-pop. We would hype over our biases, watch variety shows featuring our idols, and stay up to watch live award shows at 3 a.m.
My passion for K-pop endured into college at Cal Poly Pomona, where I became president of the Everything Hallyu Club. But beyond the eye candy and nice music of K-pop culture, there was something deeper in it for me.
A lot of my friends felt a sense of validation when they saw Asians capable of being cool. But I also saw a reflection of myself in Korean culture — many of the same holidays and values I cherish, K-dramas that reflect the shared Confucianism of filial piety, the division that has created identity conflicts as complicated as my own. Yet as an outsider, I liked that I could participate in Korean culture without the baggage that came with mine.
Who are the ‘real Chinese’?
While I felt a sense of belonging in Korean pop culture, I felt a sense of alienation from China and Chinese culture, in which we were all so different. For example, in my high school, there were many wealthy mainlanders who were sent by their parents to the U.S. to escape the pressure of China’s difficult high school and college entrance exams. But with their silver spoon upbringing, they didn’t share the same academic drive as many of my other Asian classmates, instead getting lost in the vape fume clouds of teenage rebellion.
It was confusing for me because I saw them as “real Chinese,” but not like me or other Asian Americans. They didn’t share the values I normally associated with Chinese people, or at least the immigrants I knew.
I felt a similar identity crisis when I went with my friends to watch Crazy Rich Asians. I remember how even my Latino friend shed tears, seeing people of color making it on the big screen. I felt the same way, but I also remember the word “fraud” screaming all over my head. This superficial wealth didn’t represent my culture. (I also didn’t love that actors of indigenous Malaysian, Filipino, and Japanese descent were cast as Chinese.) It was a Disneyland representation of my culture, a sentiment that was shared by Chinese audiences across the Pacific.
Back to China, but not connecting
After graduating college, I decided to go back to China as a form of homecoming. Sadly, I did not find the resolution or connection I was hoping for.
Many of my younger cousins struggle to speak Cantonese, which is no longer used by teachers in schools, even in Guangdong province, now that everyone is encouraged to speak Mandarin.
While I was having dinner with a great-uncle on my mom’s side, he thought it important to remind me that I was Chinese, unaware of how much I was trying. I’d never felt more triggered in my life (except for the time a Vietnamese man in Chinatown in L.A. called me a Chinaman, but that’s another story). I pretended to be the dumb banana to avoid more uncomfortable conversation.
Days later, I went to see another great-uncle in Hong Kong. I crossed the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge, the same bridge young Hongkongers decry as the bridge that brings in the mainland “locusts” to destroy Hong Kong. Over dim sum, as I tried to make conversation, I asked him what he thought about Carrie Lam, at the time the leader of Hong Kong.
It was a bad idea. To my horror, his response ended with him singing a song about how “white people” destroyed China and how China must resist the imperialists.
I couldn’t resonate with any of this.
I went back outside to the street, where I caught a glimpse of the Taiwanese Republic of China flag, next to pro-democracy election posters for Hong Kong’s last free election. I wondered if my Chinese identity was something on its way out, just like that flag and those posters.
‘Better to avoid politics’
Many years later, I decided to drive my cousin and my grandpa, the former Kuomintang soldier, to Chinatown to celebrate Double Ten Day, Taiwan’s national holiday that celebrates the overthrow of the Chinese monarchy.
We waited in Central Plaza on Broadway for the parade to start, standing behind the statue of Sun Yat-sen — an ironic choice perhaps, since the former Chinese leader is the rare pro-democracy figure whose legacy is universally respected in mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the U.S. There seems to be little else we agree on.
As we waited, my grandpa and I started a conversation in Cantonese. He told me, “Remember you are an American because you are born in the U.S., and I am Chinese, because I was born in China.”
I snapped back, still in Cantonese: “How can I be just an American, especially with the rise in anti-Asian hate, caused by hatred toward Chinese people due to COVID?”
My assimilated cousin, who doesn’t speak fluent Cantonese, was ignorant of this conversation. I wondered if it might be better to just be like him, with one American identity.
A month later, my grandpa called and asked me to come to his house. He gave me a faded picture of Chiang Kai-shek’s Mausoleum. I took that as him saying that I was Chinese, and he understood that.
Still, I could not help feeling like my Chinese identity would soon be gone, as just that one photo threw my family into inter-Chinese conflict. My dad, who came with me, was utterly disgusted — he called the picture of the dictator’s sarcophagus “garbage” and bad feng shui.
At the same time, I remember the sense of pride my dad felt when I bought the old flag of colonial Hong Kong with the British Union Jack on it — something my KMT grandfather would probably be just as disgusted with as my dad was with Chiang’s photo.
Here we were, three generations of Chinese Americans, yet our Chinese identities and loyalties could not be more different.
It’s no wonder that my mainland mother rolls her eyes and says it’s better to avoid politics. She is not wrong.
Holding on while letting go
I decided to go back to community college. I signed up for online classes at City College of San Francisco and took a Chinese American history class, Cantonese classes, and Mandarin classes to have a better understanding of myself. Through that, I ended up volunteering with Save Cantonese, a Cantonese activist organization in NorCal dedicated to helping save my Chinese language, as I learned a new one.
In this way, I hope I can keep my grandma’s memory alive through the Cantonese language she encouraged me to keep speaking, as her family and descendants persevere in their new home here in America. At the same time, as I study Mandarin, I hope to maintain a connection to an ancestral homeland that becomes more foreign to us with every passing year.
Holding on while letting go — it is something I’ve learned that comes with being Chinese American.
Chester Leung is a resident of Rowland Heights, where Korea, China, Taiwan, and Mexico meet in the U.S. He will never say no to yum cha (飲茶) or to eating out at a cha chaan teng (茶餐廳).
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