“We didn’t think you’d be very happy with us if we made you go to Chinese school on the weekend,” my white mom explained when I confronted her about how not speaking the language of my ancestors feels like a giant missing piece of my identity as a third-generation biracial Chinese-white woman.
To be fair, I probably wouldn’t have been happy. I hated being Chinese as a little girl. The less I stood out, the better. I was thankful I didn’t have an accent. Proud my name was something everyone could pronounce. Glad I ate PB&J for lunch so no one made fun of the way my food smelled. Even though I still got the question “What are you?” or “Where are you really from?,” as soon as I explained myself in perfect English, people backed down. When I found myself in white-majority spaces, which was most of my childhood, I’d be quick to defend myself with, “Yes, I’m half-Chinese…but no, I don’t speak the language.” As if to say, Don’t worry, I’m more like you than you think. On the rare occasion I met another Asian person, I’d be quick to say, “Yes, I’m half-Chinese…but no, I don’t speak what language.” As if to say, Don’t get too excited, I’m less like you than you think.
Thinking back to how deeply I rejected my Chinese heritage makes me ill. Even as I write this, the creases of my eyes have formed tiny pools of water, my breath has quickened, I’m twisting and turning in my wicker chair wondering how I can escape the grief that is two seconds away from swallowing me whole. The way I fluffed up the fact I can’t speak Chinese and the way I downplayed my Asianness is a sick reminder of white supremacy at work, the person I was taught to privilege and all that my family has lost in doing so.
“You’re fantasizing what it would be like to live where there are more Asians,” my husband, Andrew, who is a first-generation Chinese American, told me a few months ago in the middle of a heated argument about where to live. We were in Asheville, NC at the time. He loved it there, could picture us there, having a family, settling down. Each time I tried to join him in this dream, pictured it for myself, I would cry, stomp around, secretly plot how I would make a run for it if he made me live there. We could count the number of Asians we saw in our month living there on one hand. We ordered a DIY boba kit from Boba Guys to make boba at home because there were hardly any spots in town. I couldn’t for the life of me find an Asian acupuncturist even though acupuncture is a form of Traditional Chinese Medicine. I went to one lady who I thought might be half-Asian but it turned out she was just tan in her pictures.
“Why does it even matter to you?” Andrew once asked. It’s true. Being surrounded by Asians hasn’t always been important to me. But that was back when I thought I was white. What most people don’t understand about racial trauma is it not only instills fear in being yourself but it robs you of all the good things too: community, food, traditions, celebrations, joy. In healing my racial trauma, I’m opening the door to a whole new feeling: pride.
I am proud to be Asian. And, to me, that matters a lot.
Elizabeth Su, MA (she/her) is a writer, perfectionism expert, and the founder of Monday Vibes (www.elizabethsu.com), a personal growth newsletter and network for women named “12 Newsletters Actually Worth Opening” by Zoella, on a mission to change the narratives that women have been told about success and happiness.
She left a six-figure salary at a hot Silicon Valley start-up because she realized she was trying to win a game she didn’t want to play. She has since dedicated her career to empowering women, teaching about emotional and spiritual wellness, and changing the rules of the game. She’s currently working on her first book around these topics.