“Tennessee’s a good city. Bigger than Richmond,” my mom said.
I half-laughed, half-sighed. “Tennessee’s not a city. It’s a state.”
“Well, it’s bigger than Virginia,” she said, undeterred. “More Chinese there.”
Sitting at a red light, resisting the urge to tap my foot against the brake, I realized that my mother and I are completely different people. Sure, she and I are both trilingual. But she grew up speaking Mandarin and Cantonese, picking up English when she immigrated to America, whereas I grew up in the Richmond suburbs speaking English, further forgetting the Mandarin I first learned when I picked up French in school. She somehow maintains a network of Chinese friends across the country, whereas all my Chinese-American friendships have faded over time and distance.
Unlike my mother, who has remained solidly Chinese, I’ve learned that when you’re Chinese-American, you don’t fit in anywhere. In Virginia, where I was born and raised, people think I’m foreign. Some strangers are still shocked when my English comes out unaccented. They think I’m made of math and school and science, that numbers run through my blood. And even though Randolph-Macon College was barely half an hour away from my house, students frequently assumed or asked whether I was an international student. The first two years, I answered politely with “I'm from Richmond,” but by senior year, my answers grew increasingly sarcastic, ranging from “hell” to “my mother’s vagina.”
Apparently, it was nothing short of a miracle that I was a fluent English speaker, that I had a natural grasp of English grammatical syntax, that I could, in his words, "identify and correct English pronunciations without second-guessing [myself]."
In Hong Kong, which I’ve visited maybe five times, people think I’m native until my relatives have to order for me at restaurants and bakeries. Never mind the fact that I speak maybe fifteen words of Cantonese, or that I always take in the city with wide tourist eyes, staring at streets so narrow and crowded it’s a wonder the double-decker buses can even fit in the lanes. My five-year-old cousin speaks the country’s language better than I do, and despite the fact that I can use chopsticks better than all my American friends, my grandfather told me that I don’t hold them properly.
Being a stranger is so inextricably entwined with my identity that when I couldn’t think of anything to write about for my college’s creative writing class, I defaulted to my culture and heritage. When I wrote a poem about correcting my mother’s English mispronunciations, and another about regretting my inability to speak fluent Mandarin, a white classmate told me that my poetry had “a sort of redefined Eastern essence.”
What the hell was that supposed to mean?
Apparently, it was nothing short of a miracle that I was a fluent English speaker, that I had a natural grasp of English grammatical syntax, that I could, in his words, "identify and correct English pronunciations without second-guessing [myself]." Hilarious, considering that I started reading in preschool and worked as a college writing tutor for two years. Even though this guy and I had shared the same year-long required freshman course, he still somehow failed to notice that I spoke English fluently.
A year later, when I studied abroad in France, a small part of me hoped that I’d leave behind the stereotypes and prejudice. Maybe, for once in my life, people would stop asking where I was really from, since I would be a tourist.
The Mediterranean, despite being captivatingly clear and blue, swept away my hopes. People everywhere — at school, in stores, in restaurants — thought that I couldn’t speak French. The instant they noticed my race, they talked to me in English. It must be a Western world symptom, believing that people of color can’t speak a white country’s native language.
When the winter weather arrived — not that winter exists in the French Riviera, but it was chilly enough for me to don my peacoat — I stood outside, shoulders hunched against the wind that insisted on tangling my hair. A man joined me at the bus stop, and after the requisite, “Have you seen the bus yet?” question, he straight up asked, “Where are you from?”
I barely resisted the overwhelming urge to sigh. “America.”
“Ah, you’re from America!” he exclaimed, switching from French to English. “What’s your country of origin?”
I tried not to roll my eyes. “I’ve lived there my entire life,” I said, knowing full well that it wasn’t the answer he was looking for.
Sure enough, he demanded, “But are you Chinese? Vietnamese?”
All of my friends will tell you that, despite my threats to fight everyone, I’m a pacifist. But at that moment, I considered drawing my hand out of my pocket and stabbing him with the dorm key gripped between my fingers. Instead, I shrugged and said, “I was born in Virginia.”
When he asked my name, I gave him a fake one; Sheila. I could tell he was going to ask another question, but thankfully, the bus sputtered up to the curb. He swung onto the back entrance, saying, “See you, Sheila!” I winced at the fake name, then fled to the bus's front entrance, wondering why it was so important for people to know what country an Asian is from.
More than a year after my time abroad, I sat in my college’s language lab, fidgeting with the notebook I’d used to interrogate my French professor about our senior capstone project.
“Can I ask you a delicate question?” he said, leaning forward.
“Oui...?” I replied, trying to figure out what constituted as delicate. My non-existent dating life? My academic shyness? My undetermined sexuality?
He settled back into his chair. “You’re probably going to be working in a small town in France … How do you deal with questions about your race?”
I found his hesitancy to ask the question at once refreshing and endearing, and perhaps it’s why, after years of shoving the question of my identity below the horizon, I finally let it climb into the sky. This time, I let the truth tug me out of the shadows. I laughed, and told him the story of how I had once panicked and given a fake name to a man at a bus stop in France.
I might be Chinese-American, but I’m neither Chinese nor American. A part of me belongs to both cultures, yet at the same time, I belong to neither. According to my mom, my Chinese name, Tián Wéi Wéi, translates loosely into “bright light,” but my English name, Sarena, came from a baby name book that’s been permanently lost.
I can only claim membership to some strange no man’s land between the two: I’ve never had a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, a root beer float, or a cheesesteak. There are some foods that I know only by their Chinese names, but when my mother writes thank you notes, I effortlessly correct her English. As Chinese-American actress Lucy Liu put it, “‘It’s a very strange place to be. You’re not Asian enough and then you’re not American enough, so it gets really frustrating.’”
But maybe I don’t need to belong anywhere. Maybe it’s time I finally learn how to stand out.
Images: Sarena Tien