Photo: Maria Ly
Elementary school field trips were a source of anxiety. Of course I loved them; I just hated having to tell my parents about them.
Without a doubt my mom would be the first parent to volunteer to chaperone. One time — horror of horrors — both of my parents chaperoned. Grown ups would tell me how lucky I was that my parents wanted to be so involved with my life, that I should be grateful. In theory, I get this sentiment now that I’m officially a grown up. But the petulant 10-year old in me, desperately fighting for American identity in a stalwartly Chinese household, still cringes at the thought.
To put it plainly, my parents embarrassed me. Other field trip parents let their kids run around like lunatics. When my mom was present, I had to be on my best behavior.
Mom would keep me by her side, telling me I’d “better not embarrass teacher” by running around and being “cheeky” in public. She barked at me in Cantonese when I wanted to get a slice of pizza like the other kids instead of eating the fermented black beans and chicken she’d packed for me, and made me personally thank the slightly bewildered sailors on that old schooner while my classmates played in the nearby park.
“Since when are you too good to say thank you to those gentlemen on the boat? It’s respectful Louise. And since when do you care so much about parks? It’s filthy, you don’t want to go there. And why pizza? Eat your chicken; what’s wrong with it?”
I pitched a fit and tried to wear my mom down through whining and repetition. The woman was like Teflon. Never losing her cool, never letting her voice get shrill, she just narrowed her eyes and TOOK ME DOWN.
“You want to be like Cara?” Mom really hated my friend “Cara,” a child she considered the epitome of spoiled, slovenly, and disrespectful. Regardless if Cara was in earshot, she’d speak at full volume.
“You want a mom who doesn’t care when you disappear? You think those gentlemen work for you? When did you get so important? You want to throw away perfectly good food? You think everyone owes you something? Think again, kid. We are Chinese.”
We are Chinese.
That’s what it always came back to. We are Chinese.
Growing up I loathed this statement. Beyond the fact that I felt my parents used it as an excuse for their “bizarre” behavior. Beyond the fact that I thought it was a catch-all for any time they wanted to RUIN MY LIFE. Even beyond the fact that like the Borg in Star Trek, my parents seemed to think that “We are Chinese” was a sufficient response to questions they found irrelevant.
“Are you going to bake a pie for the bake sale?”
“We are Chinese.”
“Don’t you think it would be fun if we all went camping?”
“We are Chinese.”
Beyond all of it, I felt “We are Chinese” was a lie. In my mind we were American. Sure our background was Chinese, but I couldn’t understand why my parents were so insistent on clinging to what I considered their cultural past. Why couldn’t they fit into the culture they had chosen to adopt? Why did they have to be so Chinese?
Though I eventually matured a bit and chilled out, and my parents became more adept at navigating the norms of American culture, there always remained a slight dissonance between their Hong Kong Chinese instincts and the Chinese American sensibilities they had to cultivate. I always had a sense that the ease with which they moved through American life was hard won.
With the hesitation of a question, or the flicker of a frown, I often saw my parents keeping themselves in check, stopping themselves from going “full Hong Kong” as my cousins and I used to say. They did it to make their lives easier, to feel a sense of belonging, but more than that I know they did it for me.
My parents made American culture their culture so that they could be closer to their American child. Only now that I am living in Hong Kong, the place my parents lived and thrived in before I was born, do I realize the full weight of the sacrifice my parents made.
Everywhere I turn, I see my parents. From the security guard at the front door of my building, to the business professional I chat up at the pub, there is a familiar sense of decorum and cheery respect — the essence of which I’ve seen in my mom and dad. It is this whiff of formality, a generous politeness that is woven into the fabric of Hong Kong life.
My parents railed against a lot of the casualness of American life, always insisting that I err on the side of being too polite, overly gracious. Always be grateful, and you’ll always have something to be grateful for. I thought it was stilted, pointless. And maybe for the America I grew up in it was. But for my parents, it was perhaps some preservation of the Chinese in their Chinese American daughter.
Suddenly thanking the sailors on that schooner doesn’t seem so strange. Now I shake my head at how ungrateful I was for the “perfectly good food” I wanted to toss for a slice of pizza. These lessons aren’t unique to the Chinese experience, but it is my parents “being so Chinese” that brought me to them.
However, the Hong Kong my parents lived in was not always so refined. Pushing my way through the crowds, barking in Cantonese when I am overlooked, having to muster the courage to stand up for myself when a vendor is trying to overcharge me or when locals look at my white husband and call me a “gold digger” thinking I can’t understand them — it is times like this that I recognize the scrappy fearlessness that my parents posses.
While I suspect many things frightened or unnerved them as they adjusted to life in America, there was no time to cower. They had to speak up, push their way through. It is this unwillingness to be trampled in Hong Kong life that speaks volumes to how my parents found success in American life. Even now they obstinately refused to be bullied by anyone.
Frankly, if America couldn’t bully my parents, there’s no way their headstrong daughter could.
In Hong Kong I catch glimpses of how my parents might have been in “full color”. The way they might have been when they were completely at ease, when navigating their world was second nature. When everyone around them viewed them as one of “us” instead of one of “them”. I wonder, did they ever take “being Chinese” for granted? Was their move to the US that made it more precious?
I moved to Hong Kong to learn more about my parents, the world they came from. Yet, upon settling in here I realize that I don’t know my parents nearly as well as I thought. In many ways I feel like I’m starting from scratch. There was a whole life they lived in Hong Kong before we moved to America, a life that had depth and history, I life that is a mystery to me. They gave that up. They gave up, or toned down, the parts of them that didn’t quite fit in with American culture. Do they ever long for that life? Ever feel that they lost an essential part of themselves?
Who were my parents before they had to defiantly state that “We are Chinese”?
I don’t know the answer to any of these questions yet. I wonder if I ever will? Perhaps it’s not for children to know everything about their parents.
But making my way through Hong Kong — picturing my mom breaking yet another high heel running to catch the Star Ferry to work, or imagining my dad as a young man laughing it up with his friends over drinks — I feel a kinship with them. An affection that can only come when you really see the humanity in your parents. More so, I am grateful. Who I am, the life I’m living, is built upon the one they gave up.