Personal Perspective: Helene Gao

Assistant-Editor-in-Chief Helene Gao reflects on her childhood struggles with accepting her cultural identity and shares her journey to finding pride in her Chinese heritage opinion

In preschool, I drew a self-portrait for an art project: misshapen stick arms and legs, a rainbow flower-covered dress and bright, curly blonde hair. I don’t have blonde hair. I stuck out in my class pictures, my stark black hair in a sea of my Caucasian classmates and teachers with light-colored hair. I longed to fit in, and even as a young child, I was painfully cognizant that I was different.

My Chinese immigrant parents struggled to keep up with complex English conversations, much less able to teach me English. Because Mandarin was my first language, my English felt awkward and clunky. I shied away from other kids, unable to speak in their language of Disney movies I never watched and American foods I never ate.

Although I grew up speaking only Mandarin and in a household that felt transplanted from China, I still felt a distinct disconnect from being truly Chinese as I was enveloped by the American culture around me. In an attempt by my parents to connect me to my culture, my afternoons were occupied by Chinese after-schools that taught me to multiply ten-digit numbers with abacus, my weekends were filled with Chinese school and my free time was filled with hours of piano practice. While other kids looked forward to the weekend, I remember dreading the hours spent memorizing the thousands of characters that make up Chinese, stroke by stroke. I remember resenting my parents for forcing me to remember roots I never had, for spending my childhood toiling over perfecting skills that weren’t mine.

The summer before 8th grade, I visited China for the first time. But despite being surrounded by people who looked like me, I felt even more alien. I was a “waiguoren,” or “foreigner.” I greeted hundreds of aunts, uncles, grandparents and great-great second-removed cousins who were my family, yet I never felt more uncomfortable and unfamiliar. They commented on my American accent when speaking Chinese or my tan skin and weight that didn’t fit their beauty standards, further emphasizing the fact that I was again, different. Meeting my great-grandmother for the first time, I remember her mournful exasperation when I couldn’t understand her old Jixi dialect.

Growing up, I tried to hide my culture: I never spoke Chinese, I internally rebelled during the Chinese holidays, celebrations and festivals that my parents forced me to attend, and I never joined any Asian American organizations or clubs. I tried to minimize my Asianness, restricting any experience, feeling or familiarity I had with my culture to the checkbox for ethnicity. It felt like something I needed to hide, something that held me back and something that I couldn’t be proud of.

The shyness and self-consciousness about my speech, appearance, interests and identity that had been ingrained in my demeanor still follow me today. As I got older, however, I was able to view my culture outside the lens of a child. I met Chinese Americans who are proud to have that connection to their heritage, encouraging me to volunteer at the House of China or eat at new Sichuan restaurants. Reflecting on vignettes of instances when I resented my culture, I no longer wanted to hate a part of myself. I am now able to see Chinese culture not as its academic stereotypes or its differences, but as the mish-mash of ingredients bubbling in hotpots, the tranquil summer spent in my family’s hometown, and the beautiful thousand-year tapestry of my ancestors.

Looking past my childhood resentment, I can embrace being Chinese American as a vital part of my identity because that’s what makes me, me. I no longer see being different as something shameful, but as something I can proudly proclaim. I have learned to love my unconventional fusion upbringing: the Chinese I learned has helped me connect with countless people, and maintaining Chinese traditions such as preparing dumplings with my grandmother or watching the Spring Festival Gala has helped me feel connected to both my heritage and my present.

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