Growing up as an American-born-Chinese girl in a predominantly white town, I have too often felt torn between the conflicting expectations and perceptions from my Chinese and American side.
In first grade, my favorite lunch was Xiao Long Bao, a traditional Chinese bun with meat filling on the inside. One day, as I was eating my lunch, I heard a snarky remark from the little boy sitting by me in the cafeteria. “What is that smell?” he said, scrunching his nose up in utter disgust. It was only a few moments later when I realized the “disgusting smell” the boy was referring to was my lunch, a cultural food that holds great significance to my Chinese family.
In third grade, I won my school’s “shining star” award, and my parents were invited to the auditorium to share the award with me. When it was time for my parents and I to go on stage, the principal stuttered through the cultural spelling of my mom’s name, resulting in a wave of laughter from the student body. I even heard nasty imitations of the way my mom’s name was pronounced, simply because it sounded different from the stereotypical White American name.
What’s funny is that, as I grew older, the racial microaggressions and taunts from my American friends died down, but that is when the Chinese side of my family began picking problems with how “American” I had become.
When I finished middle school, I visited China for the first time in years. As I jumped into my grandmama’s hug at the Beijing airport, the first thing she told me was “Sophia, I barely recognized you!” During my month-long stay in Beijing, these comments never stopped. There was an occasional “You are less fluent in Chinese now” and a “You look different from those fully Chinese kids now.”
It felt like no matter what I did or how I acted, I was always either “too whitewashed for China” or “too exotic for America.” But this article is not a pity dump of my own childhood experiences, because we cannot change the snarky remarks of strangers or the side eyes we get when wearing traditional clothing. Rather, we can change the way our minds perceive and cope with the situation.
Studies show that Asian Americans have a 17.3% chance of being diagnosed with psychiatric disorders, and major contributors to these mental health challenges are difficulties balancing two cultures and cultural discrimination. Cultural differences are a significant contributor to anxiety disorder, and no one talks about it enough.
I spoke to my school’s counselor one day about my struggles as a person of two cultural backgrounds, and she told me something that would forever change the way I perceive myself. “Do not blame yourself.” All this time, the person I was most upset at was myself. I was upset at my dark features and yellow skin, which I perceived to be the cause of my problems. I was upset at the traditional red string around my wrist and the Chinese qi-pao I wore to multicultural night. The more I thought about my counselor’s words, the more I realized that in order to stop feeling ashamed about my identity, I needed to stop blaming my identity. When we cast blame upon ourselves, that is when we internalize our struggles and perpetuate corrosive self-talk, and constantly feel worthless. Instead, shift the shadow away from yourself and find content in the things you were once shamed for.
The first step I took to cope with my cross-cultural anxiety was realizing it is never my fault that others cannot accept the gift that is my culture. The very last thing any of us should do is feel like our greatest blessing is an embarrassment to society.
Written by Sophia Li
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