SBS 301 Cultural Diversity/Prof. Koptiuch         Fall 2007        Personal Memory Ethnographies

Yanting Chen

Why can’t he be an American?

    My son, Jason, was born in Phoenix, Arizona, which makes him an ABC—American Born Chinese. As a Chinese, I have tried to convince him that he is a Chinese genetically just like me, so he can accept that fact and learn our culture. However, even by the age of seven he perceived himself as an American since his teachers had taught him so in the previous years. He claimed that he is an American and refused the idea of identifying himself as a Chinese, because he was born in the United States. I could picture him singing the national anthem and doing the pledge of allegiance at school every morning with his whole heart. As his mother, I don’t want to force him to believe in something he doesn’t agree with as long as he is happy with what he believes in.

    Things have been turning around since we moved down to the South Mountain valley. I started to notice that he did not insist on identifying himself as an American when we had conversations on that topic. One afternoon, on our way home from school, he said, “Kids in our school call me ‘Chinese boy’, I don’t like it.” Afterward, it was awfully quiet between us, and I could hear nothing but our breath. He didn’t seem to want to say anymore (or maybe didn’t know what else to say), and me either. My brain was suddenly feeling empty and seemed to have stopped functioning. I could tell something was absolutely wrong here. I could imagine how he felt for being kicked out of the “American” group that he thought he belonged to. He had lost his identity as an American and was nailed down to be a Chinese instead. He was confused about what he was and the fact his teacher taught him to identify himself as an American.

    Looking at his unhappy face, I asked, “What is an American?” “White people,” he replied. I tried to comfort him, “You were born here, so you are an American. Right? Isn’t that what your teacher told you?” He looked at me, but did not say anything. I felt that I really needed to say something to clarify or drive away his confusion of self-identity. However, nothing came up to my mind, so I was speechless and quiet for a while. My heart sank down to the bottom just as the Titanic sank into the Atlantic Ocean, with the sadness of clearly knowing the problem but with the inability to change the situation. I feel lucky for myself to be able to know who I am and what I am. I was born a Chinese, and will die as one too. There is no confusion but a clear identity of Chinese. In the eyes of a mainland-born Chinese, my son is a “banana”—an American covered with yellow skin but with a white heart within. However, this yellow skin blocks him from who he wants or perceives himself to be, unfortunately.

    I did not like the new school when I first started. I like the old school in the north better. I miss my teacher Mrs. Brown and all my friends. My mom said that the north valley schools’ test scores were much higher than the one I am attending now. I don’t know what does it really mean, but I think the white kids in my old school are smarter than the kids in my new school. I am the smartest kid in my class now. Another white girl is pretty smart too. But some of my Mexican classmates can’t even understand English very much.

    Some black kids in my school called me “Chinese boy.” I told my mom that I didn’t like it. My mom said that I was an American because I was born here in the United States. I know. I know. That was what my teachers in the old school had told me too. But my friend said that I could be an American only if my parents were both born in the United States, which means that my ancestors needed to be rooted here in America. So those black kids from South Africa, the Vietnamese kids, the Japanese kids, and Mexican kids whose parents were not born here, are not Americans either?

    I want to be an American because I like spaghetti and macaroni and cheese. I think I am a combination of 55% of American and 45% of Chinese because I grow up and go to school in the United States. I don’t feel too badly now for being an American Born Chinese because there are many other kids just like me in this school. They are American Born Japanese, American Born Vietnamese, American Born Mexican, and so on.

    When I stepped into the school cafeteria the next day, where the after school program was held, a sense of crowdedness came to my mind. The place was filled with children of color, mainly Black and Hispanic, some white, and few Asian. More than half were playing dodge ball further from the entrance, sweating and laughing. It seemed they were having a lot of fun with others. The rest sat next to the big lunch table, either doing homework or chatting with friends. Race seemed not to matter; color did not seem to block the children from enjoying each other.

    All of a sudden, a memory of a beautiful afternoon at the Encanto Park came back to my mind. An old white man sitting next to me said, “America is a big, happy family.” I starred at him with puzzlement and uncertainty in my eyes, wondering what was going to happen to me in this strange land.

    Nine years later, I finally understand what he meant. He must be a multiculturalist, seeing the nation as a paradise for everyone. Unfortunately, I don’t see the US as the way he depicted it and still have a strong sense of otherness and cannot melt into this American culture. Born and raised in China, my self-identification as a Chinese had been set for life no matter where I moved. I believe that a sense of belonging is attached to the place to where people were born and grew up. That is where my son’s confusion came from; something has been taken away from him involuntarily. Even though it seems that he has found a way to cope with or explain what happened to him, he hasn’t found the answer why he cannot be an American as he wishes.

    For the last four decades, starting from the 60’s, several big events and immigration law reforms brought mass immigration into the nation, which contributed to our contemporary nation of diversity. Vietnam War created a pool of Southeast Asian refugees to the U.S.; millions of Cuban refugees entered after the Refugee Act of 1980; also, there were increasing Eastern Europe immigrants who came to the U.S. after the collapse of the Soviet Union. In the 1990’s the NAFTA among the US, Canada and Mexico brought massive Central America immigrants to the nation; the immigration Act of 1990 increased legal immigration annually from 500,000 to 700,000, which benefited Asians the most, particularly Chinese. However, US Patriot Act after the 9/11 terrorists attack restricted the flow of immigrants and potential terrorists into the US. Racial profiling was extended to other minority groups besides Blacks and Latinos in the Patriot Act renewal in 2005, particularly Muslim, Arab, and south Asian immigrants.

    Multiculturalism is the methodology that the old white man I met used to cope with the diversity around him, as I perceive. That is a community image that the South Mountain Village Community tries to portray of itself—a big happy family, a peaceful place that welcomes differences and diversity. Since the rapid city expansion and housing construction started there in the early 2000’s, new-comers of different ethnicities continuously have moved into the farming area that was originally occupied by American Indians and Blacks. The valley’s resident pool grows into a mixture of races, a combination of all minorities who see the racial differences and know what it means by heart. Children from these families teach each other their own understanding or interpretation of race, and develop their own way to deal with the diversity and the idea of otherness.

    An ideal family should be a place with equality, respect, and love. If America is really a big family for all races, everyone should be treated the same regardless of skin color. Then, we shall not deny our children’s right to choose to love America and to identify as an American while we teach them to chase after their dreams. It is our society that creates those barriers and confusions for our children, forcing them to accept the fact that they are different but not equal, and giving them the taste of rejection. Racial difference is in our daily life and in our perception. It is undeniable, although we pretend we do not see it. 

    As his mother, I wish I could help my son to find his lost self-identification. Obviously, I know that I cannot fix the problem and clear his confusion since there is not much I can do to change the way this society functions. As an American Born Chinese, shall he consider himself as an American, a Chinese, or half a half, as he claims nowadays?

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