Disp’lei’ying my Chinese roots

by Joanna Lei

As an impressionable 12-year-old, I was introduced to the idea of self-loathing in a brief encounter during middle school.

That idea came from my classmate, who was a volunteer that helped out in the morning by opening car doors, reducing the bloated traffic lanes. I always thought that he was a cool, respectable boy, and that everything he said was a fact.

Chinese music was playing, as usual, in my mother’s car as she drove me to Repetto Elementary School. Dropping me off, my classmate opened the door and overheard the music as he took my backpack out. I said bye to my mother and closed the door and was about to walk off to class when he asked me, “Why are you listening to that type of music? Aren’t you embarrassed?”

His evident sneer and condescending eyes made me feel like I did something wrong. This boy really asked me why I was listening to the music that I grew up with and easily slept to, and I did not know how to respond. He stated that I was an American so I was supposed to listen to rap music, like it was something that “all good Americans” should know. I did not question what he said, despite the fact that he is Chinese, too.

Almost a week after this, I had to do a group project and all the members and I collectively agreed to work at my house. As they walked into my house, they saw a ceramic pot with Chinese candies on the table. I saw their furtive glances and offered them my favorite sweets: guava and “lucky” candy. Right when the candy touched their tongue, they grimaced and spit it out, begging me for Snickers to get rid of the pungent taste.

I thought about the recent events that have happened and decided that from then on, I would not listen to Chinese music in front of other people or offer candy anymore; those situations humiliated me. The next day, I made sure that when the boy opened my door, the music would be changed to the 102.7 radio channel, where the latest Drake song was broadcast. The boy and I fist-bumped each other and I felt accepted and elated that I met his expectations as an American. At school, I would be a “cool Asian” who kept up with the trends, but at home, I would listen to the Chinese songs of which I felt deprived.

Starting my high school life as a Spartan was a bit of a cultural shock for me; many were speaking Spanish and blasting rhythmic Mexican music from their speakers. They brought conchas, proudly spoke about their beliefs and passionately celebrated their fifteenth birthday; I could not even eat dumplings at Repetto without someone telling me how weird it smelled. Their acceptance of their culture made me question the way I acted and guilt washed over me.

In Spanish class, people asked me what was unique about the Chinese culture and what foods I ate. I hesitantly answered about how I love eating dim sum and how exciting it is to see the variety of dishes offered in steam-heated carts that bustled in the restaurants. I told them that my favorite dishes are spicy blood tofu and scallion pancake, and whereas I was expecting exclamations of disgust, I was received with curious questions about how they tasted.

I told them how I wake up early to burn incense sticks, post red banners with golden characters and dust the table and our hands with flour to prepare savory and sweet tangyuan, glutinous rice balls, for Chinese New Year and they told me how they bring out cherished photos of their loved ones and bought marigolds to set up the altar for Día de los Muertos.

My school became a hub of cultural exchange; by sharing my traditions with others, I was able to appreciate my culture more while becoming enriched with knowledge of other customs. It is ironic that at Repetto, which is heavily populated with Asians, I was shamed for listening to Asian songs, but at Schurr, which is heavily populated with Latinos, I was empowered to explore the food and traditions of Hispanic people as well as my own.

Because of the genuine support I received, I now wear my red string bracelet with the Guanyin bodhisattva pendant, eat dumplings without shame and value the long-lasting connections and sense of belonging in my diverse community.

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