that identity can be agony
I used to think my Chinese culture held an exotic allure in America,
when my white friends spoke in awe of Chinatown
with its rows of old-fashioned fans and floral bracelets in the shops
and street vendors selling skewered sausages.
When we went out together they’d beg for Chinese food
and I’d ask why, tell them please no, that I
ate Chinese food every day and didn’t even like it
because my palate is the product of McDonaldization,
of the salty comfort of medium fries
and the gum-numbing first sip of an Oreo milkshake.
I used to think that being Chinese made me special.
People ran their fingers through my straight black hair
saying that they wanted darker hair and no more curls.
Was I not the perfect China doll,
small in stature and with eyes they told me were
“big for an Asian”?
I was proud of my Caucasian eyes-
only now do I realize that there’s something wrong
with priding myself in being different from what
ten thousand years of evolution have given us.
Only now do I realize that there’s something wrong in the way that
You thought you could sum up our culture
with sugar-soaked soy sauce and chewy noodles.
Now my eyes are too swollen with stress and insufficient sleep
and I’m not liking being Asian quite so much anymore;
in a half-Asian vocational high school where
freshmen self-study five AP courses and
strive to take calculus by sophomore year,
the horrifying thought is not that
we are pushing ourselves to the limit with no avail.
The horrifying thought is that in an agonizingly short amount of time
we will be forced to haggle with a system that is rigged against us,
and who can be proud of chow mein and
rolled-up ice cream- which we don’t even
have back in Beijing-
when Asians pay to have companies like Asian Advantage tell them
not to write about our “immigrant family coming to America
in a rickety boat with $2 while sailing away from sharks”?
When counselors tell us to “de-emphasize the Asian-ness”
and to denounce our culture and who we are,
simply for the sake of a college application,
that is when we lose our identity.
With the highest GDP and GPAs,
we become nothing more than numbers,
dirty numbers that must be scrubbed raw until they are
pure, white, “clean.”
America is a salad bowl of cultures
but we Asians are the dressing,
and when they think we’re becoming too heavy,
that’s when they toss the salad bowl
until we lose our color and our meaning.
My culture has left me screaming my throat raw in my bedroom at night,
crying Why am I Asian? Why am I Chinese?
and hitting my tennis racket across the piano keys
because I can’t play racket sports and I can’t play Beethoven.
You know there’s something wrong when
I hesitate to write these words in a society that claims to be free;
Harvard will reject me for this poem because
if it isn’t already clear enough by my last name and my math competition awards,
I am intolerably, unforgivably Chinese.
It’s ironic that
our culture seems an exotic paradise,
the lilting accents of our immigrant girls a sexual fantasy,
yet we are forced to strip away our ethnicity,
cast aside our identities and our abilities and our interests
for the sake of receiving that coveted thick envelope,
when our only sins have been
learning physics under the covers in dim flashlight
and toiling for near-free wages to join our country together in 1869:
the country we helped build yet are systematically discriminated in.