When my parents first immigrated to the United States from Canton, China, they rented a small apartment located right in the heart of Chinatown. Chinatown was my home, the place where I met all my friends, and the place where I’d thought I’d never leave. I spoke only Cantonese, both to my friends and to my parents. I was pretty much secluded from the outside world because I never left Chinatown, for I felt this was my home.
However, my parents felt differently. They wanted me to adapt the “American” culture. By being more “Americanized”, they felt that life would be better and that my sister and I would be more accepted. For that reason, my family and I made the big move to the Sunset District ten years ago. A big move my parents hoped would be a quick assimilation into the mainstream â€“ the “American” culture- an assimilation that would ultimately change my values and my perceptions of my cultural background.
When I moved from Chinatown to the Sunset District, I was completely amazed at how different it was compared to Chinatown. There was considerably less traffic and noise on the streets than in Chinatown. I remember, I would have to push my way to get through streets when I was in Chinatown. Another difference that I noticed was that all the children on my block were Caucasian, whereas in Chinatown I associated with predominantly Asian.. My home in Chinatown was an old Victorian apartment with a ceiling that was at least 15 feet high. I used to string my toy plane from the ceiling and let it fly circles propelled by a mini-fan attached to the back of the plane.
It was a thrill to see the plane fly enormous circles. An old radiator located in the living room heated the apartment every winter. On cold winter nights, our family would gather inside that one warm room, since it was the only heated room, and just sit there with our blankets doing our daily chores and studies. My new home is quite modern, has central heating, and a much lower ceiling. This place was definitely different. How would I fit in? When I arrived at my new home, I was quickly plunged into the “process of assimilation.” My parents enrolled me into St. Anne’s, a Catholic school that consisted mostly of Caucasian. Although I am a quick learner, it was especially hard for me because I had to learn English. I did whatever I could to blend in. I bought cafeteria food and ate American lunches like bologna sandwiches and peanut butter and jelly.
Most of my friends were Caucasian, and I joined clubs associated with Caucasians. I tried hard to fit in so that I would be accepted. I did whatever my friends did. I begged my parents to buy me trendy clothing and designer labels. The haircut I had was also very similar to that of my friends. I spoke like them and adopted their ways. I wanted no longer to be Asian. I hated that part of me. I just wanted to be “American.” I hoped that by doing everything they did and following their ways, I would be accepted despite the fact that I wasn’t white.
It was not until fifth grade that I began to grow more aware of my changed behavior. A new student, Bradford Chin, was enrolled into my class. Bradford reminded me of myself when I first came- conservative, traditional, and very studious. Not knowing any better, I felt somewhat embarrassed around him. I believed that his appearance would be a reminder to everyone of the person I was before.
Because of this I ignored and avoided him as often as I could. One day, I was eating lunch with my friends and I glanced over towards Brad. I noticed he was eating one of my favorite Chinese pastries, “Dan-Tat.” Just the thought of a nibble of that sweet, delicious pastry conjured up a childhood memory of me when I sat in a bakery in Chinatown, enjoying the delicious aroma of fresh buns and eating a “Dan-Tat” of my own. I summoned enough courage for me to go visit him. I approached him slowly, and asked him for a small piece of the sweet treasure and he happily offered me some. I spent the rest of lunch hour chatting with him. I found out that we have much in common.
We both love model airplanes, reading books on rainy days, and girls with skirts. We found our parents to be very similar in both their values and beliefs. We soon became great friends and as our friendship became stronger, I felt I was rediscovering myself. Through him, I found the strength to revive my long forgotten past. I was afraid to discuss my past with any of my Caucasian friends for fear of being treated differently. Bradford understood that and pointed out that I was like my Caucasian friends before I met him, and that we became friends after realizing we had similarities other than race and culture that brought us together. Race and culture is not important when making friends, it is our personal qualities that is important.
To this day, my parents are impressed with the wide range of friends I have and how well I’ve “adapted” to the American culture. The reason for this is because I am comfortable with who I am, but during my childhood, I focused so hard on changing my ways and being accepted that for a time I felt that I also lost myself in the process.
By trying to adopt my friends’ values, I abandoned my own. Once I let go of that superficial self, I no longer had to pretend to be someone I was not and just be who I am. I no longer hated the fact that I was Chinese. I accepted who I was. More importantly, I was happy with myself.