Written for the Asian Women's Blog Carnival: #5 Who I Am When I'm (not) With You.***
In elementary school, there was one day, besides my birthday, when I felt special. That day was the day when we celebrated Chinese New Year in class.
My mom always volunteered; I don't remember any other Asian students running the event. I know she wanted us to fit in, she was an involved parent who cared about her children's education, and she wanted us to be proud of who we are and where we come from. So I remember that every year she would go through the ritual of organizing the Chinese New Year celebrations for my 98% non-Asian class (there was always that one other Asian kid in class every year, the one whose mother didn't volunteer to host Chinese New Year's).
We took placemats from Chinese food restaurants with the zodiac signs and the occasional misspellings printed on them. We bought bags of fortune cookies from the Asian food mart in the next town over. We'd order lo mien noodles and chicken tenders and barbecue beef on sticks to carry in large metal pans. My mom made stacks of a photocopied picture book she borrowed from a library years ago to pass out to my classmates; I remember finding the yellow-colored pages years later buried in our attic, the Xeroxed wood cut illustrations undulled by time.
Together with the teacher, we would read the book out-loud about all the Chinese New Year traditions. Reading this book, I wished I could celebrate Chinese New Year the way all the little village kids did in the book: with exploding firecrackers in the streets, stringing paper lanterns outside doorways, practicing calligraphy I didn't understand and watching dragons dancing in the streets. Instead of in a classroom with that kid who bullied me at recess flicking all of the veggies in his lo mien onto the floor, or my classmate next to me asking if I could write those same characters in the book, and whether I could write her name out in Chinese too. The best part were the fortune cookies, because that was the only time I could have more than the one I'd usually get at take-out restaurants.
And then I'd go to my grandparents house and celebrate Têt, the real New Year's. Têt consisted of making huge amounts of food that none of my classmates had: hot chunks of roast pig, snow-white vermicelli noodles brushed with a mix of oil and scallions; thin crispy egg rolls made with noodles and carrot and ground meat and mushrooms and fish sauce; sticky bánh chưng
peeled from its banana leaf wrappings to reveal the delicious mound out glutinous rice, mung bean and fatty pork; the special new year's treats of dried coconut, ginger, sesame candies, dried mango, and papaya, and nuts. The aunts and uncles would talk and laugh about grown-up things and I'd play games with my cousins, sliding down the carpeted stairs on our butts, or playing hide and seek among the musty furniture, or play cards or our GameBoys. We had a zodiac that was similar to the one on the placemats, except that I was a Water Buffalo and not an Ox, and my aunt was a Cat not a Rabbit, and my brother was a Boar not a Pig. And during Têt was when we bowed to our ancestors and to the Buddha at the elaborate shrine my grandmother lovingly set up with sticks of incense in our hands. And Têt is when we wish our relatives "chúc mừng năm mới
We didn't get firecrackers or lantern parades, but other stuff correlated with what I saw in the picture book: on occasion, I did get to see the lion dance on the weekend if my dad drove my siblings and me to the community Têt celebration several towns over and I did get red packets of lixi
from my aunts and uncles, but somehow, that wasn't the same. Maybe because those village kids were what I missed and wanted; watching the lion dance with your siblings isn't as fun as running around with your recess buddies. And other differences bothered me in a way I couldn't explain back then when I was seven, eight, nine years old. Somehow, I thought Têt was a private word, a special word that my classmates weren't allowed to know because they were white and I was Vietnamese. But not special in a good way. Special in a way that would make it harder for me to fit in if they knew how different my Têt was from their Chinese New Year, from the special day I showed them. And I was confused myself over the difference, and over the years came to understand feelings I felt as a child but couldn't articulate until years later.
I can express my heritage, but only in a way that conforms to what others' expect my heritage to be.
I can "be Asian" but only in the way others think I am Asian.
To be "proud" of my cultural heritage, I have to always have to explain who I am to others who don't understand me whenever they dictate it.
To fit into the community's standards of "diversity" and "multiculturalism" I have to play the teacher, giving lessons of a watered-down, bland sort where the meaning has no real relevance to my experiences. I only show the experiences others want for me to accept, because it would be too hard, too draining, too.... complicated....to show them who I really am.
I learned a new word today. Auto-exoticism (n.): the idea in which the minority culture accepts and internalizes perceptions of itself from the dominant culture. It is performance intended for consumption, it is a sign given to minorities to express their minority status. It is touting Chinese take-out (that isn't really Chinese) over your family's home cooking and tossing around fortune cookies (and those weren't actually Chinese either) and associating yourself with being "Chinese" (even though you aren't) because it made you more understandable, and calling your family's most important holiday Chinese New Year because it's a catch-phrase that everyone understands.
Because Têt is something others wouldn't understand or at least not in the way I understood it. Because when I mentioned I planned to celebrate Têt once to a fellow dinner companion she exclaimed, "Oh, I always thought that was the name of the battle, not a holiday!" Because in college, when I was part several pan-Asian/Asian-American cultural orgs and activist groups, it was the Chinese Student Association who controlled the festivities for Lunar New Year's and named it China Night.
Now all of this might sound like I'm against the Chinese.
I'm just tired of pretending to be one.