I have always been asking the “why” questions. Why did my parents never speak English to me? Why did I only read and listen to Chinese music until age six? Why was I so different from the other Chinese American children? I pondered these questions almost daily while growing up. I learned that my parents wanted to ensure that I had a deep connection to my roots, but I used to think they took it too far.
I was born in the United States, New Jersey to be precise. But it was like I lived in China. My parents immersed me in Chinese culture: the famous martial art stories, popular Chinese musicians like Li Jian and Zhou Hua’jian, and Peking operas like Farewell My Concubine and Legend of the White Snake. Every meal consisted of Chinese delicacies spanning from Tibet to Tianjin. I only spoke Chinese, at home and in public. I had no real exposure to Western culture. Chinese culture was all I knew, and I loved it.
In a flash, my haven disappeared. On my first day in daycare, I found that I could not understand what the teachers and other children were saying. Aside from a few basic phrases, I could not speak English, not like the other kids my age who were almost fluent.
That day, “why” changed from a curious friend to my constant foe. It lingered in the back of my mind as I struggled through daycare. It leered over my shoulder as I binged English books to compensate for my late start with English. It lingered in the back of my mind, regardless of what I was doing. Even as I mastered the English language, “why” would rear its ugly head—reminding me that I once struggled with something so basic. Why did the other Chinese American kids learn English first? Why didn’t their parents surround them solely with Chinese culture? Why couldn’t my upbringing have been more like theirs? How different would my childhood have been if I had listened to less Li Jian?
For much of my life, I longed to have the same upbringing as my Chinese American friends. But what was once something that ostracized me evolved into something I appreciated, freeing my mind from the confines of the “why” question. Over the years, as the friends I once envied for their Westernized upbringing expressed their difficulty connecting with their families in China, I grew more and more grateful for my early exposure.
Through the hours spent reading Chinese books on history, the days learning and analyzing the Warring States period, and the months spent in different Chinese cities visiting family and exploring, I was able to preserve and expand the knowledge of my Chinese heritage. Although I never resented my family’s emphasis on Chinese culture, I no longer felt like it was holding me back. I have the best of both worlds: an upbringing that allows me to maintain a firm grasp on my heritage and daily immersion in American culture. My exposure to Chinese culture does not make me any less American than my Chinese American peers. Instead, the Chinese and American cultures in my life combine and work together to make me who I am. They appear in my daily life through (poorly translated) Chinese idioms in my speech, eating my scrambled eggs with chopsticks, or sharing famous quotes (again, poorly translated) from Chinese books with my friends.
“Why” no longer troubles me. I now understand why my parents, as first-generation immigrants, wanted to hold on to their culture so tightly. Being surrounded by Chinese culture from a young age was a blessing in disguise. It has prevented me from losing sight of who I am and where I came from. Instead of asking why I was not raised with more Western influences, I now ask: How can I preserve my Chinese heritage for future generations?
Tips for Writing:
I used this essay for some of my supplementals, and occasionally submitted it in place of another version of my personal statement essay. I wanted to share something about myself that was key to who I was. My Chinese background defines me, and it is something that will impact the kind of person I will be in college. I advise you to do the same: try to showcase a part of your personality that defines who you are. The readers do not know you, and will really only get to know you through your essays. Therefore, you should try to share something about yourself that makes you stand out in their memories. Granted, this thing you share should be a good thing: something that you love or represents you. It should be something that you want to write about, not something that you decide to write about because no one else is doing it.