How Leaving Home Made Me More Chinese

A significant ritual that comes with growing up is venturing out in the world and relinquishing the familiarity that has ensconced you your whole life. Lately, I’ve been seeing a lot of posts within internet groups such as Subtle Asian traits where people speak to personal experiences growing up in communities of low diversity– how they were keenly aware of feeling out of place due to their race and culture. I did as well, having grown up in rural New Hampshire in a largely white and homogenous setting. However, I do not remember attributing those feelings of displacement to my ethnicity. I’m not sure why I thought so little about race — perhaps it was in part due to my parents and how they intentionally did not want to point out obvious racial biases or prejudices. They have lived all across the US for nearly four decades, having emigrated as graduate students from Taiwan in the early ’80s and successfully assimilated with many aspects of American culture, from the food to small town living. They wanted my brother and I to grow up without that chip on our shoulders. But sooner or later, every one of us figures out what race means to us on our own terms, how it influences situations and why it matters.

Some people speak to how their parents discussed racial differences with them from an early age. Awareness, when timed and delivered well can be enlightening but reality can also be painful. I’ve had conflicted feelings about the weight and prevalence of my heritage for as long as I can remember. When we watched the summer Olympics as a family in 2008 and 2012 I distinctly remember rooting for the Chinese national team. I’d wake up each morning to check the medal count on the Internet, cheering internally as China maintained her lead. I’d never been to the mainland, and in all other aspects of my life I’ve never thought twice about my “Chinese-ness.“ But in the context of a competitive space, my own allegiance became clear. Despite not growing up around a defined Asian community, the abeyant allegiance was there all along.

The handful of times when I visited relatives in Taiwan I felt a rush of connection to familial ties extending far beyond myself — a feeling distinct from the stolid American individualism that I had subconsciously come to embody. In Taiwan, the most normal of activities such as spending time with my relatives and family friends, speaking my mother tongue, and learning how to cook jiang you ji (soy sauce chicken) from my step-grandmother contextualized many of the ideals that my parents tried to convey to me over the years. I realized how my actions were seen as extensions of my parents and upbringing; that my relatives cared about what I did, that my decisions mattered to them under a greater sense of family.

It took leaving home and being pushed to seek community on my own terms for me to realize how important my heritage is to my identity. When I moved to Nairobi in 2018 to work as a photojournalist, it was the first time I’d ever lived in a metropolis. There was not only the urban aspect of life that I needed to acclimate, but also the immense cultural adjustments that touched upon everything from quotidian interactions, to the attention I received every time I stepped out in public. There were many culturally charged moments that eluded me altogether. Now that I’m living in Kenya for the second time, I have a more thorough understanding of the transactional nature of society, the Nairobian hustler mentality, and most importantly, how not to take anything personally. My hope is that discernment and acceptance of cultural differences here will not only continue helping me navigate my current surroundings, but also help me understand more of my own Chinese-American upbringing.

Initially, I was upset by the rather unceremonious way that Asians and Caucasians are grouped monolithically as mzungus (white people) in East Africa. To many Kenyans, there is no difference between those with silky, non-kinky hair and light skin. I practically wanted to protest, I’m not white! I’m Asian. Where I come from, I’m also a minority. I’ve long since moved beyond this desire, since there’s no sense in struggling against structures so much greater than myself.

Nevertheless, I felt a gravitation towards the Chinese community in Nairobi. In my previous experiences abroad, I had felt something similar– that there was a tiny hole inside of me that grew deeper the longer I was away. I subconsciously yearned for my mother tongue. Speaking in Mandarin brings a sense of familiarity and home that English does not, even though I am so much more limited in the former language.

This surprised me. I didn’t realize how important my heritage is to me. In many ways — from career to dating — I wouldn’t classify myself as conventionally “Chinese-American” at all. I didn’t go the corporate route and am not pursuing an orthodox or lucrative career as others often expect of people like me; hardworking and ambitious with a world class education. But as I am living in Nairobi, it is becoming an unexpected opportunity to reconsider my heritage roots in ways I have never done before.

There’s a Chinese Malaysian missionary family here who took me under their wing when I first moved to Kenya. In pre-COVID-19 times, they hosted home group dinners in their home, welcoming in both Kenyans and expats for Bible study sessions. I surprised myself by becoming a regular. I had no choice but to go to church multiple times a week growing up, but since college I do not go out of my own volition. Being able to communicate in Mandarin and having a shared cultural identity brought me a sort of comfort I didn’t know I needed. They included me in all types of activities, not just religious ones. I liked the feeling that they cared more about how I was doing as a person than saving my soul. “Consider us your family in Nairobi,” they said to me. I did.

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