Who Gets to Say How Chinese I Am?

Writer Anson Tong pens an essay on how visiting China as a Chinese American has resulted in complicated feelings about where exactly she belongs

Words by Anson Tong

I endured the 16-hour flight from Chicago to China about six times growing up, as far as I can remember. I know I went in the summer of 2005 because I was devastated that I would be missing the chance to see The Adventures of Shark Boy and Lava Girl in the movie theater. And I know I went the summer after tenth grade, because I had to take my precalculus final early. I definitely know I went in 2018, because I went for a college program, and it was the first time I made the journey on my own, rather than being ferried by my parents to various restaurants with side rooms dominated by large tables with lazy Susans. The rest of my memory blurs together easily in the swampiness of Shanghai’s humidity—half comprehending Chinese shows about imperial drama, being introduced or reintroduced to adults my parents knew, eating as much Shanghainese buttercream cake as was humanly possible.

In my memory, these trips were mostly a banal feature of my childhood. In hindsight, as an adult turning over the implications of my parents’ immigration in my head, I am bombarded with thoughts. My parents left their home country when they were around the age I am now, and went back, at most, every other year, for a few months at a time. Now that I am an adult with a job paying for my own travel and doing sad PTO calculations, I see more clearly how expensive and time-consuming those trips were, and how jarring they must have been. My parents left China before its dramatic industrialization came into full force, broad capitalist expansion under tight Chinese Communist Party authority. Even over the course of my visits back, Shanghai transformed—shiny skyscrapers sprouting, heavily air-conditioned luxury malls appearing, everything dripping with the generic gloss of gentrification/cosmopolitanism, feeling increasingly like a catalog-order city with the language settings switched to Mandarin in some parts.

My weak ties and vague familiarity with Shanghai were always bound to fray, though the intervening years have been particularly eventful for China, so the circumstances feel special. When the pandemic began and China voided all our visas in one fell swoop, even our 10-year multiple entry visas, all I could think was, “I didn’t know they could just do that.” Until then, I hadn’t considered it a possibility that I wouldn’t be able to enter China when I wanted. The thought of being able to go back to China had served as a comforting anchor in my sense of self; sure other Americans often saw me as “different,” but it was true in a way, even if it wasn’t the foreignness they were projecting onto me. After all, I had access to this culture and this place that they didn’t. Who was I if that wasn’t really the case?

The author as a young girl on visit to China.

Courtesy of Anson Tong

My relationship to being Chinese as a Chinese American is defined by negative space and uncertainty—the things I don’t know that I feel I should, that I used to, that other people assume I do, that I have to text my mom to verify. It’s googling what foods besides mooncake I’m supposed to eat during the Mid-Autumn Festival on an annual basis, meeting a white East Asian Studies major who speaks and reads Mandarin more fluently than I do, seeing the disappointment in a Chinese-born immigrant’s eyes when they try to speak to me and I flounder in my response. In London, I found sublime comfort in walking into a British Chinese grocery store and feeling the exact same level of unfamiliarity as when I walk into an American Chinese grocery store, wandering through the aisles looking for the pork floss and other foods with packaging design that hasn’t changed in decades.

Perhaps this is all filtered through the neuroticism I’ve come to view as a symptom of growing up anywhere predominantly white in the United States. Though I have never wished I were white nor felt particularly ashamed of being Chinese American, I think there is something psychologically taxing about floating in the interstitial space between heavily defined identities. Never white enough to be completely seen as American by many, never “Chinese enough” according to my relatives and other Chinese people. But I don’t need a rubber stamp from every white person in the United States to confirm the reality that I grew up here. And the “Chinese enough” scale is just an endless fount of guilt and gatekeeping that doesn’t even make sense—I grew up here, and my parents’ cultural understanding of being Chinese will remain largely rooted in the time they left the country, already divergent from whatever “Chinese” identity looks like today. There is no Chineseness exam to pass, no knowledge threshold that earns me a badge.

Though I have never wished I were white nor felt particularly ashamed of being Chinese American, I think there is something psychologically taxing about floating in the interstitial space between heavily defined identities.

Anecdotally, these conclusions often seem self-evident—stone-cold facts to Chinese Americans I’ve met who grew up in majority Asian places (usually California). This assumption was validated when I posted on social media in search of Chinese Americans who had thoughts about their experience of going (or not being able to go) to China. On the phone with Amber, who grew up in the San Gabriel Valley outside of Los Angeles, she said what took me several years and psychological laps to be able to grasp tightly, “I don’t really care about being too Chinese, I’m Chinese American and I’m not sad that I’m not Chinese Chinese and I feel very privileged to have grown up in America.” On going back to China, neither as a tourist nor as a homecoming, “If I went to China, it’d be lit.” There is no real point to litigating what makes someone “more” or “less Chinese.” I often catch myself verbally eliding Chinese American into Chinese or Asian, but Chinese American is its own already vast category.

In trying to wrap my head around the outward ripples of my parents’ immigration to the United States, I always fixated on the sense of distance and loss. Acculturation and assimilation are exhausting, often demeaning. Sometimes the seemingly impenetrable differences in understanding between my mother and me cast a dark cloud over my head. Imagining going back to China as an adult, incapable of reading the street signs while in possession of a face that suggests otherwise feels sad to me, even as I accept it as an entirely reasonable outcome of being second generation. I used to run this crude scenario in my head: say we estimate, generously, how much Chinese culture I’ve absorbed from my upbringing and put it at 40 percent. If I were to marry (big if) and have children (even bigger if) with a person of similar Chinese American background, our hypothetical children would probably absorb 40 percent of our 40 percent. China would be a distant chicken-shaped country that people assume they have more ties to than they actually do. This self-conscious and reductive idea haunted me, how isolating and dissonant I assumed it would feel.

Like many Chinese Americans her age, the author had to sit through a studio photo session during one of her visits to China.

Courtesy of Anson Tong

A combination of demographic realities following the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, my own experience, and the frequent omission of Chinese Americans from early and mid-twentieth century U.S. history lead me to focus on the child of immigrants angle to this story. Emily, who is in the fifth generation to have U.S. citizenship on her mom’s side and has no remaining relatives in China, rearranged my assumptions when she told me about her family. The loneliness I had always seen as intrinsic to the immigrant experience is much more context-specific to first generation immigrants and other intersecting factors. With all of her family in the United States, Emily’s family can celebrate their holidays in big groups, they have ancestors whose gravestones they can visit and bring food and burn incense at. Not that we’re keeping score anymore, but that feels more Chinese to me.

Sometimes I wonder what it’s like to have a less complicated sense of cultural identity. Sometimes I wonder if my personality simply predisposes me to having a complicated sense of cultural identity, regardless of what cultural identity I had, or if my brain would make a mess of some other category of identity more if I didn’t have this to chew on. The liminality isn’t all bad. Growing up Chinese American and dwelling in ambiguity helped me to accept from a young age the idea of having fondness for a country and its culture while also being critical of it. All identity and culture and the interplay of the two is transient, evolving, and I’ve always seen that even when I didn’t want to. My feelings here encapsulate my particular contemplations on the matter, shaped by my age, the place I grew up, the circumstances under which my parents immigrated. “More” or “less” Chinese doesn’t even begin to capture it.

If I go to China again, I probably won’t be able to recognize a lot of it. I definitely won’t be able to read the signs. Those are just facts, without a negative or positive valence, without judgment. It can just be going back to China unburdened with frantic attempts to assign value or deeper meaning. It can just be an opportunity to explore with curiosity and consume that perfectly airy buttercream cake.

Published on November 7, 2023

Words by Anson Tong

Anson Tong (she/her) is a freelance writer based in Chicago. Her work has appeared in Chicago Reader, The Rumpus, and The Millions. She writes the Substack newsletter Third Thing, which has no theme and more than three things. You can find her on Twitter @ansonjtong and on Instagram @ansonjtong.jpg.

Art by Ryan Quan

Ryan Quan is the Social Media Editor for JoySauce. This queer, half-Chinese, half-Filipino writer and graphic designer loves everything related to music, creative nonfiction, and art. Based in Brooklyn, he spends most of his time dancing to hyperpop and accidentally falling asleep on the subway. Follow him on Instagram at @ryanquans.