Today I thought an unforgivable thought. Today I thought I should be a writer.
You should be a doctor. You should be a lawyer. Or maybe you were offered the contemporary option: you should be a software engineer.
In my typical Asian American household, there were two sets of principles that dictated how I lived my life:
One. Realize my parents’ American dream.
Two. Carry on Chinese tradition and values.
This clash between the Chinese and American dichotomy, East vs. West, Confucianism vs. Individualism, was the root of all the built up frustrations and confusion that arrested from me any concrete identity. One day I’m discussing what constitutes cruel and unusual punishment, and on the next I’m getting spanked in the first floor bathroom.
Where would becoming a storyteller place me on this spectrum of:
“How Americanized are you?” and “How Chinese are you?”
Which side did I want to be on?
To this day, I still don’t know much about my parents’ lives. I can barely recall which city, somewhere within the Shanghai municipality, my mom grew up in, and I definitely don’t know what convinced my gregarious and empathetic mom to marry my relatively quiet, but always up-to-no-good dad.
My family doesn’t tell stories, only lessons. The most I hear about what life was like “back home” is when I complain about being hungry — I’ll get back the corresponding tape-recorder playback of how I’ve never been hungry.
“I’d used to start my meals with half a scoop of rice, so that I could go back for seconds before it was all gone.”
When I was tired of studying, I’d be reminded of how my dad would study with his feet in a tub of water because it was so hot — and he still would study.
And I understand. It’s not their job to tell stories. Their culture dictates fitting a mold, fulfilling a role, shouldering and suppressing the emotional and expressive burden to hone oneself to carry on. Talking back was unacceptable, and speaking out was a luxury, not a privilege.
So in the face of this Asian reticence, what space is there for expressiveness, for storytelling?
One truth that history has told time and time again is that you can either tell your own stories or someone else will tell them for you. And usually that someone else is the winner, the rich, the victor in war, the conquistador in cultural imperialism.
So again, there are two ways to have your story told:
- Become super fucking rich and successful, and then sign your name on some ghost-written laminated copy of your face.
- Say it. Scream it. Play it out loud. And hope that someday, somewhere, someone will listen.
And that’s why even as all the odds are stacked against us, we, Asian Americans must be expressive. Our families don’t tell stories, only lessons. Our parents’ cultures fit people to a humble silence. But we, we have had a schooling that emphasizes critical thinking, to ask why, and to question what we’re told. But we have been confused, lost, insecure, and unsure. Which mold do we belong to?
The fact is that neither mold, Asian or American, fits, now or ever. We have been cursed and blessed to be a part of our own new shape. We are the first to be able to tell the stories of our parents, our parents’ parents, and of ourselves. This is a story that our parents might not accept, but time will.
So express. Play. Sing. Paint.
So write. Or someone else will.