This is an excerpt from a chapter of the memoir I’m working on; it’s such a slow process writing & editing & getting rejected by agents that I wanted to start sharing bits & pieces in the meantime.

After a short time in Australia and New Zealand between semesters, I found myself on a plane back to China in early February. Kunming is a much smaller city compared to Shanghai, positioned in the south-central province of Yunnan, an absolutely beautiful area. Kunming has this crisp, dry air and bold, strong sunlight, and springtime is lovely there. I found myself very quickly thrust back into an intense environment, where my looks felt highly scrutinized and my heavily accented and broken Chinese was met with quizzical looks. Middlebury College’s language program was intense; I was only permitted to speak Mandarin, both out on the streets and with my classmates, in and out of class. I had more experiences than I can count where I stumbled over my Mandarin to native Chinese peoples’ dismay. 

Unlike Shanghai, I couldn’t use my English to “prove” that something wasn’t wrong with me, or I wasn’t unintelligent and couldn’t speak my native language; but that I wasn’t Chinese and was far from fluent in it. In Shanghai, sometimes I would walk down the street pretending to talk to someone on the phone in English. Suddenly, my image would elevate and I wouldn’t feel as small or disregarded when I then stopped to say something in Chinese, because I would then be perceived as a fluent English-speaking foreigner. I wasn’t allowed, by the restrictions of my language program, to do that in Kunming, and I was quickly met with even more confused glances and rough or abrasive reactions to my broken Chinese, as I tried to order papaya from the vendor down the street or as I shopped for produce and groceries at the nearby local supermarket. It was a harsh reentry back into Chinese culture after a month and a half away, and painfully jarring to be met again with all-too-familiar stares and questions as I tried to order food or ask a question at a market in halting Chinese. The responses were sometimes in a local dialect, sometimes in quick and heavily accented Mandarin, “Where are you from?” “Mei guo?” “No, where is your family from? What did you say again?” 

One of my favorite areas of downtown Kunming was the trendy fashion street of Nanping Jie. I would escape with headphones, a book and some extra cash on weekends or after class on the local buses that zoomed all around the city, finding a seat to myself when I could and enjoying the vibrant, busy, fragrant and bustling cityscapes silhouetted against clear blue skies, lush trees and fresh wafts of air that I certainly never saw in Shanghai. At Nanping Jie, I could disappear into Zara for hours or find myself in smaller Chinese boutiques or European boutiques, trying on whatever clothes I could find in my size and thinking about what would best help me fit in as I walked the streets. At Zara, I remember buying some new platform sandals, floral sundresses, sunglasses and leggings to revamp my wardrobe and hopefully give me a more svelte, trendy image that would stand out less. 

Sometime during my first month in Kunming as well, I went to buy a used bicycle at a local shop down the street from the university I was studying at. I wore my new platform sandals, a sundress, a large hat and big sunglasses that I’d just bought. I strode up to the small storefront, bicycle parts littered out front, a small, elderly Chinese man in well-worn and dirty clothes and slipper-like sandals peering out at me curiously. I walked up to him and politely asked which bicycles might be best for me, and were they all for sale? He met me with a quizzical gaze and immediately directed me to a section of cruiser-style bikes that were brightly painted. As cute as they were, I wanted something more functional, which I told him. Colorwise, I was looking for something darker, and used, not brand new. “Wo shi xue sheng, mei you duo qian – I’m a student and I don’t have a lot of money.” He laughed and told me, “those bikes are best suited for foreigners. You look like you are from here, but I can tell you are a wai guo ren, a foreigner.” I shrugged, too tired to duke it out at that exact moment. And so, that’s how I ended up with a purple cruiser bike in Kunming. 

When I got tired of cycling around on that purple cruiser, I fearlessly hailed down motorcycles that essentially serve as taxis throughout the city. I learned how to bargain for an appropriate fee that wouldn’t short me too much, and I learned that this was the local, native Chinese way to travel around quickly and efficiently. It made me feel powerful and free on the backs of those motorcycles, speeding through downtown Kunming, winding in and out of traffic, riding under overpasses crowded with street vendors, sometimes with my headphones in my ears, shrouding the flying colors of buildings and food and cars and people and buses in a haze of upbeat pop music that made me forget about the pains of being a Chinese American person here. I think that’s what it was that I loved most about the motorcycle experience – being able to disappear on the back of someone’s vehicle, riding fast, feeling like I could see everyone and everything but they couldn’t see me; they couldn’t stop me at all, couldn’t stop me long enough to catch a glimpse or think that I wasn’t just like anyone and everyone else, that I wasn’t just like them. I could be whoever I wanted to be.

I continued to try and blend in as best I could, spending an exorbitant amount of money to get my hair dyed reddish-brown and straightened with some sort of extensive keratin treatment. I remember it cost so much in renminbi that I had to find another ATM in the mall where the salon was in order to cover the cost, because I hadn’t brought enough cash. I fumbled through my saved Pinterest photos of Asian girls with sleek, non-frizzy, reddish-brown long hair to show the hairdressers the look I was going for. 

As I returned home after these shopping sprees, motorcycle escapades or hair treatments to my red Moleskine journal and poured my heart out with pages upon pages of emotional processing, questions and anxieties, I knew at my core that the superficial, consumeristic, image-driven person I was so striving to be here wasn’t going to satisfy any of those deep longings that I truly, simply had – to just fit in and be seen as the Chinese American girl who I was.


The old woman’s wrinkles cradled secrets and stories
tucked within the folds of her worn linen shirt and dumpling basket
Her ebony, beady eyes hold years of pride and mystery
her small, dainty feet have pedaled all the crevices of the city
The noodle soup man stands at his stall every morning through evening
he makes the best Muslim noodles in my neighborhood
Is that even right to call them Muslim noodles? 
His food welcomes natives and foreigners while he himself was displaced
Sometimes we need to take a pause, the sounds are overwhelming
but our lungs are gripped by heavy smog, we cannot find pure oxygen
Picturesque, vintage scenes like from a postcard
where does the value in things lie? Is it all being commodified?
It’s early morning and everyone is moving,
why don’t people pause to rest, to sip their morning coffee?
To continue quietly in the comfort of their own image,
to take peace and satisfaction in all they have truly accomplished
Do they take moments for themselves like I do?
do they take pride in who they are?
How I wish I could know their hopes, loves and dreams
what was their dream job, their favorite memory as a child?
What gives them energy, what do they love the most?
How do they have strength to continue moving at this pace?
When whiteness is the highest standard, 
blonde hair and blue eyes worshipped,
than who tells the stories of the old, wrinkled woman,
the noodle man,
the ones who hold so much in their faces,
and in their grasps?
The ones whose stories I long to know, 
I cannot be the one to tell them, I am the foreigner.

Crazy Rich Asians from a different Chinese-American perspective.

Who didn’t go see Crazy Rich Asians this weekend?! is the real question … as theaters in and around Pasadena were selling out as my friend and I were trying to book tickets on Sunday afternoon, and even after finding one we spent half an hour parking and barely got seats (as they were unassigned).

Obviously I didn’t come here to complain about the reality that is LA on a pretty consistent basis, but despite our temporary troubles, am happy and highly impressed that this movie has had such an incredible turnout.

Almost everyone I’ve talked to and most things I’ve read and heard have been extremely positive — it’s funny, the characters both have depth and are well-rounded, the main cast is entirely Asian and Asian-American, it’s creative, it broaches the theme of Asian-American identity in the midst of rigid and traditional Singaporean-Chinese wealth, and it raises questions of cultural, ethnic, generational, socioeconomic, etc. identity that challenges even those of different contexts.

Despite the backlash about the lack of diverse Asian representation, it does well at its limited goals. As a Chinese-American woman, it was empowering to see so many beautiful Asian faces on screen in a popular and desirable American context, and to see the way in which a version of the Chinese-American “rags to riches” story was portrayed. A girl (Rachel Chu) basically defends and reclaims her unique mixed identity and history as her very value and worth because of her poor, immigrant background is challenged by her boyfriend’s real estate tycoon mom and family.

All I could do in the theater was laugh and thoroughly enjoy this movie. At first thought, seeing Asian people on screen and hearing an adaptation of a very different story than mine was purely entertaining and barely personal. However, reflecting on it a little bit, and what the Asian representation questions and cultural identity questions it poses mean in a personal context, I realize that it hits me in an interesting way. As a Chinese-American adoptee, I can come into this story at various angles — on one hand, I identify with the backlash that complains about the lack of representation of other ethnic, cultural and/or economic histories of Singapore or Asia, because the story of adopted Chinese girls is almost never told. We are certainly Chinese-American too, but our story and history is completely different than 2nd-generation Chinese-American kids’ stories whose parents immigrated to America (like Rachel’s mom). I have yet to see our story told on the big screen in any way, shape or form.

The other truth and point of identification is that I can wholeheartedly identify with Rachel’s feelings of isolation and rejection by this Singaporean family because I experienced similar feelings (in different contexts) during my time studying in China. China is of course completely different than Singapore, and I was not trying to gain the favor of a wealthy family, but everywhere I went I constantly felt at the very least, out of place, uncomfortable, a too-tan, slightly overweight, wavy-haired, abnormal, non-conforming, maybe-Chinese person in the eyes of locals and natives (they really weren’t sure where I was from, and they didn’t hesitate to say it). On bad days I really let it get to me and I genuinely felt lesser than, completely rejected, disconnected, bitter and ready to give up. It was one of the hardest years of my life trying to learn the language and the culture of a people and a nation that I expected to connect with and be welcomed into — I saw more faces that “looked like mine” than I had at any other juncture of my life — but I had never felt more alone or isolated among them. So, if we’re tapping back into those feelings, I can empathize with Rachel’s frustration, questioning, and anger when coming face to face with cultural values that opposed her identity at its very core. I’m fairly confident, Asian-American or not, whether they were connected to our culture or ethnicity or not, that we have all felt similar feelings before.

I don’t want to give the end of the movie away, so I’ll just say again that the resolution of my story of cultural rejection will never look the same, but my own journey to a place of pride, reconciliation, courage and acceptance in my unique mixed cultural and ethnic identity is taking shape in its own way. I think that if we want to interpret the movie this deeply, despite its particularity, Rachel’s version of her story can serve as a symbol of empowerment and reclamation for people of mixed backgrounds confronting opposing forces, however those may take shape. This movie shows us that there are always two sides to the story and that both can show empathy and pride.

Go see the movie and let me know your thoughts!

How Lion helped me think about my true identity.

About a month ago, I saw the movie, Lion, which I would highly recommend because it probes at questions of identity, family, belonging, culture and love in a way that will likely deeply move you, as it did me. I have been inspired to write a response to it for some time. Let me give you a brief summary of the story, connect it to my own, and then use those connections to draw a larger conclusion about identity formation.

A young Indian boy named Sheru is separated from his brother at a train station and ends up taking the train hundreds of miles away from his family. After disorienting weeks of (mis)adventures, he finds himself in an orphanage where he is soon after adopted by an Australian couple. The story then jumps ahead to Sheru in his mid-twenties, about to go off to a hospitality university program away from his parents and brother (also adopted from India). As Sheru eats Indian food with friends at school, he is confronted with questions of his ethnic heritage and vivid memories of his mother, his brother and his childhood. He begins a (long-awaited) search using the (at this time) newly invented Google Earth, to find the train station where he long ago fell asleep and was separated from his brother. I won’t give away the ending, but it is gut-wrenching to watch Sheru struggle with memories of his family back in India and the knowledge that his mother and brother do not know what happened to him. Because he knew his mom and siblings for years before he was lost, these memories are cripplingly powerful.

Sheru’s experience searching for that train station and his family resonated deeply with my own feelings of loss and disconnect from my birth culture. His personal journey to find his family of origin centers much more around his feelings of love, loss and guilt toward the train station separation and less around the sense of lost cultural and ethnic identity that I have encountered. However, despite our age differences when we were adopted or where we were adopted from, I believe that every adoptee faces questions of identity and feelings of loss, disconnect and longing. These feelings can be because of a remembered separation from parents or a culture, like Sheru’s story, or they can be imagined based on cultural or ethnic disconnects that occur later in life, if the adopted child was too young to remember his or her birthparents or siblings.

Even though my personal story of adoption and search for Chinese cultural and racial belonging is very different from Sheru’s search to find his family in India, the feelings of love and loss have a similar origin. At one time, we were both separated against our wills, from a family and culture that we either loved very deeply or never had the chance to love. For years leading up to my return to China, I wrestled with a deep longing in my heart to discover what place China held in what I felt was an incomplete cultural and racial identity. I harbored a fantasy that there was a part of me left behind in China that I could somehow return to and reclaim – it wasn’t like I wanted to find my birthmom or family necessarily, but that I wanted to somehow reclaim some pieces of my identity that I believed had been taken from me against my will.

Lion barely touched upon any cultural disconnects that Sheru experienced (either as an Indian adoptee in Australia or as an Australian returning to India), however, the couple brief moments that were illustrated resonated with me deeply. There were moments in class and at his Indian friends’ home when he has to explain that he’s culturally Australian, not Indian, and so supports the Australian cricket team and doesn’t know how to eat naan with his food properly. Watching those on-screen moments, I felt exactly the unspoken, jumbled feelings of embarrassment, shame and discomfort that Sheru experienced, because this discord between how I look and who I actually am in determining how I am perceived by others and who I consider myself to be has been something I have carried with me for years.

I have been beyond blessed to find myself among family and friends who have never questioned my ethnic or cultural identity in a way that has made me feel uncomfortable or embarrassed, but instead given me the space and support to discover what pieces of my Chinese heritage I want to claim and which pieces I don’t. The moments of discord are random and nothing I can complain about, because they always challenge me to think, reflect and grow in both my self-awareness and understanding as well as my humility, compassion and forgiveness toward others. Blaming others for their ignorance has never helped anyone or solved anything. Laughing off insensitivities hasn’t either, however, and so I am learning the fine art of challenging peoples’ misperceptions and reverting stereotypes gently and humbly. If I hold my identity in Christ above my cultural or racial identity, than maybe over time the ignorant questions about my race won’t cut quite as deeply because they simply are not that significant to who I truly am. Over time, I am learning to respond in a way that reflects this true identity rather than responding in a way that reflects an immediate emotional reaction. This means asking questions and responding with affirming, truthful statements when people misunderstand, instead of acting offended or upset and saying nothing.

Where our devotion truly lies is ultimately revealed when aspects of our identity are mistaken or rejected, because it then becomes apparent what we hold at our core — is it devotion to a racial identity, an ideology, a socioeconomic status, a people group, a nationality, a set of religious standards or values, a level of education, or a vocation? For those of us who call ourselves followers of Jesus, whether we are adoptees, Asians, Caucasians, Latinos, African Americans, professors, pastors, businesswomen, the list is unending — in moments when these different identifiers of who we are are rejected or misunderstood, like my “American-ness” was by Chinese culture, than how does the way in which we choose to respond reflect the God that we serve and that which is most important to us?

Our self-image, our different identities, our passions and gifts, the way we move and connect in the world, are definitive to who we are, but we can never lose sight of what these identifiers should point toward. They were never meant to be disparate, singular, stand-alone identities, but instead reflections of the fearfully, wonderfully created images of our Creator that we are. We must remember that our various racial, ethnic, cultural and vocational identities are supplements to the identity that we have in Christ, as beloved sons and daughters of the King, saved by grace, on this earth not for ourselves, but to reflect his love.

My two mommas

Happy Mother’s Day! Firstly, I’d like to wish all the moms I know a wonderful and blessed day. You’re all really amazing and have made the world such a better place in so many ways. Secondly, I could go on and on for pages about my mom back in Jersey and everything she’s taught me and all the ways she’s supported me and comforted me and how much I love and miss her. It’s all so true! Let’s love on and bless our moms today (as we should every day) and give thanks for the life and opportunities that they’ve given us.

On top of all of the love and gratitude I feel for my mom, today, for really the first time, I’ve been thinking about Mother’s Day in a bit of a new light. I think it’s because I’m in China, probably closer to my birth mom in distance than I’ve ever been, but of course, unfathomably far from her in all other respects, since I’ve never met her and even after living here for a few months, I know I will continue to be eternally perplexed by her language and culture. But I have two moms, and although one I know closely and has loved and provided for me the past 21 years, the other one loved me too, enough to give birth to me and give me a chance at life by leaving me in front of an orphanage. Which thanks to God and my amazing parents, was truly a new life.

Last weekend, my aunt encouraged me to pray for my birth mother, which honestly and a little ashamedly, I never have. It’s not because I haven’t thought about her and my birth father, because I constantly do. However, for some time growing up, and even at certain points while I’ve been in China, all I’ve felt toward her is resentment. It sounds harsh, so let me explain. It’s not resentment toward her so much as a bitterness toward China in general. That sounds really harsh as well, and I’m truly working on it! Again, give me a chance to explain. My year here has taught me a lot about tolerance and patience and how little I understand. I could never be more grateful for the opportunity my birth mother gave me to live, and the life I have had because she gave birth to me. It’s not that I ever resent my life now, growing up in an amazing family in America with all of the opportunities that I’ve had. The tinges of resentment come when I’m frustrated with Chinese culture and the ways in which it constantly rejects me and so many other people. Which is pretty much a constant. Maybe all foreigners feel this way, I’m not sure. Maybe anyone who doesn’t live up to that Han standard feels this way. But I would speculate that I feel this rejection in a somewhat different way than most people. As a little baby left outside an orphanage gate in rural China, any possibility of ever “fitting into” Chinese culture, feeling accepted by Chinese people, understanding the language and lifestyle, etc. was taken from me forever. But in my heart, that desire to fit in was always there. It’s not like I chose to study abroad in China because of its mystique or economic prowess or the complexity of its language or its food. All not bad reasons but nah, I mainly came because of my Chinese face and a constant tapping on my heart since I was young to return to the land of my birth and experience it for myself. I quickly discovered, like upon my arrival in the Pudong airport, that I had clearly been living in a myth for however long I may have thought that Chinese people would welcome me in with open arms in the way they treated me like, “yeah you’ve come home!” I don’t think I’ve ever admitted to anyone that that was an expectation I had before coming to China, probably because I’m embarrassed that I ever thought about it that way, since it’s been so far from the reality of what’s gone down in the past year here. Anyway, more reflections to come on my China experience later, but because of that – the plethora of struggles that have accompanied what sounds on paper like a simple year in China to study Mandarin – I have had a really hard time loving and appreciating a country that rejects so many of its little babies and balks at and scorns difference in anyone. And a country that I’ve had such a hard time fitting into and feeling respected in despite how hard I’ve tried. And truly, China will never know how hard I’ve tried.

My intentions here are not to sound harsh or angry or come across like I’m complaining or ranting, because every day I thank God for the people I’ve met here who have welcomed me with open arms and helped me learn their language and navigate their culture. And there are plenty of them too. Or even the people who have politely inquired about where I’m from and looked me in the eyes with interest and asked me about my story. I am so grateful for all of my friends here and I think there are probably many others here like them, with open and loving hearts and minds.

But back to my birth mother. After 21 years growing up with her genes, I’ve just started praying for her and thinking about her a lot lately in this past week. Thinking about the life she gave me and what incredible things that has led to. Thinking about how I feel back in her country and wondering how she feels in her own country. I wonder if she has any resentment herself. I mean, she was the one who was forced to give up a child. Thinking about all the bittersweet feelings I have toward China as my time here wraps up in a few weeks. Part of me is like, “hallelujiah I’m going home!” To a real home where I am truly loved and accepted. Not sure what could be more exciting right now. Part of me wonders what place China has in my heart and in my future, which I hoped to discover in my time here, but the answers to which are still farther away than ever. Anyway, all big things to ponder on this Mother’s Day 2015. And I’m not even a mom myself; who knew that this day could put so much on my mind.