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This I Believe - Episode 11

photo of GHS author Alicia Chen
Alicia Chen is a ninth grader at Guilderland High School. She grew up in Guilderland, NY and enjoys reading books, running, and eating rice.

The Asian Connection

By Alicia Chen

My parents are American citizens. However, they often say things like “Americans are so fat” when we go to a buffet, or “Americans eat too many sweet foods” when they take a sip of soda with a grimace, and “Americans are dumb because they’re too lazy and use calculators all the time” when I ask my dad what 219 divided by 9 is. This might be a bit ethnocentric, but it’s true that we’re a bit different from “Americans”. My parents grew up in China, went to USC for graduate school, and eventually moved to New York and became naturalized citizens in 2008. Both my sister and I were born here in the U.S.

When I was younger, I didn’t really understand the situation.

“Mommy, am I half Chinese and half American?”

“No, you’re both.”

“So that’s half and half, right?”

“No it’s not.”

“Then am I 80% Chinese and 20% American?

“No. It doesn’t work like that. You know your friend Jennifer? She’s half Chinese half American. You are 100% Chinese but you’re American.” I left the conversation more confused than ever, and settled on the fact that I was half and half. Sometimes I had even almost wished I was like everyone else. I remember being in preschool with my American friends. They were talking about having gone to the mall. When my parents pronounce the word, it comes out something like mawh. As my friends talked, I had no clue what this mysterious mall was. I told them that I’d never been there. Not until they mentioned Crossgates did I finally understand. These mispronunciation fiascos happen fairly often in my house. I had first thought that the ball in Times Square was a bowl because of my dad’s ambiguous explanation.

One of the things about my family that doesn’t come to mind when you think of Chinese people is that we’re Christians. We’ve been attending the Chinese Christian Church of Greater Albany for as long as I can remember. It’s at church where my best friends are. Almost all the Chinese people I know are through church. I love hanging out with other Chinese Americans. We have similar backgrounds, experiences, and values.

Some common Chinese household values include academics, perfection, diligence, and being cheap. Pretty much every Chinese American I know at one point learned how to play piano. In my church, a very large portion of the kids take lessons from Shi Mu, our pastor’s wife. Lessons from Shi Mu have been a huge part of my life. As a kid, I dreaded the days I had lessons and groaned at my mom’s call, “Yao Yao, lai tan qing!” (Alicia, come practice piano!). I would then unwillingly and slowly crawl to the living room where the piano is. Life eventually got too busy, and my piano life has slowly declined to simply playing for our Bible study group every Friday. However, I can see my own childhood echoed in my seven year old sister, except now she has an extra person to yell at her. My mom is determined to make her practice every day, and forces her to stay put on the bench. Her disobedience and fidgeting many times ends in yelling and frustration, exactly as what happened to me. It seems a little extreme, but I have no grudges. How else are you supposed to learn?

Another value of many Chinese families is academics. During second grade, my mom drilled me constantly with multiplication facts. She taught me tricks, used flashcards, and threw the numbers at me during car rides and shopping trips. It’s because of her that in elementary school I could always complete the Mad Minute sheets as a continuous scribble with no pauses. As a young child, my mom also gave me “mommy homework”. These were workbooks she bought that contained math, reading, everything. During days off from school, my mom usually dropped me off at my friend and fellow Asian Michelle’s house. Before going, I had to write a to-do list. It usually looked something like this.
1. Math book pgs 20-25
2. 15 minute break
3. Play piano for 30 minutes
4. 10 minute break
5. Play piano for 30 minutes
6. 5 minute break
7. Reading book pgs 32-35
8. Play play play infinity play!

Michelle and her brother Eddy had similar lists, only Michelle’s tagline was Play play play, play all day! Rarely did I follow the list exactly, but when everything was finished, nothing was as sweet as that freedom to play endless games of Uno and hide and seek with Michelle.

Michelle was my closest childhood friend. I rode in her car pretty often. If Michelle’s mom was driving, she told us Chinese riddles and stories, including my favorite, the monk story. If Michelle’s dad was driving, he gave us math problems to do in our head like 8623+2643. Michelle, Eddy and I raced against each other to see who could finish the fastest. It’s pretty sad that these are some of my favorite childhood memories, but looking back on them makes me laugh.

Every 4th of July weekend I go to a Chinese Christian conference at Hofstra University on Long Island. It’s four days of God, worship, prayer, and Asians. It was there that I met Sam, a girl from New Jersey. One day at lunch, she was telling me and my friends about her very Chinese family. At all the conference meals, they gave us little packages that contained a fork, knife, and a spoon. Sam was collecting spoons from anyone who would give her their unused ones. She explained that at her house, they didn’t have normal spoons. Nope, they only had chopsticks and Asian soup spoons. She recounted a story where her non-Chinese friend came over, and they had to eat pudding with Asian soup spoons. Not only did she not have spoons, she didn’t have a single cup. Her family drank out of bowls. “Wait a second,” I said. “So you only have chopsticks, Asian soup spoons, plates and bowls?”
“Yep. We have fat bowls, skinny bowls, big bowls and small bowls.” We all thought this was hilarious. We marveled at a life without cups and spoons, and how amazingly absurd it was. I mean, can you get any more Asian than that?

I love my family. I will always be as much Chinese as I am American. From eating dumplings to speaking Chinglish, my heritage is a part of me, just like my black hair and small eyes. I can’t imagine my life without it. So embrace your traditions and culture. Mine happens to a culture of playing piano and/or violin, attending Albany Area Math Circle, and eating rice every day. I wouldn’t give it up if I could.


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