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Coming to America

| Tuesday, December 1, 2015

About six years ago, I took a flight from Pudong International Airport in Shanghai to Los Angeles International Airport that changed my life. No, I was not coming to America for the first time. I’m an American citizen who was returning to my home in California.

I was waiting behind an Indian family of five in the Chinese airport security line. The security officer was frustrated and instructed the family before me in heavily accented English, “Put your jacket in the bin.” Of course, when she saw me, a fellow Chinese person, she was relieved as she was operating under the false assumption that we would be able to flawlessly communicate in Chinese.

Never could she have been more wrong.

In Chinese, she asked me to place my jacket in the bin. I did not understand her words for “jacket,” “bin” or even “place,” and so I uttered a quiet “I’m sorry, what?” in the most apologetic English to have ever been said that day in all of Eastern China. She repeated the question, her dwindling patience punctuated by the sharp rise in her tone of voice.

I could feel my impending execution for my cultural betrayal. How could I, a Chinese person, not understand a simple Mandarin command? Apologizing for a second time, she broke out in English, “Put your jacket in the box.” This was then followed by a phrase that I understood perfectly well, “Nǐ shì zhōngguó rén ma?” In English, “Are you a Chinese person?”

This phrase was the blade that slighted my identity as a Chinese person. Some say the eviscerated remains of the metaphorical equivalent of a body for my honor continues to rest in that airport security line. In hindsight, it is a poignant memory that I am still able to write about today, so I guess it turned out to be a net positive experience. Well, you know what they say, “ròu bāo zǐ dǎ gǒu.”

As a first generation Chinese-American, I have the privilege of walking the line between two incredibly different cultures. I can give credit to my parents for a successful immigrant story: coming to America with an educational visa, working knowledge of English, $200 and the motivation to make it all work out. Then there’s me: I love staple dishes like three cup chicken, roast duck and mapo tofu, but I order them in English because I’m embarrassed to speak in broken Mandarin.

Because I had that hybrid Chinese and American upbringing, I can clearly see the quirky qualities of both cultures. They’ve both got their pros and cons with plenty of parallels between them. So to answer that airport security lady — who, in hindsight, may have just been having a bad day — yes, I am Chinese, and I am also American.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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