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Feeling Ethnically Insignificant

It’s never fun to feel that everything that makes up what it means to be of your ethnic background is insignificant.

Imagine feeling that everyone makes fun of you because of the language you speak. Imagine speaking the language you’ve grown up to speak your whole life, where everyone spoke the same language as you, where everyone behaved more or less the same as you and where everyone didn’t look very different from each other in the village where you grew up and then suddenly live in a large city that resembles nothing that you remember where you were born and raised.

Imagine feeling that everyone thinks that you are inferior because you are a Chinese immigrant.

Living in Boston has broken my mother almost entirely mentally and completely spiritually.

My mother left her childhood village in Southern China, where it lacked toilet and bathing facilities, access to electricity, and no running water. Water had to be collected from somewhere outside of her home. Her day were confined to working in the fields and her family home. Without enough formal education nor skills beyond those of a manual laborer, my mother wanted to leave her village in order to live a more comfortable life where she didn’t have to work so hard and sweat heavily outside every day and to earn more money than the little she earned then. My mother took a chance and married my father whom she was somehow acquainted with via letter correspondence (not too different from how many mail-order brides have met and came to marry their husbands except my parents were connected by way of mutual relatives and friends, not by way of any catalogue [remember this was during the mid-80’s before Internet became a big thing so my parents didn’t send any emails to each other; my mother, in fact, has, up to this day, never touched a computer.]). My mother hoped for a life with less sun and sweat, not only for herself, but for her parents and siblings and for her future children and their descendants.

When my mother flew to Boston and landed at Logan International Airport, she immediately became overwhelmed and stressed. She had only twenty US dollars on her (it was all she managed to save) but it was okay since she was going to meet my father at the airport and take her to his apartment himself. My mother only knew the letters of the English alphabet and ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’ when she walked around the airport helpless as to where to go but she luckily encountered a Chinese man who spoke her language and he led her to passport control, customs, baggage claim and to the exit. My father was already waiting her and brought her back to his apartment and left my mother alone there because he had to go to work (my father worked as a waiter at a Chinese restaurant at the time; his shifts started sometime in the afternoon and ended in the wee hours of the morning. He worked six days a week).

From that day forward, my mother became hot-tempered.

From what she used to say when she was still speaking, she was angry on her first day in the United States because when my mother arrived to my father’s apartment, she was stunned to see that he lived in an apartment and not a house, for one thing. A bigger thing that day was that she was upset that there wasn’t any food in his home and she had just gotten off the plane after going through a long, long flight. She was furious immediately that day. She didn’t ask my father on the way home from the airport if he could get her something to eat but I understand that my father should have known that she was going to be hungry and thirsty after traveling such a long way, and my mother had never left her village before, much less had gone abroad so anyone should know that my mother was at a loss as to how to go about finding something to eat especially when my she didn’t know any English (just knowing two words and the alphabet wasn’t going to get her anywhere). Going from a village with a much lower standard of living to Boston was a complete shock to my mother who was only going to turn twenty-four that year. My mother didn’t say anything during the car ride to my father’s apartment because she was too shy to speak up.

Leaving my mother alone in his apartment without telling her how to use the sink, the toilet, the light switches, and what a refrigerator was and where she could buy something to eat wasn’t a sensitive thing for my father to have done but perhaps he thought that at her age, my mother was an adult and should have known to figure things out herself. Having spoken to my father about my mother’s behavior over the years in his beat-up Dodge caravan in the summers, my father understood my exasperation with him on how he dropped my mother off at his place in Cambridge, Massachusetts in the 80’s and he admitted that he should have been more considerate in how overwhelmed my mother felt but he kept telling me that she shouldn’t have become as angry as she is over time.

My mother used to work herself up over telling over and over about her first day in America, that she left the apartment (my father gave her the apartment key before leaving for work) and drifted around wondering where she could find some food and it took her a long time (from what she said, it sounded as if she was very lost and choked by fear. She immediately became nervous and distraught. She used to express herself as if she became devastated more than she ever had before that day) to finally enter a 7-eleven store to alleviate her hunger. She was scared throughout the whole thing because she had never seen so many people who didn’t look like the people she was used to seeing growing up before and she had never been in a city so she was wide-eyed and fearful of seeing streetlights, pavements, and shops. The Boston version of a shop in the 80’s was drastically different from the rare village shops that my mother occasionally saw in her home village before she departed for Boston.

Something about being alone out on a street around Central Square (only one subway station away from Harvard University) for hours hurt my mother that day. Nobody knew that that was going to be the first day that my mother was heading to a deep depression. Perhaps my mother felt humiliated about not being able to walk around feeling as free as she used to in her village because she wasn’t sure how to in Boston when everyone was too different in her eyes. I imagine that she felt that it was like all of a sudden, she couldn’t speak to anyone she saw on the street. In a way, she most likely felt shut up completely.

My mother has always had a sharp, sharp memory. My mother knew her way back to the apartment and quickly returned there panicking the whole way after her trip to the 7-eleven. She kept herself in the apartment until my father came back the following morning. During her wandering around, she didn’t feel as carefree as she used to in her village. She didn’t hear anyone speak her language when she was out. The people whom she saw whom she thought may be able to speak Cantonese or her village dialect spoke in English and that confused her immensely especially when she noticed them speaking to barbarians (white people). That first day in the United States was a day of isolation for my mother. My mother felt like a prisoner. She longed for the community she used to live in before she came to Boston. She had known that life would be different but she didn’t how it would feel to live in a foreign land until she actually experienced it.

One may wonder why, when my mother immigrated to the United States and lived in my father’s apartment in Cambridge, Massachusetts and had access to a shower, a toilet, tap water, a TV, modern kitchen equipment, etc., my mother has practically been slowly losing her mind over the more than three decades that she has been living in Boston?

Feeling ethnically insignificant is painful for my mother. More than this, my mother feels that the children that she gave birth to don’t love her because they grew up resembling nothing like the people she grew up with in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s (she was born in 1961 and lived the first 15 years of her life under Mao Zedong’s Communist regime [he had killed millions, more than any dictator in all of human history as far as I’m concerned; even more than Joseph Stalin did in the former Soviet Union]) and, after Mao died, she still lived a poverty-stricken life; nothing quickly gets better just because a leader dies. Only after less than ten years, after Mao died, she left for the United States. I think she had hoped to replicate her village life in Boston. She pictured that her children would be the same kind of Chinese people she knew in the 60’s and 70’s (I know this because she talks about how strange that recent Chinese immigrants she notices in Boston have ‘changed’. Then she would say how things used to be in her version of China [I say this because China’s a humongous country after all and Chinese people are more diverse than most people outside of China would acknowledge]). When she used to speak on a regular basis (as she’s still silent nowadays, from what my father reports to me every day), she would talk about a Chinese culture that I’ve learned over the years was the Chinese culture in the 60’s and 70’s. My mother has always hoped that she would at least not feel isolated in her own home. Since she wasn’t and still isn’t able to adjust to going up and about in Boston amongst people she can’t understand (this refers to not only language but the way people carry themselves in Boston), she has always wished that her children would represent remnants of her home village. For her children to end up like ‘barbarians’ (now, I’m of a completely different opinion. I’m much more cultured and worldly than she thinks; I don’t identify myself as ‘a white-person wannabe’ or even as an ‘American’ [but I say that I am because it’s convenient and I feel slightly more American, I can safely say, than any other nationality that I’ve come into contact with over the years. I just wish that it’s enough to say that I’m a human being who’s a mix of a lot of cultures inside despite how my looks may be perceived]) was a deadly blow to my mother’s psyche.

For my mother to feel that her identity as a Chinese woman from a small village somewhere in Guangdong province as irrelevant to her life in the United States is a life of suffering. In the early years of her living in Boston, she was infuriated about speaking in English once to the locals at a bus stop and getting laughed at because she had a Chinese accent. In her village, she was never laughed at for speaking a certain way. She also thinks it’s unfair that if these locals spoke in Chinese in her village, no one would laugh at them because it’s understood that her dialect of Cantonese isn’t a universal language so people aren’t ‘expected to know it’. However, since English is the lingua franca, people are ‘expected to know English’ (not only because my mother lived in Boston; having been abroad for seven years, I find that speaking in English to locals everywhere I go does get locals to laugh at me nor when I say words in the local language in an American accent. I don’t understand why when foreigners come to the US, there is a chance that they would be made fun of and talked down on for being of a certain ethnicity. I don’t get talked down on for being an American nor of being of Asian descent. People laugh at me at times because I’m like a novelty to them and this differs from looking down on me for not being of their nationality). It’s no wonder that my mother feels horrible. Living in China, my mother wasn’t an object of inferiority due to her language and culture. In the United States, my mother is very sensitive to the possibility that everyone looks down on her because she is Chinese. How Americans behave has never made any sense to her since the first day she came to Boston but she is in no position to point out that Americans are ridiculous for being Americans (okay, she may wonder about weird behavior out loud in Chinese but it’s normal to express some confusion and to complain sometimes; when foreigners come to China, there are certainly many loud complaints about how the Chinese spit everywhere, about the disgusting squat toilets, about how the Chinese push and shove, push and shove, about how they always talk like they are yelling, etc.).

My mother has never taken well about how the way that she was brought up isn’t accepted by the locals around her and, specifically, by her own children from her perspective. My mother only spoke of one incident when she got laughed at and mocked for having a thick accent but that one incident hurt her very much. Most of the time, though, because she lives in Boston, a multicultural city with a huge international student population and numerous immigrant communities and well-educated foreign expats, my mother used to comment on how honest and friendly Americans were in public when we went out as a family. There were lots of times when she admitted that Americans were helpful and smiling more than she ever saw growing up in a horrendous Communist regime. Despite receiving a lot of kind treatment from Bostonians, she still feels unhappy.

Even to this day, after more than three decades of living in Boston, when my mother sees someone with an East Asian face, she would wonder if the person was Chinese and she would look puzzled when the person turned out to be Japanese or South Korean or Vietnamese or an adopted Asian person or an American of East Asian descent who didn’t speak an Asian language.

Perhaps my mother feels that her life in the 60’s and 70’s was nothing. It’s turned out to be nothing as she lives in Boston and feels that she can’t be herself from that first day in the United States until now.

She feels ethnically irrelevant. Anything she is ethnically doesn’t apply in Boston. This is how she feels. This is a huge part of why she’s so upset all the time. Yes, there’s a Chinese community in Boston offering assistance specially for Chinese people but my mother feels alienated from it because a lot of those immigrants have learned English and have become unlike how people in her village decades before. She doesn’t want to have to change at all because she doesn’t feel that there’s anything wrong with her, though, this isn’t an issue about being of a ‘wrong’ identity. The issue is of finding a balance between being who she is while learning how to live with people in the host country but, in turn, the locals must acknowledge that foreigners aren’t going to be 100% of a ‘local identity’ and they, too, must adjust to foreigners living in their country.

As foreigners and locals come together, both sides must work on how locals don’t lose their national identities, or what’s nationally important to them at least, and how foreigners don’t feel that they are ethnically insignificant. Foreigners have a right for their cultural backgrounds to be acknowledged. Their backgrounds make up a big part of who they are as human beings in this world.

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