A statue of my namesake Qui Jin, a Chinese revolutionary. 

And trying to be both at the same time

Jean Hsu
Jean Hsu
Sep 13, 2013 · 4 min read

When I was a little girl, my mom and I picked up my brother from school, and he complained that someone had told him to “Go back to Hong Kong.” I retorted, “You should’ve told him to go back to the zoo.” Neither of us had ever been to Hong Kong, though we had been to zoos.

I was born in New Brunswick, New Jersey and lived in Princeton for 22 years, but when people ask “What are you?” and “Where are you from?” it’s clear that “American” and “New Jersey” are not the answers they want to hear. You mean where am I from originally? Yeah, still New Jersey. My ancestors? Well, it’s complicated.

My parents were both born in Taiwan. My maternal grandparents grew up in Nanjing and near Shanghai, and my paternal grandparents are from Taiwan and Japan. So that makes me…one quarter Japanese, and three quarters Chinese-Taiwanese-ish. And also fully American. Can the pie chart of me have layers? Like a layer cake chart?

My first trip to China

I grew up in a fairly diverse town, but I distinctly remember being pulled out of class in elementary school to write down “all the words you know” on a sheet of paper. A few sheets in, I was dismissed and crossed off the potential-ESL roster.

At a sleepover, I learned that “Chinese food” wasn’t the same as the light healthy fare my mom cooked at home. We ordered Chinese takeout—boxes of greasy noodles and deep-fried sesame chicken. “So do you eat Chinese food everyday at home? How are you so skinny?”

At Chinese restaurants, my brother and I would ask my mom to please please please ask the waiter for those fried noodle crisps in the wooden bowl with duck sauce reserved for their non-Chinese customers instead of the pickled vegetables they put before us. And ice water please (no real self-respecting Chinese person drinks ice water).

When I traveled to Hunan Province with a dozen other students to start an English immersion program for Chinese college students, I was advised to not mention that I was part Japanese. “The Japanese are like animals, not even human,” one student said. When I asked them how Japanese people look different from Chinese people, one girl said, “Well…they look sort of like you. You look Japanese.” Whoops.

As the only Asian-American in the group, I was often asked questions like, “So do all Chinese people always have an idea of how far they are from the Great Wall?”

My fellow English teachers for the summer of 2006 (Photo by Andrew Turco)

Locals assumed I was the tour guide, and taxi drivers who pointed out local monuments of famous national figures would shake their heads in disapproval when I admitted I didn’t know who it was. This was probably analogous to meeting someone who spoke fluent English but had never heard of George Washington. Later I took two Asian history courses partly out of interest but also because, what kind of Asian person knows literally nothing about Asian history?

In some ways, I felt a stronger sense of belonging that summer in China than I did in the United States. While my colleagues craved cheese or peanut butter, I thrived on the Chinese-food only diet (real Chinese food). Students that were shy with the other foreign teachers opened up to me because I looked like them. I was almost one of them, but I had a different, American life.

With my students in Jishou, Hunan Province

Back at school in the United States, college felt very different and often isolating. Revisiting my memories of eating in the dining halls, walking to classes or going out at night, I remember the Asian dance shows and Taiwanese night markets. The mostly Asian and engineering eating clubs, and the more exclusive mostly-white eating clubs. People to whom I felt mostly invisible, people who might ask you for help with a problem set or glance at you as you walked by, but would never be a friend.

In a world in which Asian students sometimes felt like second-class citizens, I can understand why many stuck together in clubs and social groups to try to find a place they could belong, but I had trouble accepting that a common background implied an automatic friendship. So I was often alone.

Nowadays I wonder how much are people’s perceptions biased by their subconscious expectations? When someone meets me for the first time, what traits do they fall back on—studious, demure, sweet? I probably go too far in the opposite direction in being overly assertive, blunt, inappropriate or sarcastic, but mostly I try to be authentically myself. Being Asian-American is my norm, and it’s an important part of my identity, but sometimes I wonder what it’s like to be white in America.

Maybe when she is older, my half-Asian daughter can half-tell me.

Thanks to Winnie Lim and Sarah Zaslow

    Jean Hsu

    Written by

    Jean Hsu

    Co-founder of coleadership.com, transforming engineers into leaders. Previously engineering at @Medium, Pulse, and Google.

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