Dear Young Julie,
You won’t be aware of this for nearly another two decades, but May is Asian/Pacific American Heritage month. I can picture you now as I tell you this, seventeen years old with brows furrowed, sprawled out on that perpetually disheveled bed surrounded by posters of smoldering pop star gazes: “Why would I celebrate that?”
And I get it. Up to this point, being Asian-American feels like wearing too-tight wool pantyhose. There isn’t a moment when you aren’t aware of it, it’s constricting, scratchy texture like a second skin. From the moment you arrived, a six-year-old immigrant from China, blinking and bewildered after her first solo flight to meet parents she hadn’t seen in years, this new membrane has clung to you, whispering of a desire that colors all the memories of your childhood: I wish I belonged.
At first it was the language.
Before, in Shanghai, you were the neighborhood ringleader, rallying the cousins and neighbors from the nearby long tang’s into new iterations of misadventure. There are grainy home videos of you breathless with laughter as you tumble out the door yelling at the other children. Tian bu pa, di bu pa, your grandmother muttered. Unafraid of the sky, unafraid of the earth.
Now, in this new land, no one understands you. This new language, ying wen, is thick and slow on your tongue. Your parents — strangers still — wear hopeful, anxious smiles as they label the sparse furniture in your new tiny apartment to help you adjust — table, chair, toilet. At school, in a disagreement over popsicles, the first friend you made turns to you crossly and screams: “Speak in English, Li Zhuo!”
A few years in, it is no longer the language. You master that the way you master the other subjects in school, like ticking checkboxes off an instruction form. Still, there are daily reminders.
At six, it is the Chinese bowl cut your mom gives you that makes the other kids push you into the boys’ line at school.
At seven, it is hearing stories of the Tooth Fairy and jabbing sharply at your loose tooth so you can place it underneath your pillow that night. The next morning, it is still there where you left it, caked with dried blood and disappointment.
At eight, it is a classmate’s older brother threatening to “teach you a lesson, Chink” after a playground squabble.
At ten, it is a sleepover at a friends’ house that feels like entering a foreign kingdom — layers of ruffled pillows on a “daybed”, a backyard innovation of endless fun called a “trampoline,” peanut butter and jelly sandwiches instead of fried rice as afternoon snack, walls covered with family photos and homey little phrases you don’t quite understand like “Home is where the hearth is.”
At eighteen, you’ve inhaled enough pop culture to convince yourself that you know how to blend in. You’re caught up on your Buffy and Dawson’s Creek, have read Shakespeare and aced the American and European history AP. Your English is flawless, punctuated with the appropriate amount of “likes” (every third word) that could only signal true idiomatic authenticity. Your acting will never will net you an Oscar, but you can mutter the rules in your sleep. Be as American as you can be. Don’t draw attention to the things that make you different — those annual trips to China, your confusion around Tall, Grande, and Venti, your secret stash of historical Chinese soap operas where the characters wear hairstyles resembling pretzel loops adorned with flowers and tassels.
Better yet, surround yourself with people who won’t question your differences, the people whose stories most mirror your own.
Growing up Asian-American is a contradiction. You’d never admit that you aren’t good ole’ American, plain and simple. But you’ve never felt quite as understood as when you’re surrounded by yellow faces and dark eyes that know how to interpret the unspoken chess rules of hospitality. You’ve cried at the end of Old Yeller, and you’ve cried thinking about how the silhouettes of Shanghai change year after year. You long for your independence, to break the chains of duty and embark on your personal heroine’s journey with no filial strings attached. But you understand that words and gifts are not enough — and will never be enough — to repay the sacrifices of your parents.
Here’s the thing, and I can tell you this because I’m double your age and a mother now in addition to a daughter: You. Do. Belong.
You already belong, for this land is the land of immigrants. The contradictions are what give our country its soul. The differences are humanity expressing all its shades.
It may be hard to see this now, but you don’t need to be ashamed of your story. You’re one of the lucky ones. One day, you’ll realize that everyone else you know has a story too, with their own strange twists and heartbreaking corners. All you have to do is ask, and listen. Don’t be afraid to seek the company of those who are different than you. Don’t be afraid to reveal yourself. What you’ll find, over and over again, is that there is always more that connects us than separates us.
You may not believe me now, but the second skin you’ve lived with for most of your life will wear thin like the soles of your shoes as you traverse the mountains and valleys ahead. One day — you won’t even notice when, exactly — it’ll disappear entirely. And then you will be free. Not from your heritage or past, but from the narrative cage you’ve been stuck in all these years.
You see, all that acting was unnecessary. To be American was to be yourself, and to find your voice and use it. Unafraid of the sky, unafraid of the earth.
One day, you’ll find yourself laughing about your Asian flush instead of dreading it. You’ll read up on the Asian history you avoided like the plague growing up. You’ll recommend Asian authors to your non-asian friends. You’ll tell your kids with pride about the city you were born, and send them there once a year. You’ll invite your parents to live with you and debate them weekly about the merits of Eastern and Western parenting philosophies.
You’ll learn about Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month, and be glad for its existence. You’ll raise your hand to speak at events as a representative of the community, and mull over writing an essay that tries to put into words all those long battles you had with yourself.
I wish you could have learned what I learned earlier.
You belong already. Stop acting, start asking, and speak up. You’re going to be great.