Being born in the United States and growing up around fellow Americans has always led me to believe I was just like everyone else. But to my surprise, I discovered in my early childhood that I was very different. Yes, I was born on American soil. Yes, I am a U.S. citizen. Yes, I do go to an American high school. And yes, I can become the President of the United States one day. (Bill and Hillary, watch out.) But does that make me American? Maybe, maybe not. Who knows, and who can really define "American"? Anyhow, we have been taught to think of ourselves as Americans. In my own definition, I believe I am an American, but not only that, I am a "Chinese-American."
During my earlier, but fun-filled, days of childhood, I never fully realized the uniqueness that I, as well as others, possessed. I've always considered myself and everyone around me, including my family, "Americans," instead of "Chinese-American." I've never fully realized my rich heritage that makes me unique in my own way.
I've always known that I was Chinese, but this meant very little to me. Our weekly trips into Chinatown, Sunday Chinese school, and our fluency in the Chinese language have never influenced my way of thought. I've always considered myself and those around me all the same, in fact, duplicates of one another.
It wasn't until one day in the early years of elementary school that a difference became apparent to me. Some kids in my class had asked me if I knew or could read Chinese. It seemed strange to me that they would be interested in this facet of my life. I answered in a mundane "yes" and expected them to say nothing else about it. To my amazement, they eagerly wanted me to say something in Chinese. When I did say something, they answered back with an enthusiastic, "Wow, that's cool !" even though I didn't think there was anything cool about it. I had always thought of it as just a weird language that originated from China.
On the bus ride home, I thought about what had happened that day. For the first time, I felt different from the other kids on that bus. When I got home, I went into the bathroom to wash my hands as I usually did. As I was washing my hands, I looked at myself in the mirror. The same boyish face was there from that morning, but it didn't seem the same to me. For the first time I recognized, quite simply, that I didn't look the same as the others in my class. My eyes were thinner, my hair was straight and pure black, my skin was a bit more yellow, and a whole different culture existed behind these physical aspects. That day I discovered a whole new component of my life, like an element, a part of a whole molecule. This piece of my life was extremely different, filled with culture and tradition, from the one I was living.
Yes, I am an American. And yes, I am Chinese. And perhaps I am a Chinese-American who has discovered his identity. Each one of us has come from a different place, each unique and special. We must all remember our heritage and our roots. But we must also continue to explore, realizing that everyone is different, with distinct beliefs, points of view, traditions, and lifestyles. Therefore, being aware of these diverse cultures should lead to respect for one another and understanding of the things certain people do. Some, such as I, are in a transitional generation, the second generation. Our parents are from their native countries, coming to America in the hopes of living the "American Dream." They grew up in different environments from mine. Thus, teenagers from around the world actually act as bridges, which cross vast oceans to join separate cultures.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.