“Are you a first or second generation American?”
I stared at the question and hovered my mouse cursor over the white void between the two choices. My brain came to an abrupt halt.
I had been speeding through this Chinese American Scholarship application with great eloquence and insight, and yet here I was, stuck on a simple multiple-choice question that could have been answered by anybody who knew where they were born. Yes, I know first generation means you were born in China and then moved here; second generation means you were born here in America – I’m not an idiot. But honestly, I don’t feel like either represents who I am. I was born in China but moved here at the fresh age of one. I surely can’t be called a FOB (Fresh Off the Boat). I was so young when I moved here that I don’t even remember “the boat.”
I assimilated into the U.S. quite well, and you wouldn’t know that I’m Chinese if you didn’t see my face or skin; I wear Aeropostale and American Eagle, say “swag,” “yolo,” and other American terms, eat the delicious trash known as McDonald’s, and laugh at Tiger Moms while pitying their “cubs.” I speak Chinese, but only at home or as a secret code with my Chinese friends when we’re talking smack about our teachers or non-Chinese people (Bai ren ting bu dong).
I’ve only been back to China twice since we came to America. The visits were great and all, but they had the same kind of fascination as going to Disney World rather than feeling like the prodigal son returning home. To me, China was a distant, indecipherable song that my mother used to whisper to me in the form of bedtime stories. But that song was often blocked out by the noise, opportunity, and arrogance that most people attribute to the United States.
However, I was born in China, ergo, I am not a second generation American, or ABC (American Born Chinese). Simple logical reasoning. And if I’m not a second gen, then my answer to the application question must be option A: first gen. And yet, I felt hesitant in selecting that answer. My little brothers are ABCs, yet they speak, read, and write Chinese better than I do; since I stopped actively learning Chinese in high school, my skills have been in slow decline. If they are better than me at Chinese, then what gives me the right to choose answer A while they’re stuck with B? I skipped the question and continued with the rest of the application.
Four weeks later, Chinese New Year Eve rolled around. Like every year, my family and I gathered around the TV to eat our feast and watch China Central Television’s Spring Festival Gala. Skits, dances, music, martial arts, and other Chinese performances renewed my love for China. Halfway through, I finally realized the difference between my brothers and me. It was after the kung-fu demonstration led by the one and only Jackie Chan when the stage was taken over by men and women dressed in traditional imperial Chinese clothing with the most flamboyant colors, waltzing their way into the center of attention. The whole auditorium was brimming with the shrill and unmistakable song of the Chinese opera, fueled by the frenzied musicians playing traditional Chinese instruments. The women wearing huge headdresses and ghastly painted faces – rosy cheeks, eye makeup in pinks, purples, and reds – burst into a high-pitched song. The men, wearing makeup and detailed red or gold masks covered by long fake beards, yelped their own song in response. The opera singers waved their wands, swords, and staffs in a fluid dance that hypnotized me.
In a flash I was six years old again – little adorable me sitting in my uncle’s lap watching my first live Chinese opera during my earliest visit to China. My little brothers aren’t born yet. I am eating a chicken drumstick, pointing at the blue and white-clad performers with the bone as they shoot arrows at each other and sing some incomprehensible song. The music is frantic and succinct.
“They’re so creepy,” my little brother Arthur said, booting me out of my flashback. “The dude singers sound like girls, and the girls look like ghosts.” He barely looked up from his iPad; I could see him madly tapping away, using Superman to beat the spit out of the Joker.
“Yeah,” my other little brother Derrick chimed in. “I don’t understand a single word they are singing.”
Truth is, I didn’t understand a single word of the opera either. But I swore the music playing on the TV was the same I had heard when I was six. I found beauty and magic in the performance. The singing and beautiful costumes enchanted me. Their voices were skilled and had large ranges, unlike the cookie-cutter voices of pop music today. Something about the performance seemed to tickle every blood cell in my body, as if the long dragon that is my circulatory system was beginning to stir from its slumber. Meanwhile, I didn’t hear even the slightest growl coming from my brothers’ internal dragons. Perhaps their dragons were drugged from birth, their blood diluted. Maybe that one year I had lived in China made me immune to whatever it is that made my brothers truly ABC.
The music started to die down, and the singers gathered to bow to the audience. As their heads descended in unison, my brothers’ heads came up and they paused their game. “It’s about time they finished!” Arthur exclaimed. “Finally they can move on to the magic show!”
The magician began by pulling a loaf of bread out of the wall and turning raw rice into fully steamed rice just by dropping it into a bowl. The room was filled with ooohs and aaahs. However, I could still hear the echoes of the opera. Not in my ears, but somewhere deep inside me. I looked at our fireplace and saw the picture of me from my first visit to China. I’m sitting on my uncle’s lap, my face stamped with the colors of the opera. White surrounds my nose, pink covers my cheeks and forehead, and black distinguishes my eyebrows. I used to hate this picture because every time friends or family came over, they would laugh at my Chinese opera face paint. Now as I looked at it, I think I look pretty damn good. Pretty damn Chinese.
As I cracked open my laptop to return to the scholarship application, I realized that the dragon within me did not go back to sleep after the opera performance ended. Instead, it seemed to have internalized the song. I feel it stronger than ever, writhing inside me to the music of my motherland.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.