We stepped into the elevator. Jasper’s hands latched around my Mom’s waist and Everett snuggled, half burying his face into the folds of her jacket.
“I’ll see you in February?” my mom asked.
“Yes! And I’ll make you a Valentine’s Day card because Valentine’s Day is in February, right?” Jasper responded, excited to share the new facts about the calendar he learned in pre-school.
“Yes. And so is Chinese New Year.”
“It is? What do we do on Chinese New Year?”
My heart sank and I felt my mom’s disappointment glaze over me. I leaned against the side of the elevator and listened as my mom described some of the Chinese New Year traditions to my kids. Red envelopes, firecrackers and dragon dances. Oranges and apples for luck and prosperity. Sweeping out the dust and remnants of the old year to make room for the good fortune of the New Year.
I’m a first generation American. My parents emigrated from Hong Kong to attend college in the U.S. and to seek a better life for themselves, their families and their future children. They eventually settled in Connecticut in a house they built from the ground up, a wood-shingled home with an oval pool in the backyard, more modern in design than our colonial Connecticut neighbors. Inside, our home was filled with the sounds of the Chinese language and the smell of braised and roasted meats. We celebrated Chinese holidays with multi-course feasts with extended family members, culminating in raucous rounds of mahjong for the adults upstairs and ping-pong and video games for the kids in the basement.
As a kid, I lived two separate and distinct lives. There was home and there was school. A clear demarcation separated one world from the other. I became an expert at straddling the line between them so they didn’t bleed into each other.
At school, it was easy to shed my Chinese-ness at the door. On the surface, we were all alike. My classmates and I dressed in the same plaid uniform kilts, navy blue polo shirts with popped collars, side swept bangs and French braids. Everyone played field hockey and lacrosse. Everyone toted the same L.L. Bean backpacks and read the same books.
Even though I knew I was Chinese, there was a part of me that didn’t exactly realize I wasn’t like my friends, that I was a minority among the majority of my white friends. When you don’t see other students of color roaming the hallways, you don’t really understand there’s the possibility that you could be different because you don’t see different around you. It was easier to linger on the similarities and blend in rather than call out the stark contrasts among us.
As the years passed, my instinct remained the same — to find a cozy nook in the corner, curl up, blend in like a chameleon. In high school and college, I loathed being lumped together with the other Chinese, Japanese and Korean students as Asian Society kids and I didn’t want to join an Asian sorority.
More than anything, I wanted to lift the weight of my heritage off my shoulders and just be me, an individual apart from the yellow undertones of my skin and the culture I carried with me. My parents taught me that if I worked hard, I could achieve anything I dreamed of regardless of what my ethnic history might be. After all, they came to this country for new opportunities and potential achievement based purely on effort, merit and determination. Being Chinese seemed to have no bearing on the success they found in their career and life.
However, once I started my own family, I could feel the weight of responsibility bearing down on my shoulders again. This time, instead of casting aside my background, it’s my heritage tying me to the past and the future and the responsibility to help my children know and understand where they come from.
Yet, here I am watching my two sons grow farther and farther away from the Chinese culture because I don’t know how to share it with them. My Cantonese rivals a 3-year-old and I can’t replicate the rich traditions that colored my childhood home. Growing up, I didn’t realize my cultural baggage – that Chinese-ness I so readily left behind – was an integral part of my identity. I can’t separate it like distinct chunks of a braid or isolate it like the individual lines that make up written Chinese characters. Now, as a parent, I struggle with how to celebrate those aspects of my heritage that I’ve long packed away. And I worry about what I am able to pass on to my kids and subsequently what they will be able to pass on to their children.
“Mommy, after winter break, we’re starting a section on China!” My now third grader squeezes my hand just a little tighter on our walk to school. I can feel him gathering up the courage to continue on. And I can feel myself bracing for the question I know he’s going to ask next.
“My teacher has lots of activities and trips planned. Maybe you could come in and do an activity on China? Or come on our Chinatown trip to celebrate Chinese New Year?”
I bristle when I hear his question, still uncomfortable with how I can help him learn about being Chinese. But maybe, as he begins his section on China, I can learn about the country where his grandparents were born, right along with him. And maybe, we can teach each other about what makes up who we are.
“I’d love to come and celebrate Chinese New Year with your class.”
Christine Yu is a freelance writer living in New York City with her husband and two sons.
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