"gwai gwai dey"
Happy New Year!
Some of us are born, raised, and live our whole lives in places where our culture, our lifestyle, our attitudes, beliefs, and the way we look match those of the majority, the politically and economically powerful, the default ingroup. I sometimes like to imagine how that would feel. But knowing that no matter where I live or where I go, I will always be somewhat of an outsider, I’ve learned to embrace, thrive off of, and even seek out the feeling of not belonging.
In America, I’m Asian, which probably means I play the piano or violin, am decently good at math, and according to Harvard, have a worse personality compared to my peers from other races. More specifically, I’m probably not as “likeable” or “helpful,” and lack relative “integrity” and “courage”. While I regularly walk around forgetting what I look like to others and feeling as American as apple pie, there are many moments that startle and shake me out of this transcendent state, whether it’s when I’m asked where I’m really from, mistaken for another Asian girl, questioned about what the heck I’m eating for lunch, told by a white person how delicious they think General Tsao’s chicken is when I never asked, greeted with Ni Hao when I don’t even speak Mandarin, or any of a thousand other wonderful possibilities.
In my birthplace of Hong Kong (which by the way, was not part of China when I was born), I look like everyone else. So how come I don’t know which side of the escalator I’m supposed to stand on and how come I’m wearing shorts instead of a down jacket on a humid upper 60-degree F winter day? In the words of a waitress at my favorite mango dessert chain when I spoke effortless Cantonese to her but couldn’t read the menu, I am “gwai gwai dey” (a tad white).
In India and every else in the world, I’ll always be an outsider, too. Obviously.
Being on the outside is beautiful, mind-expanding, eye-opening. It gives you the opportunity to be objective yet empathetic, and to help create bridges across gaps between worlds. But at the same time, it’s tiring as hell, and unless you can find enough people who are just like you, it’s lonely, isolating, and leaves you with a constant sense of longing for home and acceptance, but never really being able to find either. Still, I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
One of the things that scares me most though is that the next generation will likely no longer have a choice in the matter. In America, we value assimilation, English first (or only), and individualism only so long as we’re all individuals in the same way. We pay lip service to diversity, but at the end of the day, expect everyone to come to the same consensus, which is that of the outspoken white majority. My children (if I decide to have any) and my children’s children will be born and raised in America to parents who grew up in America; they will forget Hong Kongnese customs, forego their sense of possibly belonging anywhere else, and probably most importantly, lose the ability to speak their mother tongue. Cantonese was my first language, English my second. I oftentimes can’t properly express myself without combining the two. How do you explain the feeling of a yeet lao party in English? How do you properly say I love you to your family in Cantonese? With the two languages together, I can do both; I can feel all of my mixed and fused and confused emotions at once, and I can begin to understand both cultures, American and Hong Kongnese, simultaneously. But my children and my children’s children will not have this privilege, no matter how hard I try to pass it on.
I have lately been consumed by sadness at these and other related thoughts, especially as I’ve had to be away from those who readily understand these complicated and nuanced ideas over the course of the last month. Being in India in particular has also deepened this sadness. Here in Bangalore, chances are that if your parents speak Kannada, so will you, and so will your children, and their children, and their children’s children. Chances are that they will also speak Hindi and English, at least to some extent. The simultaneous fusion of cultures and their continued maintenance as separate and thriving entities here is a miracle and something that all Asian Americans should envy greatly. I suppose this is just something that I’ll have to cherish while I’m here though, because I know that it’s not anything that I will be able to carry home with me.