“Thai, Korean, and Vietnamese”. My lanky Caucasian-American date was reminiscing about his dating history one evening at dinner with me. Did this guy have an Asian fetish and just needed to add Chinese to his list of flavors he’s sampled or was he really into me? In any case, I never found out because we stopped talking after he rationed my beer for me, insisting that my tolerance is low due to of my Asian-ness. So much for that date. Back to the drawing board. “You date just about anyone, right?”, my friend from Hong Kong asked me. I always thought I was an equal opportunity dater too until I moved away from home.
Growing up in Philadelphia, in a very poor urban neighborhood, I was almost always the only Asian, let alone Chinese kid in school. My friends in elementary school were all Latino and Black Americans. My earliest crush was a Latino-American boy named Anthony, while my Puerto-Rican-American neighbor had the hots for me. Only in middle school did I meet Caucasian-Americans to add to my circle of friends, but even then, Leonardo DiCaprio was the only man in my life. The few Chinese people I had exposure to were my immediate family members, Andy Lau, and Connie Chung. It was in high school when I finally encountered Asian-Americans and from then on, I crossed paths with more people who were like me, Chinese-American.
Moving neighborhood to neighborhood, school to school, city to city, and having friends come and go, the only constant in my life is my family who have taught me and nurtured me through the vicissitudes of life. For me, family and culture are inseparable, so when I am comforted by memories of my family, I am also comforted by the culture behind those memories. Having lived away from my family for a few years now, I long for the familiar.
Eventually, I realized I can find that familiarity in relationships. As my Chinese language skills dwindle due to lack of practice, I enjoy speaking Chinglish sometimes and love that my boyfriend understands me, especially since some things just can’t be expressed in English as well. When I have a bad cold or sinus infection, I long for my parents’ congee, and I’m completely touched when my boyfriend brings me a quart of it from Chinatown, even if he can’t make it himself. Dim sum is often his answer to my question of what to eat for lunch. I never have to explain the foods I eat or the reasons why I have to go home for certain celebrations or why I’m becoming more involved with the Museum of Chinese in the Americas to get a better sense of my identity and community. We share humorous stories of growing up with Chinese style parenting, while rebelling against them in our teenage years. Then, we agree how silly our rebellions were in hindsight. We also share the same feeling of detachment from our parents’ home, China, but we embrace our curiosity to explore it.
My Chinese-American boyfriends provided something others could not; the extension of the comfort I felt from my family and a natural rapport supported by our cultural identities. I know I will not be able to control who I will fall in love with. He might not be Chinese-American at all, but I do acknowledge that my trials and tribulations with my own cultural identity impact many aspects of my past, present, and future. It’s been a long struggle to admit that I’m not fully Chinese nor am I fully American, but a beautiful mix of the best of both worlds. Sharing that with someone who is just as proud is a truly moving experience.