Many children dream of the novelty of pulling over on the highway and standing on that specific point that would enable them to have their two feet in two different states. There is a certain exhilaration that comes with conquering the phenomenon of physically being in multiple places at once. While many people have experienced having one foot in two places at the same time, the vast majority of the world population has never had this opportunity before, and the very concept of being in two places at the same time may come hard to wrap one’s head around. All my life, I have had one foot in two different places, one foot in touch with my American upbringing, and the other in touch with my Chinese heritage.
I grew up in Hong Kong. I went to a local, Cantonese-speaking school for pre-school, and it was clear, given my home background, that I was dissimilar to the other kids. There was one other girl with light brown hair and hazel eyes, a British father and a Chinese mother. We bonded over the fact that we were the only ones who spoke English as a first language, and while we both were the receptors of funny looks, I was the one that the looks were more directed at because of my pitch-black hair and darker-than-hazel eyes.
I moved to an international school from kindergarten to grade ten, and everyone there was just like me: Chinese people speaking English. This was my bubble, my safe place, my home. I was on the inside, those who were different from me, were on the outside. Anywhere outside of those school walls, I became the odd one out.
This was always hard for me. Whenever I would take taxis, I would say my address in Chinese, and they would make some snide comment under their breath about my tones being off. When I would yell for the minibus driver to let me off, the whole bus would turn and look at the Chinese girl who spoke broken Chinese. Even our family friends would prod me to speak Chinese to tease me for my American accent. Whenever my mom would take me to get my hair cut, the hairdressers would talk to me in Chinese, and I would act like a clueless English-speaker because I was embarrassed by my American accent. I could understand them when they expressed their disapproval to my mom for my inability to speak Chinese.
Last year, I took an internship at a nonprofit, English organization that strived to teach English to local kids. It was to my surprise that everyone in the office spoke Chinese with one another, and again, all eyes were on me. I became friends with the other interns, though much of our friendship was built upon finding humor in my “foreign Chinese.” Although I found a way to laugh it off, I always felt excluded and emotionally looked down upon when they all spoke in extremely fast Chinese with each other at the lunch table, and I could not keep up. I felt belittled when my boss spoke Chinese to me, and another intern had to translate for me. The shock in their eyes when I opened my mouth and spoke English only emphasized the piercing words that came out of their mouths, telling me that I was “not Chinese enough.”
There is great emphasis placed on grades in Chinese culture. At home, I was told that I didn’t care enough about grades, and it was in fact, everyone’s obsession with comparing their grades to mine that made me want to leave my old school.Because my mixed ethnicity had always been “the norm” and embraced at my international school in Hong Kong, I came to the US with the hope that my American-ness would be ever so slightly more embraced, that my apparent lack of care towards my grades (in Hong Kong) would be okay.
When I came to Proctor, I was told that I cared about grades too much. In part, it was that I unexpectedly felt that the expectations were higher for me because I was Asian, and I have always been one to conform to meet expectations. I was afraid that if my grades weren’t at the top of the class, that I was somehow a disappointment to Chinese culture. I felt that as a minority, it was my duty to represent my country and make Hong Kong proud. At the same time, people were surprised by how “non-Chinese” I was, with an American name, American accent, and traditions to celebrate American holidays. My mere ability to speak English came as a surprise to many whom I met.
When I was fourteen, I had my first full immersion in a gymnastics camp in Pennsylvania. I was the only Asian there. The girls were taken aback when they found out they I knew how to use a fork, that I could see when I smiled, that I had eaten ice cream, that I had never eaten dog (and in fact owned a dog that I love very much), that I wasn’t a kung fu prodigy, and that I wasn’t an A+ student in math. My last name “Ho” was the ongoing joke of the cabin for two weeks. This was the first time I was asked what my real, Chinese name was. They did not believe me when I told them that Lauren was my real name. Most of the other girls caught on, but for the sake of the ones who didn’t, I told them my name was Ping Ping Ding Ho, and so I was for the rest of the camp. I can laugh about it most of the time, but when it comes down to it, sitting in the dining hall with my friends at dinnertime and hearing them talk about American shows they watched as children still does make me feel excluded as the Chinese person.
When I tried to mask my Chinese side and “be more American,” it raised eyebrows. With my dark hair and eyes, I could never be “American enough.” When I tried to embrace my Chinese side, it still raised eyebrows. With my American accent, name, and mindset, I was also considered “not Chinese enough.” I could never be accepted as fully American because of the way I looked, but I could never be fully Chinese because of the way I was raised. Much of my life, I have had the blessing of being able to be in two places at once. The trouble is that my two feet are welded down to their respective sides and no matter how hard I try, I will never be able to be in one place fully. This made my identity frustration hard for people to understand because it’s hard to wrap your head around unless you’ve experienced it.
One day, someone told me I was not a “real Chinese.” Given the persisting struggle of finding myself that I was already facing, this comment stung and made me question my identity like I never had before. Looking in the mirror, I didn’t see a Chinese girl or an American girl. I didn’t know who I saw. It hurt because I knew the comments at lunch or dinner tables weren’t intended as attacks. It hurt because they believed that I was not like them. Suddenly, I didn’t have my two feet on either side of the border; I was floating somewhere in the middle, alone.
In its twisted way, sharing commonalities with more than one group of people made me different. People tried to tell me that being multicultural was a gift, that it made me more worldly. However, how could they understand the curse in this blessing if they had never lived it? I grew angry, sad, frustrated, and lonely. I would look at this angry, sad, frustrated, and lonely girl in the mirror, and the emotions would only amplify themselves. I started to withdraw more and more, isolating myself to hide from the embarrassment I felt by the eyes that were following me, as the American in Asia, and as the Asian in America.
The last few months have been the peak of my battle with my identity, and as I reach the falling action of my narrative, I am starting to see the resolution, the light at the end of the tunnel. But I’m not there yet.
Sometimes I try to focus on the perks of being multicultural. While I may not always feel like I belong or like I am included, being multicultural has given me opportunities to pursue things that I want to pursue. I have been lucky enough to have the chance to teach Mandarin to a group of local kids at Andover Elementary School. While this does help, I am in the process of learning a much more important lesson. Who is on the outside and inside is a notion created within our subconscious intelligence, because really we all just exist in this space. We all just exist in this beautiful, magical, wonderful world.
Looking in the mirror, I don’t see a Chinese or an American girl, I just see me. I see me, constructed and built from all the treasures of a Chinese culture intertwined with the riches of an American upbringing. I see me, shaped by the memories, loved ones, struggles, and joys. The fact is that this blessing in disguise will always keep me from being fully and wholly a part of one group, but getting to live this surreal phenomenon of being in two places at once is a truly beautiful thing.
Lauren has just graduated from Proctor Academy in New Hampshire and is headed to Middlebury College in the fall. However, she was born and raised in Hong Kong. She has always loved writing from a young age, particularly discovering new words that help her find beauty in her day-to-day life.