“Wow, Amy, you got really tan.”
Two people I love told me this recently. They implied very different things.
For my white fiancé, it’s admiration for my four+ years of commitment to swim, bike or run six days a week, which has intensified as I train for my first Half Ironman. For my Chinese cousin, however, it’s consternation because she believes I should look fair for my wedding this summer. As a first-generation Chinese Canadian, I need to reconcile the differences inherent to my dual identity.
My parents and I moved from China to Canada when I was 13. I knew little English, but I worked hard and graduated from my ESL program in record time. By the end of my first year in Canada, I was receiving very good grades, as I had in China. In fact, I had the second highest average in my class. Yet few classmates seemed to know or care. Unlike in China, academic excellence was not everyone’s sole objective here. The one thing that I knew how to do well was no longer valued. I felt lost.
For the rest of high school, I spent weekends volunteering and school holidays camping with the Girl Scouts. I started attending a church where I was the only Asian, and I seldom spoke Chinese in public. Subconsciously, I distanced myself from the Chinese community in search of an identity more readily accepted.
In 2014, after studying and working in Boston and New York, I moved to Abu Dhabi for a job. I expected my time in the Middle East to be many things, but not liberating. Indeed, apart from the Emirati elites, there was no monolithic culture in the UAE, and everyone was left to articulate their own identity. As an English-speaking, Asian-looking, church-going, triathlon enthusiast, I didn’t fit into any box and I embraced my dual identities.
My American friends could tell from my accent that I wasn’t American, but that didn’t stop us from bonding over weekend bike rides or going to Shake Shack and talking Wall Street. On Fridays, my Emirati colleagues went to mosques while I attended church, yet we deeply respected each other for our devotion to our respective faiths. And I started hanging out with a group of Chinese. Wow, I could now jumble English and Chinese, those quintessential expressions that can’t be translated rolling off my tongue. I started realizing just how often I began a sentence with “There is a Chinese saying… .” In this foreign land where I was neither completely American nor Chinese, I felt both more American and more Chinese than ever.
Now that I am back stateside, I am finally comfortable in my own skin. As I pursue graduate studies in the Bay Area, my independence and passion energizes me to relish my outdoor training and stay a vocal Christian. I also befriend fellow Chinese students, for I recognize that it’s my Chinese heritage and its pursuit of academic success that spurred me to come back to school. That’s not to say that my two worlds don’t clash; I once met a Chinese friend after one of my swimming sessions and she lamented that she couldn’t go swimming because it would darken her skin. (She was covered from head to toe against the sun during this conversation.) I just shrugged. I recognize our differences and I cherish even more our similarities. We all have complex facets to our identities. It would be a pity to simplify who we are with a one-word tagline. Instead, we can feel empowered by acknowledging this tension and appreciating the different values that shape us.