Personal Essay: Life on the Hyphen
With my eyes focused on the road and my hands gripping the steering wheel as I sang along to TFBoys with my little sister and cousins snug in the backseat, I felt a comforting wave of familiarity wash over me. I was driving on a street filled with businesses, neighborhoods, and scenery that I’ve known since I was a little girl but with my family surrounding me, I finally understood that “home” wasn’t a physical place but rather, an indescribable experience that resided with the people I love—my family. These were the people who taught me and aided me in formulating my values, my beliefs, and essentially, my identity.
When the last strain of the song ended, my eight-year-old cousin stated quietly, “I don’t want to be Chinese-American. Why can’t I just be Chinese or just American?” I was hit with yet another wave of familiarity: I wasn’t taken back by what she asked but the fact that I asked the same question when I was her age.
As with many monumental moments in my life, the day I was struck with the sharp realization that my cultural and racial identity were targets for alienation and ridicule from my classmates included food—specifically, the tupperware contents in my blue and pink Hello Kitty lunchbox. With lips parted and a bundle of spicy seaweed sandwiched between my chopsticks, I had been bombarded with a variety of questions and statements from the entire lunch table:
What is that?
Rosemary is eating weird food!
Is that even food?
Are you normal?
Is it because you’re from somewhere else?
Does your family eat like you? Are they American?
My classmates’ responses had evolved into questions that highlighted not only my physical differences but cultural differences as well. I didn’t answer any of their inquires and began to chew slowly, my cheeks growing hot as the flame of embarrassment ignited within me. It was the first time I felt embarrassed about who I was.
From that point onward, I subconsciously noticed my racial difference whenever I stepped into a room since there weren’t many people of color in my school and community. I continually wondered what it meant to be American and whether the food I ate in my house, the dialect I spoke with my family, or the cartoons that I watched had a place in this country that I called home.
I thought perhaps this sense of alienation would abandon me when I visited China during summer vacation where physically, I would fit in. However, I soon learned that while I could speak the same language, enjoy the same foods, watch the same cartoons, or play the same games, I was still “the American,” the “ABC (American Born Chinese).” I heard the phrases roll off their tongues, splattering me like drops of bitter juice, often followed by a sneer or a teasing laugh.
Was there an order to my label? Was I Chinese first or American first? Can I just choose to be one over the other?
It was easy to simply tell myself the label didn’t matter but the truth was, my problem resided not with a label but with the fact that I seemed to live on an unidentified middle ground that’s wedged between two known worlds. I used to hate it, but I have now learned to embrace it. I live on a hyphen that unites two worlds but also signifies a separation. It’s as if I belong to both communities and neither at the same time because I will never belong in one or the other fully.
Life on the hyphen is not as lonely, alienating, or demeaning as I used to think. Rather, it is a celebration of various qualities that make up an individual; the combination of cultures, diversity, and aspects that form a unique community. It is a platform that can be used to fight for change and unity.
While I did reply to my cousin’s question, I’d also add: Throw yourself up on that hyphen, swing your legs, sip a bottle of Wahaha, and be unapologetically you.