Categorized | Vol 31 No 35 | 8/25-8/31

Youthful voice: “Life as an ESL Asian American”

Eelane Chan

By Eelane Chan

Growing up as an Asian American, I always struggled with the question, “Am I Asian? Or am I American?”

During my childhood, I struggled with learning English. I often used “Chinglish” words, such as “fire rice,” instead of, “fried rice.” I was made fun of for not speaking English correctly, but that’s OK, because I don’t remember much about being teased, anyway. My teacher placed me in ESL when I was in first grade and my English quickly improved. From then on, I excelled in English, while slowly forgetting the Chinese language.

I also left behind more of my Chinese culture. I wanted to own Barbie dolls and Polly Pockets, eat at McDonalds, and play Connect Four. Even though I attended Chinese school, I half-assed it and never really put my heart into it.

In addition, I also began to forget my traditional values. When my parents burned paper money and told me to pray for ancestors, I stood there with a blank expression, moving my clasped hands up and down to pray for good health and a bright future. I learned a lot of things about my Chinese culture, not from my parents, but from school. It is sad to know that despite being closer to my parents, the source of my knowledge of Chinese culture was largely from school.

As a second-generation Chinese American, I feel burdened because I have to be the first generation to succeed and lead a good life, while balancing Chinese and American customs and traditions.

I had an epiphany during my middle school years when I realized, “Who am I? Why do I try so hard to be American? Why can’t I just love myself for who I am?”

By this time, I forgot a lot of my native language. I could no longer reply to my parents in Cantonese, nor could I understand the more complicated things they said. I regretted it.

I met a lot of “FOBs” (a term for new immigrants or “fresh-off-the-boat”) who came from China, Japan, and Korea. At first, I really liked their fashion, which in my opinion, was more unique than American fashion. I admired their ability to speak their mother language so well, despite coming to a country where their language isn’t commonly spoken. I felt inferior to them. I hated being stuck between two cultures, despite the fact that my American side influences me more.

I recently tried to make more earnest efforts to embrace my Asian identity by speaking to my parents in Cantonese. I also tried to watch more Chinese dramas and listen to Chinese music. I recently learned that it’s not just me who struggles living as an Asian American. New immigrants also struggle with the influences of dual cultures. After participating in the Northwest Asian Weekly’s Summer Youth Leadership Program, I’ve realized the advantages and disadvantages of being Asian American, while learning about the opportunities that we have.  (end)

Editor’s note: This story was written by a Summer Youth Leadership Program student, not a Northwest Asian Weekly staff member. 

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