Thursday, February 20, 2014

Owning "jook sing"

Some call us ABCs (American born Chinese) others call us bananas and Twinkies (things that are yellow on the outside but white on the inside), the Cantonese call us "jook sing" (literally the bamboo pole that the farmer hoists over his shoulders to balance two baskets of goods). Regardless of the phrase, the implication is the same: someone who of Asian or Chinese descent, who looks Asian but doesn't inherently have Asian cultures, values, and traditions. Essentially people who look a certain way but have false advertisement all over them.

Regardless of the phrase there is at least a slight negative foreign connotation to them all. When I was growing up in the rough non-hipster side of Brooklyn that means the Hispanic, African-American, and Caucasian kids look at me and proclaimed me Chinese (although I potentially can be any other Asian race but it's the most common and largest in population, so at least they got that probability right) with my relatively sallow skin, slanted eyes, skinny and short body, and uncouth Asian accented English that comes with English as a Second Language. When I am visiting my family in Hong Kong and Guangdong they pronounce me American; assuming I don't speak fluent Cantonese, can't properly hold chopsticks to eat chicken feet at dim sum, not understand the slang floating around me, not accord respect to my elders, and to be fatter than everyone around me. Either way there is no winning because I am like a pentagonal object trying to simultaneously fit both a round hole and a square peg resulting in the classic Goldilocks syndrome: not quite this but not quite that.

Immigrants are an admirable hardy bunch: only the grittiest can have the courage and determination to leave their homeland and go seek opportunities in a foreign land where they have no identity, no ties, no family, no friends, no money, no language capabilities, and often no skills. They seek and dream of wealth, education, opportunities, and success if not for themselves then for their progeny. However they don't realize this: there is no such thing as a free lunch. While the brave immigrant is willing to give up blood, sweat, and tears there is one thing they did not expect to lose: their culture.

So these immigrant family scratch their heads in confusion asking: why is my child not of my culture and their own heritage? How can they blithely give up such a rich and proud history to identify with foreign taste, culture, and values? How come we are literally and figuratively speaking different languages? What did I do wrong?

The truth nothing was done wrong by anyone. In coming to a different country, the culture is not the same. While proud expectations are high to preserve the homeland culture, when a child grows up in one culture at the parental home but another outside of the parental home what you get is a mishmash of all the things that make each unique.

So when my relatives and parents' friends compliment me on my fluent accentless Cantonese I proudly say I am a "jook sing" because I AM of two cultures: Asian and American. I am of two rich worlds: conservative-liberal, heterogenous-homogenous, inward-outward, independent-communal, peach-coconut, and the combinations are endless. I am neither basket #1 or basket #2 but rather the important tool that connects two entities. I see both the flaws and the beauties of two worlds and thus I can pick and choose what values, taste, and culture resonate with me because despite how we all look the same, we all have such different experiences.

Those who only see from one perspective cannot appreciate the differences that make the world dynamic, wonderful, and evolving. Those who only speak on language cannot fully appreciate the beauty and the struggle of syntax, grammar, and vocabulary that makes language unique; those who only eat one type of food may become bored of blandness more easily; and those who only associate with one type of people may not have the pleasant surprise of discovering the difference and universality of humanity at the same time.

So yes I'm a "jook sing" and I'm proud of it.