Identity Crisis

One of my best friends often jokes that I have an identity crisis. Hence, the title of this post. If that sounds confusing, well, it's because it is. Even to me. Growing up in an immigrant household that held on to traditions isn't easy. There were times growing up where I wanted nothing more than to be American - blonde hair, blue eyed, Thanksgiving dinner American. I wanted English speaking parents that didn't need my help to fill out forms. I wanted the homemade sandwich lunches. I envied the kids who were 1/3 this and 1/16 that – I thought I was boring, being just 100% Chinese. 

risa xu baby picture 1992

As I've gotten older, I've grown more aware of my Chinese culture and where my family comes from. The more Chinese New Years I spend away from my parents, the more I realize I have to forge my own path and create my own annual traditions amongst many other things, while still preserving the important (albeit, sometimes extremely superstitious) parts of Chinese culture.

Many would argue that I strayed from my culture in that I'll be marrying a Greek South African this November. But rather, I feel that I've had the opportunity to relearn things I knew and learn things I didn't. I've had the opportunity to research and grow into my Chinese identity – instead of doing things "just because," I now research the "why" for my fiancé. I'm lucky to have a partner that is interested and invested in learning about my culture. I give him the same respect for his culture. We often say that our household is a merging of two ancient, intelligent, innovative and, sometimes controversial, cultures.

risa xu 1996 lincoln memorial

I'm lucky to have grown up in a country that has allowed me so many freedoms. But I'm also extremely lucky, in that, my parents allowed the beautiful parts of Chinese culture to stay and were able to let go of the pieces that they didn't feel were right for our family or for where our family resided.

I remember coming home from daycare super excited to share all that happened that day and all the new English I was learning. and my parents telling me "听不懂英文。说中文" which meant "We don't understand English, speak Chinese." I didn't understand what this meant at the time – of course they spoke English, I've heard them speak it before! But now, twenty some odd years later, I'm thankful to them for continuing to keep my Mandarin fluent.

I also remember my dad trying to teach me to hand write Chinese. He even had elementary school books from China brought to the States for me – similar to those books Kindergartners receive to learn the alphabet. I would cry and complain that my hands hurt, that they were cramping. At some point, my dad told me, "Someday, when you realize it's important, you'll seek to learn it yourself." Years later, a family friend's daughter happened to move to Stateside and I found that I couldn't hang out in QQ chatrooms, I couldn't read the subtitles of the shows we were watching together, and I couldn't read the lyrics at karaoke... I wanted to learn how to read Chinese. My father was right. 

risa xu forbidden city china

 The older I became, the more I realized how important keeping my culture alive was. At the time my parents were applying for my citizenship, my parents allowed me to decide whether or not I wanted to change my name. I'm sure most don't know but my legal name is Chinese. Even during my "rebellious teenage" phase, I made the decision that I didn't want to change my name. I felt that it would be releasing a part of me that was supposed to be permanent, that even letting go of my Chinese name was, in a way, acquiescing to a culture that I didn't necessarily belong to.

I often tell Nicholas, it's weird for me because I feel a sense of pride towards being Chinese. I found that I feel offended when untrue things or generalizations about China or Chinese people are said. For instance, when China built the world's highest and longest glass bridge, I made the number one mistake on social media: I read the comments. Seeing people make generalizations such as "If it's made in China, then it can't be that great." or "Did anyone check the materials they used to build it?" made something inside me burn with rage. Admittedly, China has many things it needs to work on, but things take time and if we're to laugh at those that have fallen behind trying to catch up, how are we ever to progress?

Back to my wanting to be American as a kid... I now understand that being American isn't defined by the color of your hair, your eyes or your skin color. It's knowing that the person sitting next to you on the train may be different and that's okay. It's knowing that just because you don't necessarily agree with someone's beliefs, they're free to live their lives how they want and it's okay. It's knowing that you will fight for your neighbor's right to love who they want to love. And in that sense, I guess I've been American all along. 

In this time in the United States of America, I want our differences to bring us closer together, not tear us apart. We can learn things from each other's cultures that are unimaginable. And I've found that if you spend time talking to one another, you'll find that you have more in common than you think. Every culture has weird superstitions that we do but maybe don't really know why. Or weird foods that you secretly love but honestly don't know if it's something you'd want to share with your friends. Or just traditions that don't necessarily make sense in this day and age anymore but you do them anyways.

risa xu alice guo chinese new year nyc 2016

And on that note, after being at work all day, I'm going to go finish cleaning the house in preparation for Chinese New Year. Because you can't clean on New Year's Eve but you have to start the year with a clean house. Oh, and can I just say I'm so excited to take off my red string and 转运珠 (Zhuan Yun Zhu – the red beads on my neck) on Saturday, considering I've had them on since last Chinese New Year? 😜 Wishing everyone a prosperous and joyous 2017. May this year bring you more joy, love and happiness than the years before.

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