Proudly Chinese-American: Flying Halfway Across the Globe to Reclaim My Identity
By: Kaityn Cui
I remember the first day of second grade like it was yesterday.
All eyes were on me as the teacher called out our names for attendance. “Kaitlyn…..” she stuttered, readjusting her glasses as she struggled to pronounce my last name. “Kaitlyn… Koo-wee?” My classmates failed to stifle their laughs as they turned towards the back of the class, seeing a small, black-haired girl shyly raise her hand. “That’s me.” I stammered, not meeting the gaze of the teacher, and not correcting her wrong pronunciation of my last name, Cui. I was used to it anyway. Plus, I disliked having so much attention on me.
Nonetheless, it seemed that with all the ways I stood out from the rest of the class, garnering attention was inevitable. On another day in class, a classmate who sat behind me tapped me on my shoulders and pointed at another black-haired, Asian boy sitting far across the room. “You guys must be related right?” He said in a mocking tone, and proceeded to pull back his eyes, giving them a slanted shape. “You both look like this, and speak the same language. Ching chong ching chong.” He started laughing so hard that the teacher had to stop mid-lesson to tell him to be quiet. Meanwhile, I had been quiet the entire time sitting next to him, the tips of my ears burning and my cheeks flushed a bright shade of tomato. I wanted to correct him, tell him that I hated what he just said, but I could not muster up the courage to do so.
Another vivid set of recollections I have is lunchtime at school. Sitting in a sea of cafeteria chocolate milks and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, I looked forward to my lunch every day. From handmade 小笼包 (xiǎolóngbāo) with yummy pork filling that melted in my mouth, to the various kinds of mouth-watering fried rice, noodles, and stir-fried dishes, my mom and grandma always worked hard to pack me nutritious lunches filled with their love. Each day after I took a bite from my thermos, I closed my eyes and could imagine myself transported to a different region of China. But this euphoria did not last long. Pretty soon, the rest of my classmates would notice, saying things like “Your food looks so weird and gross!” and “Do you eat dogs? Don’t eat my pet please!” I was horrified at what they had to say about me, and soon, lunchtime became something I dreaded. I begged that my mom buy me cheap Lunchables and make me flavorless sandwiches to bring to school. Even though I didn’t like the taste and missed my Chinese lunches dearly, I would do anything to fit in with everybody else, instead of enduring their taunts. From this point onward, rather than trying to coexist with my vastly different American and Chinese cultures, I chose the easier path of running away from the culture I grew up with, in order to fit in with Americans.
Thankfully, all this changed when I was invited to attend a cultural exchange summer program for free. It was a three-week camp with other foreign-born Chinese students from all over the world to “search for our roots”, sponsored by the Huzhou government. At 11 years old and standing at 4’11”, I was the youngest person there, and undeniably frightened at the thought of spending so long without my parents. But, with the coaxing of other older students, I began to open up, becoming more outgoing, participating more in Chinese lessons, and actively reaching out to fellow campmates, asking to become friends.
I will never forget my experiences from these short three weeks. I got to meet students from all over the world (whom I affectionately called “哥哥” and “姐姐”). For example, the boy next door lived in Japan, and the girls staying across the hall were from France and Switzerland! Though we all led totally different lives across the globe, our common Chinese language and culture acted as the glue which brought us together. Despite just meeting, we all immediately felt an unspoken connection through our shared heritage as we spent late nights cracking jokes and sharing stories about being Chinese in different countries. Together, we all trekked from the 太湖 (Lake Tai) to a silkworm factory to a Chinese history museum, listening to tour guides, absorbing stories about the history of Huzhou and the process of making silk. My new friends and I used every minute of free time we got to walk around downtown, trying a new restaurant each day. Back in the classroom, along with our daily language lessons, we dabbled in 书法 (calligraphy), learning to play 围棋 (Chinese checkers), Chinese paper cutting, performing traditional dances, and so much more!
This trip opened my eyes to the beauty of Chinese culture and history, introducing to me all the rich art forms, traditions, and stories that I never even knew existed. I felt ashamed at my previous attempts to throw away such an invaluable part of my identity, times when I refused to speak Chinese with my family in public, didn’t eat my mom’s cooking, and did not listen to my grandma when she told me traditional folk tales and when she recalled her childhood.
From this point on, in an attempt to reclaim and re-immerse myself into my beautiful heritage, and to thank the older campmates from the trip who helped me discover my “roots”, I decided that I wanted to pay it forward by not only studying hard to improve my own Chinese knowledge, but also to help other students do the same; I knew that I was not the only one who struggled with my Chinese-American identity. I studied hard in Chinese school, skipping multiple levels ahead and graduating in 9th grade, with one of the highest grades in my class. I took electives to further practice calligraphy and painting. I stayed behind after our weekly lessons, sacrificing lunch time because I enjoyed tutoring younger kids with their Chinese homework and supervising them on behalf of the teachers. I also helped out at summer camps, acting as teacher’s assistants, helping them with their lessons and using a camera to document memories. I volunteered at local Chinese cultural festivals attracting hundreds and even thousands of people, helping with the logistics of the annual Lunar New Year performance, and operating a booth selling Chinese snacks to festival participants. For my own academic enrichment, I have entered in competitions and won various awards at the Southern California level for English-to-Chinese translation, composing original short composition in Chinese, poetry recitation, and more. I was also chosen as the lead actor for my class’s play about filial piety and Confucian values; we performed at different venues, and even won first place in a local performance competition, winning hundreds of dollars for our teacher to use to buy more classroom supplies. At school, I serve on the leadership board for the Chinese club. In my free time I have started a podcast with friends interviewing Asian-American, specifically Chinese people, from all over the nation, asking them to tell us about their unique heritage, stories, and how their journey of living with two different cultures. I would have never had these amazing experiences if I was not Chinese-American, and never learned to love my Chinese culture just as much as my American culture, which I did by immersing myself into the overseas program.
I am no longer the same person I was those days in second grade, all thanks to a short yet life-changing summer program. I am proud to know how to speak Chinese. Now, I never hide the food my mom cooks that I bring to school. To thank the people who helped me reconnect with my roots, I continue to work hard every day to spread the same passion and love of learning Chinese to other students around me.
I am still a teenager, still with a long walk of life ahead of me. At this age, so many things are uncertain, and I have so many questions about my future. But, I know that one thing will stay true for the rest of my days, and that is my love and pride for Chinese language and culture!
Kaitlyn Cui is a rising high school senior at Northwood High School from Southern California. She has been learning Chinese ever since she could speak, and graduated from her local Chinese school in 9th grade. As a Chinese-American and a daughter of immigrants, she understands the value of maintaining connections with her Chinese roots; she does this mainly through volunteering at Chinese school and participating in events that promote learning about Chinese language and culture. She looks forward to visiting China again after the pandemic!