By Cheyenne Tang
Photographed by Nguyen Phi Dieu Hang
This article has been adapted for the web from our Outsider Issue.
“Where are you really from?” is a question only a select few hear, but one I have heard at every stage of my life. I was born in Attleboro, Massachusetts and spent the first few years of my life in Dedham, a small town just outside Boston. From the get-go, I was an outsider - my peers immediately labeled me “The Chinese Girl.” Desperate to fit in, though, I played along, going as far as inventing things like “The Chinese Cartwheel” during recess in an attempt to seem interesting. After hearing the news that my family was moving to Malaysia at the end of first grade, there was little I wanted more than to feel like I actually fit in there.
Unfortunately, my first year in Malaysia was the first time I began to understand the gravity of how in-between I was. I told everyone I was American, but one "friend" in particular constantly questioned my American identity. She told me it was wrong of me to identify as anything other than Chinese because my parents were from Asia. To defend my American identity, I constantly told myself: “I was born in America and lived there for 7 years. We have a house there. English is my first language.” But even with these core beliefs in my heart, the constant questioning of my heritage made me desperate to understand how to talk about my background.
I have always considered myself Chinese-American, but a part of myself is afraid to fully embrace my Chinese heritage. Growing up watching American TV shows and movies conditioned me to consider white and American as the ideal, and all other things as undesirable. Asian characters were always portrayed as the goofy, nerdy friend. While these images never transferred to my daily life at school, it still made me embarrassed of my heritage. I wished I didn’t have Asian eyes so I could do the same eye makeup as my friends. I cringed when I heard Mandarin being shouted across the halls, or when I saw Chinese tour groups outside my apartment building trying to snap photos of the Twin Towers. I shy away from people who hadn’t been “Westernized”. When people grouped me with “mainlanders”, I felt angry that they would even consider me to be one of them. I hate how ashamed I am of my own people - but the lack of non-stereotypical Asian characters in media distances me from the people I should be able to identify with.
My feelings of being in between cultures came from more than just my peers and the media, though. In Malaysia, we had an annual “International Festival” that celebrated the origins of the students by having a presentation where you stand when your country’s flag is presented. Despite the stares I drew from my peers, I proudly stood for America, the country that I understood to be my home. After seeing me stand for America, my mom pulled me aside and asked if I stood up for Malaysia and Hong Kong as well. I was thoroughly confused - why would I stand up for Malaysia and Hong Kong when that’s where my parents are from, not where I’m from? To me, standing up for those countries would be claiming my parents’ origins as my own, even though they were never mine. I realized then that even my parents did not share my experience - that I was so in-between, even my parents didn’t know how to navigate it.
Everything changed after moving back to Boston. When applying to colleges my senior year, I wasn’t sure whether I was technically an international student or a domestic student. Some schools said since my high school education was abroad, I was international. Legally, I was domestic and didn’t need any visas. So what did that mean? Well, it turns out that Northeastern has a special in-between—I was classified as an American student living abroad. During our special orientation, a guest speaker came in to teach us about “cultural acceptance”. I quickly realized that saying I was American wasn’t an acceptable identity here. They lectured us about how things are different here and how we may experience culture shock because we’re no longer with our “tribe” or “colony”. The guest lecturer made us rate how well we perceived our adaptability to new places and language - and while such assessments may have been well-intended, they only intensified my feeling of being out of place. If Northeastern didn’t categorize my experience correctly, how could I expect anyone else to?
In Malaysia, I always introduced myself as American, but now, I feel like I’m lying about where I’m from if I don’t introduce myself as Malaysian. Living between cultures and locations in a world that so stringently categorizes people is challenging when there are no models for what that experience is supposed to be like. The media has little interest in highlighting the stories of people who are in-between, and although representation is a major discussion in society today, I don’t see people trying to represent stories like mine. A common mantra for people going through periods of struggle is “you’re not alone” — but what if I really am?