State of Being Other
June 27, 2014 7:53 AM   Subscribe

How to reconcile the differences between your origin and daily society?


I'm a first generation American Chinese citizen in my early 20s living in a suburbs outside of NYC. I've written about my self-identity crisis previously and issues with my family. Yes, I am in therapy & seeing a psychiatrist. Somedays it helps.

There's this one issues that continues to bother me whenever someone asks me if I speak Mandarin, apart from the disbelief and condescending attitude from strangers, which I've more or less gotten use to over time. I've always felt the "othering" aspect even when I interact with other ABCs or students.

I grew up in small school district where I was the token Chinese student and I did attend Chinese school for a brief time but I didn't make much progress. Right now I can understand 75% spoken Mandarin and a local dialect from general exp from my family/relatives. However, the nightly news channel would be a challenge because of the formal vocabulary. I considered taking Mandarin in college but I was never particularly good at foreign languages.

I admit I had problems relating to the people that's not a part of being ABC but as I grow older but sense of uncertainty increases. I have visited Asia, mainly China, and I still have the continuing feeling being out of place from the locals. It's fortunate that I live in a metropolitan area yet I feel "different." I have visited local Chinese-related areas like Queens or Chinatown but even so there is the disconnect. The colleges that I attended had culture clubs but I didn't consider joining them due to time/location situations. I've not experienced major racism from strangers or inappropriate comments from classmates but there's the constant sense that I could never "belong" due to some fundamental nature.

My family is relatively modern compared to other Chinese families but at the same time conservative. My mother would love it if I were to learn Mandarin seriously even if I just learned basic phases. Yet, I always have the feeling that I'm not "good enough" when people ask about my Mandarin understanding. It's awkward when many of my other cousins are semi or fluent in Mandarin due to their backgrounds. I know it's my fault for not focusing on Chinese school when I was younger so now I feel even more alienated from my main culture.

I read this question which I could relate to and searched for other posts with similiar topics online.

Overall, how do people come to terms with feelings of displacement or "otherness" in their current society?
posted by chrono_rabbit to Society & Culture (12 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
You are a third culture kid!

I won't attempt to understand your feelings or position on this since I don't have this particular experience, but I will say that I have been friends with and dated plenty of third culture kids. By and large, they have all formed the closest relationships with other third culture kids.

It's a very, very common feeling for them to not feel othered and disconnected from groups. The first generation friends I have, regardless of the wildly different places their parents have immigrated from, all tend to have more in common with each other than with people who were raised in their parents' home country or people who have been in America for many generations.

I don't know if this will be comforting to you, but feeling alienated from your "main culture" is pretty standard. It may help to re-frame your outlook. Your main culture is not Mandarin-speaking Chinese. Your "main culture"--the people with whom you will find the most in common--will likely be other young third culture kids like yourself.
posted by phunniemee at 8:19 AM on June 27, 2014 [2 favorites]

I also get the old world "you don't speak our mother tongue" crap from my relatives. I've learned to see it as them expressing their pride in the language & heritage rather than "you're not good enough you whitewashed North American!" But they're expressing pride in that pushy way, since that's all they know how.

You could learn a different language and say "bugger off! I'm fluent in Italian!"

Your culture is not North American nor is it the Homeland but it's the inbetween people - 1st gen of immigrants.

I made peace by making friends who are more worldly/travelled (it helps being in Toronto which is a city known for its generally harmonious multi-culti mix) instead of trying to 'be' my inherited culture, which I am clearly not. The majority of my friends are 1st gen immigrants too.

I also changed how I think of myself - I'm Canadian in this way but European in that way, and I mix & match what I like from each. I found my idea of myself in my head needed some maturation. Who am I, what are my values etc.

but there's the constant sense that I could never "belong" due to some fundamental nature.

I would explore why you think this is. If you speak perfect English and like regular things (music, movies etc) then there is no reason not to belong UNLESS you're in a really inhospitable location. So you may be expecting people to reject you because of culture and then interpreting everything from that lens.

I don't know what NYC is like since I'm used to Toronto but my guess is that it is metropolitan and you just need to find your social niche.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 8:23 AM on June 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

phunniemee - jinx!
posted by St. Peepsburg at 8:24 AM on June 27, 2014

I'll tell you about our family, as one example of how things might play out 10 or 15 years down the line.

My hubby is also Chinese, and came to the US as a child, the youngest in the family. The oldest siblings were in college when the family came over, and hubby was just starting elementary school.

So, obviously he is the most American of all of his family. He is late 30's now, and we have nieces and nephews that range in age from 5yo to 25yo. His family is all over the spectrum in terms of how they fit in, in American culture.

The way it has manifested in his family is that his sisters are all still living a Chinese lifestyle in American society. Mind you, they've been here for 30+ years. They all speak Mandarin at home, and they pretty-much still follow the customs that they followed before they moved here. A few of the sisters and husbands work for Chinese-owned companies and speak Mandarin exclusively at work.

All of the kids at the very least understand Mandarin, even if a couple of them answer their parents in English. A couple of the sisters will not tolerate that, and have insisted that their kids not only speak Mandarin at home, but also that they become literate, and so those kids went to Saturday school. A couple of the other sisters were not so strict, so their kids are not literate in Mandarin.

My husband feels very frustrated that his family have not assimilated. He feels that they are deliberately "othering" themselves, even if they are doing it unconciously. He feels quite keenly that it's important to embrace the culture you are living in, so as to be open to the most possibilities in life.

Now we have a child, the youngest child in the family. We live a completely American lifestyle, we don't practice any Chinese customs in our home, with the exception of a couple of Lunar New Year traditions for the benefit of his mom. We have had a lot of conversations about teaching our son Mandarin. I actually advocate for it, while hubby does not feel so strongly about it. I think it's a shame that our child is the only child in the family who cannot carry on a conversation with his grandmother in Mandarin. Hubby feels like it would be too confusing to raise the child bi-culturally, and again, wants him to be fully immersed in the native culture of where he is being raised.

If we moved to China, or France or Zimbabwe for that matter, we would all be learning the local language and participating in the local customs.

It has been tough road for my hubby to be different from his family. He lived with his family as an adult, per his family's custom, and he thought they would always be with him no matter what. I think they view his attitude and lifestyle as a rejection of them, and in turn they are basically rejecting him and have been fighty with him for a long time. It has furthered some of his feelings of isolation.

But, he feels strongly enough in his conviction of the way he wants to live that he is okay with the sacrifices he has made. And that right there is the point of my long post. As you are becoming an adult, you will need to decide what the rest of your life looks like to you.

Do you want to be Chinese in an American society? Get yourself to some Mandarin classes, join some Mandarin-speaking meetups, and start going to temple.

Do you want to live an assimilated life? You will need to have a frank talk with your mom. It's along the lines of coming out - mom, I'm going to live a life that's different from what you expected, but I'm still an okay person.

If you want to have children, how do you imagine you will raise them? Chinese or American? Of course, your decisions have huge implications for your social and love life. My hubby and some of his other asian friends who are highly assimilated have talked with me about how hard it is to find the right person, either someone who is also asian who is equally assimilated, or they have to go into an interracial relationship, which is also a limited dating pool. If you're married to an asian person, it might be tough to find couple friends who share your world views to socialize with. If you're in an interracial relationship, that's a whole 'nother can of worms (we're fortunate that the area of Los Angeles where we live has a large population of interracial couples, so we don't stick out at all. But that isn't true of all places).

It's a lot to think about. But when you get right down to "what does my life look like to ME, not to someone else?", you will figure it all out. Of course, that's a very American attitude to take.
posted by vignettist at 9:04 AM on June 27, 2014 [4 favorites]

I considered taking Mandarin in college but I was never particularly good at foreign languages

If you want to do it, just do it. It's never too late. You're gonna have a huge leg-up on your classmates based on your previous exposure (if you choose to take a class) and the number one predictor of success in learning a language is motivation, not talent.

I'm sorry I can't speak to the feelings of cultural otherness more generally, but my heart goes out to you.
posted by karbonokapi at 9:33 AM on June 27, 2014

I am half-Asian and half-white. I am never seen as Asian enough or white enough. I had a lot of struggles with the problems you are talking about. I never felt like I really fit in anywhere. Culturally, I still don't, really - even with others with similar racial backgrounds. I really felt this gap in my early 20s.

I'm in my 30s now, and while the issues are still there, I don't dwell on them daily as I used to. I wish there were a formula I could give you, but the only thing I can tell you is this pain will lessen with time. I just had to accept, as you might, that I will basically always be something of an oddity to everyone else, and there's not much I can do to change that. I had to learn to be happy with myself, and try not to think about race much, because the dwelling made me feel even more isolated. I kept trying to find places where I felt like I belonged racially/culturally, and the more I couldn't, the more I despaired. So, I guess my only advice is I am sorry, and I feel your pain, and if you can, try to focus on other aspects of yourself. The happier and more at peace I am with myself, the easier it is to ease the feeling of being an "other."
posted by umwhat at 9:49 AM on June 27, 2014

I am white but grew up in a Jamaican area, with a Russian stepmother, Chinese and Jewish 'legs' to the family, a Celtic name. I cook Indian food and have multi-cultural friends. I think we are all a mix now. Btw you may find the Billy Bragg song 'half English' interesting re: this stuff.

I have an Afro-Caribbean Irish friend who struggles with this stuff. I remember once saying to her maybe the way to think of it was that she wasn't half of anything.. but instead both things (probably far more).

It's good to have an inquisitive eye about culture and heritage, I often feel an outsider in whatever 'my' society is and feel at odds (even repulsed) with a lot of it's current 'values', in maybe a different way but perhaps some of the feelings overlap. It's not necessarily a bad thing to be an observer and a thinker, but can make the road tougher and lonelier at times.
posted by tanktop at 11:52 AM on June 27, 2014

I am half Chinese. My father's Chinese family came to America before the first Exclusion Acts, so after five generations, there's not really much of a question of hewing to one culture or another. We're Chinese-American. (And most of us aren't fully Chinese anymore - just my Dad and his siblings and they are in their 80s.)

There's a LOT to unpack in your question, but I just want to make one sort of narrow point, which is that how "other" you feel largely depends on where you are in the U.S. If you go to California, where there is a large population of Chinese descended from the first wave of Cantonese immigrants in the 1800s, being a Chinese-American who doesn't speak Chinese is the norm. Of course, California has a larger Asian population anyway, so you are less likely to be asked the annoying questions that I often hear in the mid-Atlantic. "What *are* you? Do you speak Chinese?" (No, do you speak Yiddish/Gaelic/whatever?)

I wish I could give you a solution to your sense of otherness, other than suggesting that you move to California. I grew up as a military brat, and never felt it - even though as a half Chinese-American, half Italian-American, I would have seemed odd in any other setting (especially since I'm a tail end baby boomer, and interracial marriages were less usual then.)

In any case, it sounds to me like your issue really isn't othering, but meeting parental expectations. You married another Chinese! Your parents should be ecstatic about that and leave you the heck alone.
posted by ereshkigal45 at 12:52 PM on June 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

Doh. Misread one of the responses as being part of your original post. Ignore my last comment about having married another Chinese.
posted by ereshkigal45 at 1:22 PM on June 27, 2014

"but there's the constant sense that I could never "belong" due to some fundamental nature." You're couching this as an issue of "race", but people also feel that they can't belong due to gender, physical looks, athletic ability, economic background, perceived social class, educational level, length of acquaintance, seniority in some organization, sense of humor, skill set, etc. Ultimately, we're all "other", each and every one of us.

Back to race, this comedy bit might give some perspective:
posted by at at 4:47 PM on June 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

There is an online magazine/blog/website geared toward TCK called Denizen that you might like.

I don't know that these two things... Society and your upbringing - need reconciled. They just are. You contain multitudes, that's all!

I don't think anyone meets or fulfils all (or sometimes any) of society's expectations. We all have weird things about us that are 'other'. Make a list of everyone you know, and their otherness-es and develop an appreciation for these multitudes.
posted by jrobin276 at 4:52 PM on June 27, 2014

You know, it’s really hard growing up in the diaspora. It’s really hard being the only Chinese kid at school, living in the ‘burbs with no one to share your experience with. It’s really hard being the child of immigrant parents because your experience growing up in Western society is completely different than arriving in Western society as an adult bringing memories of home.

I read your previous posts and difficulties with your mom and feeling guilty about not knowing enough Mandarin. None of what you write about is unique – struggling to keep/learn your mother tongue, identity, difficult relationship to parents, not fitting in in Western society and not fitting in at “home” either. I’d suggest you read works about Asian American identity (e.g. - though I don’t know about those first two. Helen Zia is great, and Yell-oh girls might be worth checking out. Oh, and Maxine Hong Kingston) and checking out blogs like to get a sense of what others are saying about the same issues. I wish I had more and better resources for you but I’m not well-versed in Asian American issues (I’m Chinese, born in Toronto, so I’m more aware of Chinese-Canadian history and while there are similarities to Chinese-American history, there are differences because well, the US and Canada are pretty different). I can tell you that I also started thinking deeply about my identity in my early twenties as well, while at university, having been influenced by my peers. We were involved in various kinds of activism and all that identity stuff comes up when you’re involved in that. I kind of wish you could be involved in that sort of thing too, to be exposed to people who have similar experiences as you, and who can be sounding boards for you. And to get yourself politicized. I agree with St. Peepsburg that you have to find your social niche – I would think that you’d relate to some (though not all) ABCs.

Are you still living with your mom? If so, I wish and hope that you could live on your own because it seems like her influence is having a detrimental effect on you, based on your posts. I don’t mean to insult her at all – parents can really be crazy-making sometimes. Sometimes you just need the space to breathe, figure out things on your own, and please no one but yourself. You don’t have to be 100% fluent in Mandarin. You don’t have to sell health insurance. You don’t have to a be a superstar in college, you know? In that sense, I agree with ereshkigal45 – it seems like your issue is more about meeting parental expectations.

So to answer your question - find your people. Find community. Find people with similar experiences as yours. Easier said than done, I know. Read, learn, journal. Start accepting who you are - I feel like that part is missing for you. Find your own voice - claim your experiences and who you are.

Feel free to memail me anytime if you just need someone to talk to.
posted by foxjacket at 11:32 PM on June 27, 2014 [3 favorites]

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