In middle school, I went through a brief phase of having people call me Melvin. It was mostly an inside joke with a few friends, but I was its own originator. People always hesitated at and stumbled over my Chinese legal name, and my unofficial name was too bumpy with plosives. Melvin was easier, smoother, and surprisingly more comfortable.
The name conjured a mental image of an awkward, nerdy white boy, and I was definitely an awkward, nerdy tomboy. I often claimed to be “white on the inside,” too. A banana, a Twinkie, whitewashed—and proud of it. While my Asian friends were watching Meteor Garden and practicing the dance moves to K-pop songs, I was watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer and rocking out to Metallica.
My parents sent me to Chinese school for ten years, during which I learned to speak the language like a fluent eight-year-old and made half-hearted attempts at traditions like calligraphy, braiding, and dance. I hated every minute of the language classes and put as little effort into them as possible, because it seemed stupid and pointless to learn Mandarin when we were living in America. I disliked the other activities merely for interfering with my Saturday cartoon time.
Meanwhile, my mother entrenched herself in our town’s substantial Chinese community. Her English grew paradoxically worse the longer she lived here. I was embarrassed by her inability to integrate, irritated by her clinging to the culture that she had intentionally left behind, and resentful of the multiple barriers growing between us.
During my fifth-grade winter break, we took a family trip to the motherland for me to meet my extended family for the first time. I couldn’t understand most of what was written on signs and menus or what anyone was saying to me. When I made my best efforts at interpreting and answering questions from my parents’ friends, they laughed with a condescension that made me uncomfortable and annoyed. Even their younger children snickered at my clumsy phrases.
I learned that being Chinese-American meant being in limbo. If I wanted to belong somewhere, I would have to choose one culture or the other.
So I chose to be called Melvin, which meant being white, which I equated with being American. I wanted nothing to do with this crazy language that required so much repetition and memorization. I wanted nothing to do with these tedious traditions that were irrelevant to my life. And I definitely wanted nothing to do with these people with whom I had nothing in common.
It took a lot of learning after high school to undo this damaging, self-hating mentality—even just to realize that it was damaging and self-hating.
When I went off to college in a state that wasn’t New Jersey, New York, or California, I learned that the rest of America has a lot more white people, and I wasn’t really one of them after all. Pride in being “whitewashed” was in fact pride in being brainwashed. It was trying to efface a natural part of me, like cutting off an arm or a leg. And my tacit compliance paved the way for white people to efface us, too.
When my white boyfriend and I broke up, and he went on to date a series of other Asian women, I learned that even so-called open-minded progressives carried implicit biases. No matter how I thought of myself or what I considered to be my most salient qualities, certain others would always see my yellowness first and foremost.
When my classmate in a study-abroad program in Spain made a video interviewing Chinese immigrants, I learned to view my own mother’s experience in a softer, more empathetic light. The barriers between us had grown so tall that it was only through someone else’s class project that I could begin to understand her and the similar struggles of other immigrants. I began to wonder, what other stories lay quiet on the other side of the wall?
A few years ago, I had a moment of shock and panic when I couldn’t picture the characters for my Chinese name. Fortunately, my fingers still knew how to move the pen. I felt a strange combination of surprise, relief, and resignation in acknowledging the immutability of my Chinese identity.