Ever since I was little, I think there was something in me that just knew that I wouldn't end up with another Chinese person. I don't know why. Maybe because I grew up in a really white suburb of Connecticut. The odds just weren't there. At the time it didn't seem too disturbing. It was clear to me that other Chinese parents wanted their kids to end up with Chinese partners. While I figured that was also my parents' preference, they also made it clear, they would never make me date a Chinese person. That felt liberating and I was proud of us! This is America!
However as I got older, this soon became a point of anxiety for me. It was still clear to me that I would probably not end up with a Chinese person. On the other hand, my concern about how much Chinese the next generation would be infused with grew. I did some quick math in my head. My Chinese language ability, understanding of the culture, and ability to cook was, by my liberal estimates, was about 10% of my parents. This was in a household of two Chinese parents that grew up in Taiwan. I projected forward. Since my household would only have me, it might be reasonable to estimate that I would actually be able to pass on maybe 3% of what I actually know (surely, it could not be 5% as I was positive that two Chinese parents had a synergistic, not just cumulative effect). That meant in the span of two generations, our culture would be reduced to three tenths of a percent.
And, because I'm a “worst case scenario” kind of person, I figured I'd end up with a white person. This is not to say that white folks are worse than other folks. But in my head, what I was thinking is that white, American culture is so mainstream, that any child growing up in the states would undoubtedly experience it, learn about it, and incorporate it. Having a white parent was culturally redundant.
And so for a long time, this was something that I had resigned myself to. There wasn't anything to be done about it. The most that I could do was try to bolster my percentage so that my children had a slightly larger pool to draw from. And maybe I would make my parents hang out with them. And the dreaded Chinese school. My kids were definitely sentenced to years of Saturday morning torture.
I realize that the way I'm talking about culture right now makes it sound like this mechanical or discrete knowledge set that I want to force upon my children. I think that's how it comes out sometimes because we grow so anxious about passing these things on, that we don't know what else to do. Certainly as a child, sometimes I felt like Chinese things were a just an exercise in culture that I was required to do because my hair was black and I had squinty eyes.
However, around the time that I got to college, I began to realize that culture was more than that. It was part of my family; it was part of my history; it was part of who I was. I remember showing up to my friend's house late in my freshman year. We were getting together to make dumplings and I realized that participating didn't just bring the promise of yummy food. When I walked through the door and saw everything laid out on the table, I suddenly had this huge sense of relief. Somehow, some part of me had returned home in some way. I realized how much I associated Chinese culture with an anchor in life.
And so when I think about my kids, my anxiety is that the less I pass on to them, the less they understand me, the less they understand their history, the less they understand themselves. I think about all the things that I associate with my childhood and I fear that I can't reproduce it for them. I can recognize some of my favorite dishes when they're cooked, but I can't remember them all myself. And I can't cook them all. I don't even know all their names. We want to show our kids all the things we cherish and it makes me anxious that I can't do that. It's stressful to think that I was the last to know.
And so it was this mindset that I left the states, and my white girlfriend, for, ostensibly, the last summer vacation of my life. I was heading to Taiwan. I would live with my grandmother. I would learn Chinese. I would learn to cook.
As time went on I seemed to calm down a bit. The concerns that my Chinese would again disintegrate when I got back to the states seemed to fade. This trip had shown me that I could pick it up if I wanted or needed to. The foundation for that was there and that would never go away. And with that I came to realize that if my Chinese wasn't perfect, that was ok. I wasn't born in Taiwan. I don't live there. I'm from the states and not having perfect Chinese is part of who I am.
And I began to look around a little bit more. As freeing as it was to be so enveloped with Chinese culture, I began to notice how the homogeneity could be stifling. For example, gender normativity is still very strong. I began to understand why my mom has always preferred living in the States. I could not find any good Mexican food to save my life. That sort of thing.
So I guess culture is this balance of old and new. I'm reminded once again that it's a fluid entity that's constantly evolving. And it occurs to me that for the first time I can really appreciate that though things are lost, at least in terms of culture, things are always gained. Instead of just looking at the negative consequences of what not having two Chinese parents might be, I can finally recognize the benefits that also might bring. I think about all the time and emotional energy that I've spent in the past year sorting out being in an interracial relationship. I think about the strength that my partner and I have gained from unpacking race and all the baggage that, unfortunately in this world, race brings with it. I can't help but think that my children are bound to benefit from growing up in a household where interracial/intercultural dialogue is a culture in it of itself.