I worry about a future where the two halves of my world collide...but as a living embodiment of the value of cross-cultural intertwinement, I’m confident that we’ll figure it out
As ridiculous as it sounds, my first words were “广告”: advertisement. In retrospect, it was strangely fitting: I was living in Tianjin, and “广告” encapsulated China’s rapid and booming transition to American-style commerce.
Around age four, I moved to the United States and underwent my own transition. I explored leafy suburbs. I learned English. I immersed myself in a new culture.
I also remained extremely Chinese. I spoke Chinese at home, only ever ate Chinese food, and returned to China every other summer. My grandparents regaled me with stories of the Monkey King from Journey to the West and heroes of Romance of the Three Kingdoms. My parents recounted their experiences during the Cultural Revolution (the amount of food they had to eat seemed to shrink with each retelling).
At school, I became very American. I quickly became far more fluent in English than in Mandarin, played basketball and football, and pored over American history and novels. But my Chinese-ness awkwardly bubbled to the surface all the time. Instead of Lunchables, I brought canned eel and dried seaweed to school. In place of playdates on Saturdays, I had Chinese school. My friends couldn’t always understand quite what my parents were saying. I wished that assimilation could be easier.
Over time, I’ve become deeply grateful for my roots in two of the richest cultures in the world. My worldview has been shaped by both entrepreneurial individualism and loyalty to family and community; by both the scarcity of the Great Leap Forward and the abundance of post-war American growth; and by both the proud but recent history of freedom and enterprise, as well a thousand-year quest for harmony and stability. Over time, my ability to move fluidly between cultural and linguistic spheres has become both personally enriching and professionally useful.
That said, it hasn’t been easy maintaining fluency in both cultures. As an example, my deteriorating Chinese can make it hard for me to connect emotionally with family members: when the conversation gets difficult, I switch to English, making it a little harder for them. Today, I feel much more American than Chinese.
More broadly, I worry about a future where the two halves of my world collide, with the economic insecurities of my home country on one side and the rising political ambitions of the nation of my heritage on the other. Trade war and global pandemic further tilt us towards Greek tragedy. The task of disentangling personal affinity from geopolitical rivalry will only get harder, but as a living embodiment of the value of cross-cultural intertwinement, I’m confident that we’ll figure it out.