I’m probably one of the weirdest amalgamations of languages and cultures I have ever met in both my international community in Beijing and in the United States. I’m a creation, and a direct result, of the great shifts towards cultural globalization and open borders — demographic trends of the late twentieth and twenty-first century.
I was born in France, and raised there until I was six years old; then, with my father’s job, my family was plucked from the City of Lights/Love into the Country of Red and a rather gray, dusty city that is Beijing. Eleven years later, I stepped fresh off the boat onto ‘Murricaland.
My first words were French; my second language was Chinese. I learned English when I was almost seven years old. But for eleven years, I lived in the bubble that is the international community in Beijing, comprising of expatriates from all different countries that sought to maintain a similar lifestyle to their homelands. I went to an international school, where, throughout my adolescent years, I was steeped in a filtered version of American culture brought to me second-hand by my classmates. English became my first language, and Chinese a close-second; my French faded to survival-level.
I thought I was pretty Americanized. Only when I went to the actual United States of America did I realize how utterly un-American I was. I still speak in Celsius and centimeters (I think the American system makes no effing sense). I can’t believe dimes are smaller than cents. I used to think those blue mailboxes were trash cans (true story) and threw my bubble teas in there until my friends caught me. I seemed to be one of the only people who was environmentally-conscious (Americans treat water running openly through faucets like background noise. In China, we have kids dying from thirst). And asked, for the first time, what my favorite basketball team was, I replied enthusiastically, “The Red Sox!”
(Yes, you can laugh; I laughed, too. But to spin it around, how many Chinese sports players can you list? Yao Ming does not count.)
Now, I can name (with varying shades of accuracy) players on several of the greatest football teams in the U.S. (thanks, Boyfriend). I know the intricacies of your political system, the hand gestures and double-digit vocabulary of your president, the supposed kale-salad-and-yoga-pants regime of basic white b*tches (no offense to anyone — I participate, too!), the hella confusing speech subtleties between NorCal and SoCal.
But to this day, each time I step off the plane, I am directed to the immigration line dedicated to non-citizens, non-residents, and non-immigrants.
How accurate the words of Ijeoma Umebinyuo; how close I hold them to my heart. I am an alien, in all senses, to all of the cultures that raised me. Alien to the United States, despite the fact that I can bet my firstborn my English is better than that of the airport immigration officers who scrutinize my Chinese passport upon arrival and grudgingly let me pass (again, no offense; I am a writer! I live by my language skills!). Alien to China, whose grand history and sweeping culture has always taken the backseat in my priorities. Alien to France, the land in which I was born, whose language I still understand perfectly but whose soil I have not touched for five long years.
For the longest time — and to this day — I still feel a mixture of sadness and frustration of being alien to a country whose culture I have adored for half my life, but whose borders remain staunchly closed to me with the promise of a high, high wall. Despite all of my qualifications, my high education, my superb job performance — everything I have worked towards, I remain a nobody in terms of status, a nonimmigrant nonresident boxed in the quota of 75,000 annual American work visas permitted to foreigners.
Yet, turning back to my home country, I feel an equal sense of regret in that I can no longer accept the cultures and customs of the motherland to which I belong.
Here is where I stumbled upon #ownvoices … and where I found my own voice. In a time of great political turmoil in the United States, the importance of tolerance, and diversity, and love has never been more pivotal. Now, more than ever, we stand on the brink of making history … or repeating it.
That’s why I write. I wrote BLOOD HEIR as an accumulation of the frustrations I feel, the sympathies I wish to express, when I turn on the television and watch the news every day. The things I wish to say that remain unheard no matter how loudly I scream — because I am a foreigner here, and I have no status — I channeled through my characters.
But #ownvoices taught me something else.
For my entire life, the answer to my identity has always remained a blank question mark stamped across my face. I was born in France, raised in China … but I am almost 100% Americanized. I feel like an Insider, but I am forever an Other, watching the world from my strange little cultural limbo.
And #ownvoices whispered to me … why do you fear this? Why do you wish to fit in, when you can add so much value to the world by standing out?
Because so few people have the same, strange upbringing as me. So few can claim to straddle the borders of three different countries and gaze out at the world through three different lenses. I now understand that, for all these years, I have not been shunned from three separate cultures; I have been given three entire worlds. The doors have always been open. It is I who hesitated to step inside.
Don’t fit in. Don’t bow your head. And don’t whisper. Stand out, lift your chin, and shout your words to the world, because we matter. And the world needs to know.