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Rejecting Chinese: 'I forced myself to blend in and spoke only English'

Alhambra Source and real estate developers Sam and Jackie Wong organized a scholarship in May that asked college and high school students from Alhambra to answer questions about their name, heritage, and growing up a child of immigrants in the San Gabriel Valley. The selected essays will be published once a week. The piece below is written by San Gabriel High School graduate Anna Huang. The 17 year old won publication for her essay about rejecting her Chinese upbringing as a child and eventually reconnecting to it as a young adultRead Huang's essay below and check out the other winning essays we've published.

“Jin-yi? Shin-yee? Last na-”

“Here!” I shouted as I shot my hand up before the substitute could finish butchering my name. I knew what she was going say and I did not want to hear it.

My peers have often looked at me weirdly whenever I raise my hand to signify my presence under “Xin Yi Huang.” They don’t believe that my actual name is not “Anna” and would often mock my real name. I got that it is all part of a joke, so I would always go along with it, but on the inside, I was ashamed of my culture and the sound of my name. It stereotyped me as an immigrant with no knowledge of English, not worthy of Advanced Placement classes. But I am more than that, more than the stereotypes.

Being born in Hong Kong and raised in a typical Chinese-speaking family, I was taught to embrace the Friday night karaoke parties and late-night mahjong get-togethers. I spent the first six years of my life speaking Cantonese and Mandarin with my grandparents, who were raising me when my parents were in America, building a business to pave a better road for my future. When I came here in first grade, I stood out like a sore thumb. Standing at 5 feet tall at age six, I was the tallest of my class and did not speak one word of English. I would have my grandma sit in with me during class because I was afraid to socialize with the others. Without my grandma there, I felt lost and hopeless; crying was the only way out because she was the only person who cared for me.

The cycle continued until second semester when my parents finally found me an English tutor. Through Mrs. Ma, I learned the value of conformity. I spent that whole summer before second grade improving my English and by the end of that summer, a new identity was formed. While studying English, I lost the love for my native tongue.

Throughout elementary and middle school, I forced myself to blend in and spoke only English, even to my parents, who can barely comprehend first grade English. For nine years, I did not speak a word in Mandarin or Cantonese to my family. Friday night karaoke parties and late night mahjong get-togethers became a nuisance. The once euphonious harmony of family laughter was now nothing but cacophonous clatter. The Chinese culture and language has now became vulgar and foreign. I practically shut out my family after first grade to immerse into the American culture.

When junior year rolled around, I was very reluctant to take AP Mandarin but I decided to do it anyway in order to fulfill my three-year language requirement. Even when I was in that class, I refused to assimilate myself with the newly immigrant kids and only conversed with my friends who spoke English. I thought I would never like that class because the non-native English speakers seemed to fit the stereotype of immigrants: rude and spouting vulgar jargon they picked up from Jersey Shore.

The Sam & Jackie Wong-Alhambra Source Scholarship Ceremony (author not pictured)

During second semester of junior year, our final exam for AP Mandarin was to produce a Chinese play open to all audiences. I did not like this idea at all because it meant I would have to communicate outside of school with these people I was supposed to call “peers.” I would have to acknowledge their existence outside of class. Worst of all, I was nominated as the main actress, but since the opening day of the play conflicted with my AP exams, I was exempt from acting and assigned to be the photographer because I was a part of yearbook.

In the process of taking pictures, I willingly spoke my first sentence in Mandarin to my classmates because I wanted to take a specific shot. They looked at me with surprise, then smiled and obliged my request. This made me realize that there’s another side to them beside the uncouth behavior in class. As production went by, I slowly assimilated myself into their circle without noticing it, and the wall that I built against the language slowly disassembled itself. They would always invite me to their karaoke parties and hot pot dinner, invitations I often denied. However, I finally gave in and joined their after-party celebration. Thanks to that party, I learned more about them and their lives. A friendship emerged and I would occasionally tutor them in English and they would help me in Mandarin.

This play was more than a final exam, it was an entrance to the path that I derailed from after first grade. It reconnected me with my family, morals, and culture. I actually talk to my parents in Cantonese now and often translate English into Chinese for them. And all those karaoke sessions and mahjong get-togethers? They now give me warmth and happiness when I need a break from all the school work. I have subconsciously reverted back to my culture, the loving and embracing heritage I grew up with.

It took me 16 years to finally realize the true meaning of jia — family.

Essay was lightly edited and condensed.

Read the other winning essays: "Stages of shame: A young Chinese American's story" by Shannon Ho"From rebellion to respect" by Yvonne Lee"Latina, Chicana, mestizo: The labels that define us" by Vanessa Solis"'I am a survivor'" by Jessica Ramos"Relating to superheros: A young immigrant and her secret identity" by Valerie Cabral"The nameless Cambodian boy" by Dara Dan"For a better future and life: From Cuba to Alhambra" by Jane Fernandez

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2 thoughts on “Rejecting Chinese: 'I forced myself to blend in and spoke only English'”

  1. Great story, reminds me of my teen years trying to not acknowledge my Mexican roots, trying to fit into a society that constantly rejected me/us because of my/our heritages. But with the 1970’2 Chicano movement, many Latinos youths do not have to hide their roots, instead now are embracing them.

    I live to read stories about Sam and Jackie Wong’s scholarships, if we had more people like the Wong’s, I think we would all be better and care more for each other, instead of “building fences” to divide us. To the Wong’s, thank you and I hope others follow your footsteps.

  2. Very touching story. Please keep writing. You have a gift Anna.