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Stages of shame: A young Chinese American's story

Alhambra Source and real estate developers Sam and Jackie Wong organized a scholarship in May that asked students 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, starting with a piece by UCI student Shannon Ho. The 20 year old won first place for her essay about the two stages of shame that result from being a child of immigrants. Read her essay below.

Illustration by Jeeshaun Wang

I’ve come to the realization that as a child of immigrants, I have experienced at least two stages of shame in regards to my cultural background.

The first stage was relatively easy to pinpoint. It was the almost crippling embarrassment you feel when you realize that your family’s cultural heritage singles you out, when you want nothing more than to blend in. It began at an early age — though not too early. Those first formative years of life are blissful in innocence, and usually a child that young is unaware of being self-conscious or embarrassed about any definitive trait of identity.

My first stage of shame began in middle school. I had just been pulled out of a private school and transferred to a public school, and was feeling particularly vulnerable. Without my bubble and the friends I had since kindergarten, I became hyperaware of my actions, my appearance, and how others saw me through these factors.

A year later, in fifth grade, I had made a few friends and was getting along somewhat happily. One day, my teacher announced that there was going to be an essay contest, and the winners would be able to ride on a float at that year’s Tournament of Roses parade. The topic of the essay was something akin to explaining what you think defines an American.

My mother encouraged me to participate in the contest, and as I sat down to think about the topic, I realized how huge the question was. At that age, the word “American” evoked images of big houses with huge families and gorgeously kept lawns, birthday parties, expensive blue jeans, and fancy cars. We did not live in a huge house with a lawn. We did not have a huge family, nor did my parents ever throw me any lavish parties or buy me brand name clothing. At the time, we drove an old Toyota Camry that had roll-up windows and manual locks.

Shannon Ho (second from right) with her family | Photo courtesy of Shannon Ho

I didn’t feel as though I looked “American” either. I, like almost every other girl who was born in the early 90s, was a huge fan of Britney Spears and the Olsen twins. Heartbroken, I realized that I didn’t look like them, nor would I ever. Being an American-born Chinese girl wasn’t ever too big of a deal for me before this. I was born in Monterey Park and lived in Alhambra with my family, went to a Chinese church, and lived my life surrounded by Chinese people and Chinese culture. But now, I wished for blonde hair, blue eyes, and long legs because I wanted to be an “American” girl.

This was when the full force of my first stage of shame came into play. I ate my packed lunch of dumplings or rice and stir fry and wished ardently that I was opening up a Lunchables instead. I felt my face flush when my parents would make grammatical mistakes in their English. My father loved martial arts and I wished instead that he was an avid basketball or football fan like all the other dads. The list went on and on. This shame was a hot ball of fire I felt in the very pit of my stomach, something I thought could be quenched through “Americanization.”

As I entered high school, this ball of fire cooled considerably, but I still felt its heat linger. One day, I was in charge of organizing a food sale during lunch to fundraise for my club, but our first option of burgers had fallen through. At my parents’ suggestion, I decided instead to sell curry fishballs. A non-Asian student bought a skewer, brought it over to his friends who were within earshot, and they all began laughing raucously.  Shouts of “Gross!” and “Why does it smell so nasty?” seeped down into my stomach and rekindled what I thought were dormant sparks back into an all-too familiar raging flame. 

Shannon Ho reading her essay on Aug. 26, 2013 | Photo by Alfred Dicioco

I am currently going through my second stage of shame.  While this one is harder to define, harder to identify in terms of time, it became clear that this shame stems from the painfully slow realization that I had taken my Chinese identity and regarded it as a curse instead of something of which to be proud. I feel this new stage of shame when I remember that while we didn’t live in a big house with a big lawn, my parents gave up their master bedroom for me and my brother, and divided it down the middle with bookshelves so that we could each have a space to ourselves. That my parents cooked and packed me lunch because it was more nutritious and in retrospect, tasted so much better than a Lunchables ever would. That my parents driving a used, older car and refusal to buy expensive clothing was so that they could afford to send me and my brother to private school for as long as possible. That my parents’ insistence on speaking Cantonese at home has provided me with an unbreakable link to the rest of my family in Hong Kong and China, and a great new appreciation of the complexities and beauty of language. That I didn’t have the kind of super affectionate “Full House” relationship with my father because he spent so much time at work to provide for our family.  That my face and my physical features contained a rich heritage I was once so ready and eager to discard for the sake of assimilation and acceptance as an “American.”

Unlike the first stage of shame, however, this one isn’t a painfully searing ball of fire. This shame squeezes me momentarily, and then releases me to feelings of pride and clarity. But I am not cleared of the fire —occasionally, to my frustration, I feel it flare. However, I know now as a child of immigrants that this journey is necessary. Every burn of the flame and every squeeze of the heart only lead me further to fully loving who I am.

Essay was edited and condensed.

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2 thoughts on “Stages of shame: A young Chinese American's story”

  1. As a son of Mexican immigrants, I felt the same “shames” as described by Ms Ho.Actually I did not feel this “shame” until I ventured “into the White world” while prior to that, growing up in a immigrant community, we were all the same, living in a very diverse community, that up until then, I felt I was part of a community with no prejudices.

  2. Honestly, it has a lot to do with what kind of background you come from, as much as it is a poor-immigrant thing.

    You see Korean American kids – they LOVE being Korean. They think it’s superior than even being white or black (although they mimic those two groups closely).

    Taiwanese kids generally like being Taiwanese. But Southern Chinese struggle for a couple reasons:
    – They are generally not of an elite-class of immigrants. Any upper-middle class Cantonese are probably in Canada, the UK, or Australia.
    – Southern Chinese historically can be stereotyped as slightly crude compared to their Northeastern counterparts.
    – The pre-existing community for Cantonese in America and particularly the 626 has been disproportionately shaped by Toisan Cantonese (mountain people) and Chinese-Vietnamese (refugees), neither groups of which are known for being incredibly elite.

    Sounds like I’m bagging on Cantonese, but I’m not. I’m just saying how it is. I’d like to see all Cantonese kids step up to the plate and get haircuts, lose weight and get in shape, worry about their hygiene and have some pride in their upkeep. But you know, I don’t know if that’s going to happen.