Yellow Is Neither Black Nor White
What shape did our ethnic identity take as we grew up in Macon? Mother and father only knew how children in China
were reared, but they felt it was important for us to feel and know what it meant to be Chinese. Even though we may not have
heard the actual term, filial piety, we did acquire the attitude embodied in that concept and always tried to honor and respect
our parents. They often stressed to us the overriding importance of li (acting with proper etiquette) in dealing with other
people. But they soon recognized that we children were strongly influenced by our exposure to American influences outside
the home and that we were definitely attracted to American values.
But even if we children wanted to be accepted as
Whites, what was the reaction of Whites toward us? Did they see or accept us children as 100 percent American or did they
see us as foreign heathens or perhaps, as something in between? And, to a lesser extent, how did the Negroes define us racially?
Growing up in isolation from other Chinese was one matter. In addition, the lack of Chinese role models in books, magazines,
or movies also limited our ability to fully understand what being Chinese in America meant. Most, if not all, of the depictions
of Chinese were negative during that era. Fortunately, just by luck we managed to miss many of those images such as Charlie
Chan or Fu Manchu but certainly many other people did form their impressions of us from these caricatures.
I did, however,
feel the negative sting of the one Chinese character that I was acquainted with as a child from reading the comic book, Blackhawk.
This American hero was the leader of a squadron of 6 or 7 fighter pilots, whose war adventures in each issue involved fighting
villains such as the Axis powers. The squadron was multi-ethnic, with Blackhawk, the American leading a group that included
a Frenchman, Dutchman, Norwegian, and even a Chinaman named Chop Chop. All the heroes wore blue uniforms, had revolvers, and
flew their own planes, but Chop Chop wore Chinese-looking garb, had a pigtail, buck teeth, sat in the back seat of Blackhawks
plane, and ran around with his meat cleaver as his weapon. Although once in a long time, Chop Chop was allowed to save the
day by being the hero by rescuing the others from disaster, usually he was cast as a buffoon. He was about as good as it got
as far as there being a positive Chinese male model. Chinese female characters were even less frequent and never portrayed
in a positive way.
Consequently, it should be no surprise that I was conflicted about being identified as Chinese when
I was growing up learning of these connotations. I must admit that I was often confused, or in conflict, about what ethnic
identity to adopt. I wanted to be Chinese, but at the same time I wanted to be white. Wanting to be black, was not an attractive
option because white society oppressed blacks. I wanted to align with the group in power. Still, I knew I could never pass
or be completely accepted by whites, and that probably may have led me to either feel sorry for myself or resent my parents.
when I was 15, we moved to San Francisco. My parents wanted us to be able to socialize with other Chinese Americans of our
own age and escape the solitary lives we would have to bear if we stayed in Georgia. Although we children knew we were 'Chinese',
we had never had much social contact with Chinese people while growing up in Georgia, aside from visiting a few aging Chinese
laundry men in Atlanta a few days each year. We had not had much exposure to Chinese customs. It was only when we moved to
San Francisco that any of us children really had the opportunity to develop friendships and socialize with Chinese Americans
in any extended sense.
Jean, like Mary, had an easier acceptance into the new Chinese community. Both were pretty, and coming from Georgia,
their southern drawls captured lots of attention from young Chinese men they met. She had a very busy social life, with numerous
boyfriends calling on her for dates. On the other hand, I was rather shy and at age 15. I was a skinny and self conscious
kid who was unusually tall for a Chinese at 6' 4". This led to some good natured teasing and attention from Chinese American
students who averaged somewhere about 5' 7" for males and about 5' 1" for females.
I had difficulty at first in identifying
with the Chinese-American students in school, because the Chinese Americans in San Francisco were so different from us in
many ways. Most of them had grown up in Chinatown, went to de facto segregated schools that were predominantly Chinese, and
experienced Chinese customs and culture all of their lives. They were thoroughly self-identified by their 'Chinese-ness'.
But, coming from Georgia, where we were neither white nor black, we were a different type of Chinese. For example, we were
probably more willing to affiliate with students of any color or background whereas it was obvious that the Chinese American
students, by choice or by necessity, isolated themselves from other ethnic groups. Chinese-ness was a highly salient aspect
of their identities. In high school as in college, there was a Chinese Student Club, and it was assumed that if you were Chinese,
you would voluntarily segregate yourself and socialize mainly with Chinese students. I hesitantly conformed, but it seemed
awkward for me, coming from Macon where everyone I knew at school had been white.
In San Francisco, most of the Chinese
restricted themselves to socializing with other Chinese. In fact, in the 1950s, Chinese Americans were so isolated that they
did not mingle much even with Japanese Americans. My upbringing did not include much religion and so an adolescent, I was
not interested in attending church. Yet, due to social motives to mingle with other Chinese students of my age, I soon found
myself going to a church in Chinatown where the congregation was almost entirely Chinese. Slowly, I was becoming a Chinese.
Even at the University of California, the Chinese students kept pretty much to themselves, and I soon followed their example.
If one saw a Chinese dating a Caucasian or white person, it was rare and a topic of conversation among the other Chinese.
in 1959 I left California, with its large Chinese population, to attend graduate school at Northwestern University near
Chicago, Illinois. It had a predominantly upper, middle class, white enrollment. I was suddenly lost again. I had only
1 or 2 Chinese friends to socialize with in this setting. I felt 'Chinese', and did not feel accepted on a social level
for dating purposes with whites. I reconciled myself to being on the periphery for the duration of my graduate school days
until I finished in three years and was able to return to California. Even then, I took a teaching position in Long Beach
where there were relatively few Chinese and the student was mainly white and Hispanic. After three years at Long Beach, I
took a teaching position in Toronto, where the ethnic story was much the same. So, I faced the same situation. I was Chinese,
but I was often wishing I was not. Actually, because I was in environments that had so few Chinese for so long, I ended up
not thinking about racial issues. However, whenever I visited San Francisco to see my relatives, I was much more aware of
ethnic status. In other words, odd as it might sound, the degree to which I felt Chinese depended on how many other
Chinese were in my immediate vicinity. Not surprisingly, I married someone who is not Chinese.