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Ethnic Identity

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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.

Later, 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.

Then, 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.