The 6 Worst Parts of Being Chinese (Not In The Stereotypes)
Being a second-generation Chinese American isn't that tough. We don't get harassed by police on flimsy pretexts, we don't get called terrorists and Chinese men don't accidentally knock things over with their penises. Sure, we once weren't allowed to own land or become U.S. citizens, but that was way back in the ancient past (1940).
In the distant, barbaric past.
Hell, sometimes people even apologize to us for putting us in camps during World War II. That was actually the Japanese, but I guess it's the thought that counts.
That doesn't leave a lot of room for self-deprecating racial humor (the most important aspect of racial identity), but there are a few minor annoyances about being Chinese American that nobody seems to talk about. Not the boring stuff about being caught between two worlds or being pushed to succeed or supposedly having our parts stolen by white people in the Last Airbender movie.
I don't know, I'm pretty sure I've seen white kids that looked like that at my high school.
None of that. This is the stuff that is annoying real actual Chinese Americans every day.
No Fun Stereotypes
This matters to me because it's my job (or one of my jobs) to make fun of people, and to protect myself, it has to be from my own people. Unfortunately, there are not a lot of publicly known stereotypes to work with. We supposedly can't drive and are good at math, some of us don't speak English very well and maybe something about kung fu. You can maybe make a communist joke if your family comes from mainland China ("In Communist China, Google searches you!"), but if your roots are in Taiwan, you're stuck.
I've been assured that this is hilarious if you're from Taiwan.
Nobody knows anything about Taiwan. You can joke about all the weird organs you're expected to eat as part of Taiwanese cuisine and you will just get blank stares. ("...and there was the Taiwanese guy, eating all the chicken uteruses! Come on. Anybody? Chicken uterus. Taiwanese people eat them.") Someone from the back will yell at you to do some kung fu and then it will all go downhill from there.
Even if you're not doing comedy formally, this really puts a damper on joking around with your friends. You're just sitting there, ribbing each other good-naturedly on your various stereotypes and then someone tries to rib you back and they're all, "Well... why don't you go... get some straight A's or something." Then the whole evening is ruined and everyone has to go home.
Part of this is due to a larger problem...
White People Can't Tell Asians Apart
A lot of Americans can't tell the difference between different Asian races visually, but that's understandable, since we all look nearly identical. We all have similar skin, hair and eye coloring as well as similar facial structure, so it's hard to see the difference. I myself have trouble telling the difference between white folks, like English and Irish, or like Hitler and a cat.
I think the cat is on the left but don't quote me on this.
Chinese Words Don't Sound Cool in English
Everyone who has even the slightest connection to a foreign culture knows that you milk it for cool names. For your kids, your dog, your video game character, your Harry Potter slashfiction, whatever. Then you just wait for the moment where someone asks about it and you can say, "Oh yeah, that means `soul' in Japanese."
Just for kicks, here's an ancient Chinese saying you should try to convince a friend to get as a tattoo. Tell them it's about crisis and opportunity or some shit.
"Half chicken, 3 dollars, whole chicken, 5 dollars."
Unfortunately, while Japanese names look pretty cool written in English (Akira, Kamiko, Yakuza, Chicken Katsu Bento), Chinese names sound pretty lame (Yun-Fat, Chee Hwa, Haier, Egg Foo Young). My own Chinese name is Porchin, which using the modern pinyin system, still comes out to an unglamorous Buoqing. You want to name yourself "great king"? Have fun being "da wang." Sometimes immigrants get lucky when their last names transliterate into something cool, like, "Fang," but more often than not, they will end up like our family friends, the Poons.
The pinyin system really doesn't help the coolness factor by introducing all those Q's and X's. (Pro tip: They're pretty much just "ch" and "sh" respectively.) Instead of sounding exotic and mysterious, I sound like a really desperate Scrabble cheater.
In Chinese Scrabble, you would kill for a hand like this.
I know a lot of other cultures feel our pain, like the Welsh ("Let's name our little girl `white flowers'." "OK, that's... Blodwen."), but if you randomly spin the culture wheel, odds are you'll hit some language that has cooler transliterated English names than Chinese.
Engrish is one of the precious joys available to the human soul in this harsh world. What heart would not be brightened by this classic Japanese road rule (dating from 1921):
"When a passenger of the foot hove in sight tootle the horn trumpet
to him melodiously at first. If he still obstacles your passage tootle with vigor
and express by word of mouth the warning, `Hi! Hi!'"
However, prolonged exposure (thanks to immigrant parents and family friends) tends to build immunity, to the point where someone has to point out to me, "Did your mom just tell you to wear a vase when you leave the house?" and I don't see anything wrong with it as I put on my sleeveless outerwear.
I assume this is the opposite of "weak sauce." I don't really keep up with the kids and their Internet slang.
I wish I could recapture that delight that my non-Chinese friends have when they point out that a menu begins with "Appertizers" (about 50 percent of them do in my experience), but years of hearing my mom talk about things like buying an "evening gun" to wear to a wedding, being reminded to "defrost" my teeth after I brush and reading countless menus offering "green peepers," "fred rice," and "midnight snake" (snack), it just all blends together.
Here's an example of what I found on one trip to the Chinese mall (you'll notice Chinese malls are also where you get Japanese goods, it's a long story):
That's not all, but you can OD on this if you're not used to it, so I'll stop there.
In California in particular, there are pretty big swaths of Chinese-dom where a Chinese person can spend their entire life without having contact with any of the lesser races. There are Chinese strip malls anchored by Chinese supermarkets, with Chinese restaurants, delis, bookstores, Charles Schwabs, insurance companies, banks and after-school tutoring programs (because seven hours is for lazy Americans). All the Vietnamese and Japanese restaurants in these areas are also Chinese, because who's gonna tell.
Like American strip malls, but tackier.
(As an aside, I don't think there are any official stats on this, but I'm estimating about 80 percent of Japanese sushi restaurants in the U.S. are run by Chinese. And about 70 percent of Americans don't care, I know, but imagine walking into Luigi's Italian Restaurant and finding the whole staff speaking in Scottish accents. It's hilarious, but also slightly unnerving.)
"Och, laddie! Welcome tae Luigi's!"
These aren't just downtown Chinatowns ("Where tourists can see Chinese people!") but large suburban areas as well. Entire small cities in the LA area have been taken over by Chinese, like Monterey Park and parts of the San Gabriel Valley, all in accordance with Phase 1 of the master pla- I mean, due to natural immigration patterns.
I didn't even hang out much with non-Asians through school, due to living in a highly-rated school district where many Chinese parents were determined to get their kids into by hook or by crook, going to drastic means to establish fake addresses or even buy dummy houses in the district for their kids.
Being sheltered leads you to have some funny ideas about things when you get out in the real world, as you well know if you grew up in a hippie commune or an Amish village--or if you've watched fish-out-of-water comedies, like the ones Brendan Fraser often makes.
Take your pick.
So despite speaking perfect English since age three and acing the verbal portion of the SAT, I would get confused about simple expressions (like "fish out of water") as badly as a hilariously innocent robot (or exchange student) in a family comedy. I also got laughed at for pronouncing things like they look ("Plymouth" = "Ply Mouth"). Worst of all, due to our family never dining at any other Western restaurant, I thought Denny's was good.
There's that Q again. Keqi (kuh chi) refers to a sort of system of being polite. But it's less about being polite to people because you don't want to hurt their feelings and more about being polite so you don't look bad.
Keqi overload can lead to ridiculous situations where you end up going to a restaurant nobody wanted to go to because nobody wanted to look selfish by going to the restaurant they wanted if nobody else wanted it. So you go to a restaurant everyone hates to satisfy everyone. Sure, you don't have to be Chinese to experience this, but this kind of thing is actually the goal of keqi as opposed to some kind of accidental resentment-causing situation. You go away thinking, Mission accomplished! instead of, Isn't there an episode of Seinfeld about this kind of bullshit?
"So none of us ever liked this diner?"
The other great thing is that it's an unwritten code, which means you get to learn by trial and error. So this one time, after having dinner at a family friend's house, that family's mom hands me a red envelope with money in it as I am leaving (red envelopes with money in them are the traditional Chinese gift/card combo for birthdays, holidays, graduations, thinking-of-yous and bribing officials). I think, Awesome, money! and thank her very much. My mom is watching but doesn't say anything. Back home, she knocks me down with a roundhouse, puts her boot on the back of my neck and executes me with a bullet to the back of the head. I might be exaggerating a little, things always seem bigger in childhood memories.
It was my fault for letting her get the drop on me.
Anyway, the point is, I learned to never take presents from friends and family, even though they can be pretty damn sneaky. When arguing over gifts, the nicest, mild-mannered old ladies suddenly turn into debate team pros. When I went back to Taiwan for a month's work, I saw a lot of my family there, and even though they were awesome, generous people, I was in constant terror of them because 1) they kept trying to give me gifts, which I was not allowed to take under any circumstances, and 2) I had some gifts to give them from my mom that I was not allowed to return home with on pain of death. After hours of negotiations I finally managed to dump the gifts on them and escape with only minor trinkets in return (and no money).
If Jesus had been a good Chinese kid, he would have slapped that shit back in their faces.
They really didn't seem like they would mind if I took the gifts, though, so I felt like it was all very silly until I talked to another friend that had recently gone to Taiwan. She had been in the same situation, and after being begged like 10 times to take the gifts by smiling relatives, she finally did. When she got home, her mom said her relatives had called and complained about how greedy she was.
Man, I dodged a bullet there.
Check out Christina's look at The 6 Most Statistically Full of Shit Professions, and The 11 Most Popular Internet Argument Techniques.