by Samuel Mui
“You’re not an American”
“You’re not an American,” said my paternal grandmother.
I was four years old when I heard those words uttered casually out of her mouth. Even though I was born in the USA, she knew I would struggle to find acceptance in a country known for its xenophobia toward newcomers.
To Westerners, I’m an “Asian,” and to the Chinese diaspora, I’m a jook sing. A socially acceptable pejorative for Western-raised Chinese people who are considered neither fully Western nor fully Chinese.
Struggling to navigate mainstream American culture
Despite having emigrated from Hong Kong in the late ‘70s, my family clutched onto their home culture and insulated themselves in Cantonese speaking immigrant enclaves. Because of this background, I struggled to navigate mainstream American culture once I started attending grade school. There were countless things in American culture that dumbfounded me: obsession with baseball; disagreeing with others civilly; how pop culture references permeated schoolyard interactions; and why kids had the gall to berate their parents in public. On top of that cultural dissonance, the racist jeers I often heard from classmates—and even from teachers reinforced my identity as an outsider, thus giving credence to my grandma’s words.
Gravitating towards Hong Kong culture
Since I felt like an unwelcome stranger in my own home culture, I gravitated toward my family’s Hong Kong culture, an oasis for my angst ridden coming-of-age years. My dad’s side of the family functioned as the portal to all my exposure to Hong Kong culture: having dim sum on the weekends; frequenting HK style cafes for the best milk tea and baked pork chop with rice; binge watching TVB episodes every night at 8pm; blasting Andy Lau’s pop songs on the cassette player during road trips; and strolling through the night market in Chinatown on Chinese New Year.
Yet no other facet of Hong Kong culture helped to fill my void of identity more than Hong Kong movies. They portrayed Asians – especially Asian men – as full-bodied characters with emotion, desire and moral nuance. I would live vicariously through Chan Ho Nam, the badass Hung Hing gang leader of the cult classic “Young and Dangerous.” I admired his calm, collected allure and his unwavering loyalty to his friends.
At other times, I would live vicariously through Fong Sai Yuk, Chinese folk hero with childish traits who rescued his dad from the oppressive Qing government. I could relate to Stephen Chow’s slapstick comedies because they constantly toyed with the comfort zones of the status quo. My ears always perked up listening to the lightning quips and rhythmic sounds of Cantonese, a language marked by gusto and its ability to convey a vast spectrum of feelings and moods.
As I grew older, however, I became more Americanized. Yet deep down inside, I felt like Hong Kong was a place I could truly belong to, despite never having visited or lived there. After all, I spoke Cantonese fluently without having to pause or mumble, and I wasn’t like most ABCs (American Born Chinese) who shunned Chinese culture and overcompensated on their American-ness. In fact, most folks around my parents’ age have always mentioned that my Cantonese is pretty darn good for an ABC.
Moving to Hong Kong
I finally made my pilgrimage to Hong Kong at age 25 for the start of a new career, I was due for disillusionment. My Cantonese was often ridiculed because it didn’t sound 100% local and it had a thick, resonant American accent. Every time I tried to relate to someone about movies or music, I was considered outdated because my references stem back to the ‘90s and early 2000s. The longer I stayed in Hong Kong, the more I realized how it was impossible to keep up with its petri-dish culture, in which new slang and cultural references sprout by the minute.
At restaurants, my friends and/or distant relatives would patronizingly order Sweet and Sour Pork for me before I got the chance to order my food. At the dinner table, faux pas were as common as the rice served on the Lazy Susan. Case in point, for the longest time, I ate off my plate instead of my rice bowl (local etiquette designates the plate to be used for discarded bones or waste). It was almost impossible to relate to the average HK local. Even though I spoke their language, I carried a foreign frame of reference.
Little did I know that ideal place did not exist.
One of my local friends once noted, “I don’t think we’re on the same wavelength when we communicate.” All my life I thought to myself, amid times of marginalization and struggle with identity, that there was a place for me that knew me, that understood me. A place where I wouldn’t be considered an “Asian kid” or a jook sing. Little did I know that ideal place did not exist.
Coming to grips with identity
I’m a cup of Yuen Yeung, a hybrid drink made of 50% milk tea and 50% coffee.
As of late, however, I’ve been coming to grips with my identity. I realize I don’t have to confine myself to the notion of a jook sing, a self-defeating term that implies inadequacy. If anything, I’m a cup of Yuen Yeung, a hybrid drink made of 50% milk tea and 50% coffee. I’ve got a taste of two cultures that is both distinct and delectable.
Like Yuen Yeung, I’m smooth because I can seamlessly code-switch and thrive in both cultures. I’m aromatic because I now choose to focus on the positivity I retain from both cultures. I’m a Yuen Yeung, because it implies that my two seemingly irreconcilable sides complement each other. I’m neither 100% coffee nor 100% milk tea, but that’s ok. It’s who I am, and I’m damn proud.
Third Culture – Fundraising
Third Culture is currently fundraising to support and expand the platform. Should you enjoy our content – please click on the link and donate what you can.
Support us! Click here: