I have always been a Chinese American kid, but in the beginning, I didn’t know it. As a kid, you’re the center of the universe, the protagonist of your own story. Your normal
is the normal. I knew that I was Chinese and that some of my classmates weren’t, but I didn’t yet know what that truly meant.
I lived and went to school in a community filled with Asian Americans, so I never thought of myself as weird or out of the ordinary. Every day I would see kids my age who looked
like me and could speak Chinese like me. When I went over to my friends’ places their homes in many ways resembled mine. Their kitchens had soy sauce, vinegar, a place to put the chopsticks and a
rice cooker (not to mention a drawer stashed with plastic shopping bags). When we ate, each person would have a cup of rice and we’d sit around a table and share a few common dishes. As kids are wont
to do, I naturally assumed that the way I and my friends lived was more or less the way everyone lived.
Over time, though, this idea was gradually dispelled. I learned about the larger world outside of my own small community from TV shows like Jessie or Good Luck Charlie,
movies, and above all, countless books of all kinds. I knew from personal experience what my own life and the lives of some of my friends looked like, but it was through these televised and written
stories that I got a glimpse of what the “normal” way to walk and talk was for everybody else. What the “main characters” were supposed to look like
for real stories.
What those main characters did not look like was Asian. Asian people were conspicuously missing from the main casts of popular media, along with all the telltale
trappings of their culture. When they did show up, they were often side characters, either erased of any indication that they were Asian at all, or with their Asian traits exaggerated for the purpose
of comedy. The elementary-school me learned that there was a certain “normal” that the protagonists of stories fit into, and that the Asian experience didn’t meet that standard.
As is the experience for many multicultural children, the older I got, the more my grip on being Chinese slipped away. No one, least of all myself, sought to erase Chinese culture
on purpose, but the reality was that the moment I stepped outside my home, I would be immediately immersed in a culture that very much was not Chinese. I spoke and wrote English all the time: at
school, with friends, at home as well. Chinese class was a weekly affair, laden with homework and exercises. I became what is jokingly referred to as a banana: yellow on the outside, white on the
inside. And I believed that was exactly what I was, just another stereotypical Chinese American child who had forgotten their own language, who liked hamburgers or Panda Express more than “real”
Chinese food, who was, ultimately, more American than Chinese.
My mother entertained me when I was little by telling me 成语 stories and summaries of Chinese history, ranging from the era of 三国演义to stories of her own childhood. I loved these
stories. They taught me to be proud of my own cultural heritage. But outside of my home, I didn’t hear these kinds of stories anywhere else, and the more time passed, the more I began to feel like
this rich cultural heritage had little to do with me. I was a banana. My Chinese identity was a footnote, a secondary part of who I was, one that was all but vanished from my life. After all, it
seemed that being Chinese didn’t really matter to anyone in America other than Chinese parents.
In high school things changed again. We began to have a greater awareness of themselves and their place in the world, or at least a burning need to gain that awareness. In various
places—angst-ridden poems, clubs, even sport events—high schoolers found ways to express the fruits of their quest of self-discovery. One of my friends, also Asian American, was practicing her script
for the Interpretive Reading event, a subcategory of Speech and Debate. We all sat down in the classroom after school to listen to her and give her feedback.
Interpretive Reading scripts are made up of sections of text cobbled and pieced together from different works of literature. All of that patchwork and selection is done by yourself,
and as a result, each script is often very personal. My friend had written hers on what it meant to be a Chinese American girl.
One of the pieces she chose from was “Fish Cheeks” by Amy Tan. In it, Amy Tan spoke of a white boy she’d had a crush on. When he and his family came over to visit, she wanted badly
to have a traditional white American dinner, and was embarrassed when her family reached across the table with their chopsticks to snatch at different plates, mortified when her mother brought out a
“whole steamed fish.” Robert, the object of her crush, grimaced at the sight of it.
This part of her speech wasn’t the most emotional or intense, but the most confusing. “What’s going on?” I wondered out loud. Why was it weird to share a bunch of different plates
with the whole family? To eat from them with your chopsticks? That was the way my family ate dinner every night. And what’s with the grimace? What, had Robert never seen an entire fish
The speech and debate coach explained that while in our area, rife with Asian and indigenous influences, fish in a meal is a fairly normal thing, for many American families it
simply isn’t. In fact, many of them specifically eat fermented fish during Lent, which is especially stinky. As a result, Robert the minister’s son likely saw fish as a stinky weird thing and not as
an appetizing meal.
This stunned me. Before, I’d thought of being Chinese in terms of the language and more obvious parts of the culture, such as traditional dances or literature. Right then, though, I
realized that being Chinese was woven deeply into all the ordinary and mundane aspects of my life as well, all the way down to the food I ate and the way I ate
My friend’s speech was well-written, and every part of it hit home, from Amy Tan’s comfortingly familiar description of an ordinary dinner in a Chinese family to a more scathing
“letter” by Rachel Rostad asking why J. K. Rowling, author of Harry Potter, had named the only East Asian character in her book series “Cho Chang.” All the little parts of me that I’d tucked away or
dismissed were brought to light. Most earthshaking of all was the sheer volume of Chinese American literature my friend had drawn from to make her speech. It was one of the first times I realized
that Chinese American authors could write about being Chinese American, that Chinese American experiences could be told in published books and poems, not just as bedtime stories. That
Chinese American people could be the center of their own story.
Not too long afterwards, I stumbled across a TED talk by Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. It was called “The Danger of a Single Story.” In it, she recounts her experience
as a girl who loved reading. Though she lived in Nigeria, most of the books she read were written by British authors, and in them were stories about blonde-haired blue-eyed British children doing
British things, playing in the rain and eating apples.
So when Adichie turned around and began writing her own stories, that’s what she wrote about. Blonde-haired blue-eyed British children doing British things. Never mind the fact that
she was black-haired and black-eyed, that it rarely rained where she lived and that they didn’t really eat apples. Because she’d only ever read stories about British children, she didn’t know that
stories could be about any other kind of person. I realized that I had stumbled into the exact same problem.
Excepting a few books here and there, I had never seen a major Chinese character—much less a Chinese main character—in any of the hundreds of books I consumed. I had never
seen myself in a story. So when the time came for me to begin trying to write a story myself, I didn’t know how to put myself in that story. In all of my early, rambling, haphazard
attempts to write a fully fledged novel, my protagonists were always very literally blonde-haired American girls. Their parents would be white Americans, and they would act and talk the way I
imagined white Americans acted and talked. Even in a diary-formatted story I almost completely modeled after my own day-to-day life, the main character was still blonde-haired and white. When I made
characters for my comics, the default appearance would be as a brown or blonde-haired white girl.
When I was very little, I did write stories with a Chinese main character (badly disguised as someone other than myself) and a drew people who looked like me, but funnily enough,
the older I got, the more I forgot how to write stories about Chinese people. I assumed that these stories—my story—simply didn’t get to be told.
With the wise words of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and my friend from speech and debate, as well as countless other small incidents, I slowly began to realize two things: one, that
even though I had been Americanized in many ways, on a deeper level I was still very much Chinese; and two, that the part of me that was Chinese needed and deserved a voice.
Even after those realizations, I was still stuck in a troublingly fuzzy spot. After all, I was Chinese American, not Chinese. Aspects of Chinese culture were woven into my identity,
but I still acted and talked very much like any other American. I and many other of my peers were part of a vague and hazy in-between. I began searching for a common thing, anything, that all of my
Chinese American friends shared, that I could conclusively pinpoint as part of who we were, something that made us distinctly Chinese American.
In the end, that thing, uniting every Chinese American kid I knew, turned out to be 西红柿炒鸡蛋.
Every single kid I asked had heard of it (save for that one guy whose family called it 番茄炒鸡蛋and didn’t know what a 西红柿was) and almost all of them were extremely fond of
it. It’s a comfort food, generally satisfying and very easy to make. Interestingly, the tomato-and-scrambled-eggs combination is not something that many non-Chinese Americans have heard of, nor even
something they recognize as Chinese. I will always remember the warm feeling of finding a common experience that united me with my fellow Chinese American friends, as well as the even warmer feeling
of thinking about a nice hot bowl of 西红柿炒鸡蛋. I’ll stop because now I’m just making myself hungry.
In 2018 I went and watched Crazy Rich Asians with my family in a movie theater. It’s not a perfect or a cinematic masterpiece, but it’s a good movie, and every bit of it—the
setting, the plot, the characters—were all so thoroughly and genuinely Chinese. I watched this movie up on the big screen, knowing that its success would open up the U.S. mainstream to even more
blockbusters that put the spotlight on Asian people doing Asian things, just completely belonging and being at ease, and every second of those two hours made me happy. Asian people are still a
minority in the U.S., but every day there are more and more Asian creators bringing our culture and presence into books and movies and art, expanding the horizon of representation further and
further. I’ve wanted to write and illustrate stories since I was two years old, and for the first time, I know that that is the kind of story I want to tell.
---- Xiaorong Guo