Reflections on Ambivalence and Identity
Sometime in early February of 2020, during the hazy weeks leading up to sheltering from home, I walked to the grocery store a few blocks from my apartment in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Despite reports of the virus overrunning cities in China and Italy, the pandemic seemed eerily distant from my immediate reality. In the store, people strolled casually down the aisles, occasionally bumping carts or brushing against each other. A couple in the produce section, framed by a misted array of peppers and broccoli, discussed an upcoming dinner party.
The only extraordinary detail was an Asian man in the checkout line. Wearing a blue, pleated surgical mask, he was the lone store goer with a face covering. Like me, he appeared to be in his early thirties but his skittish politeness marked him as new to the country. Watching him nod to the cashier, I was overcome with revulsion, tenderness, and nostalgia.
Although I was raised by Taiwanese immigrants in the United States, I consider myself part of the prevailing culture — not White necessarily but comfortably mainstream. Growing up, I’ve been aware of my Asianness but, until this year, I’ve never thought deeply about my race or ethnicity. Within my middle-class life in a liberal city, I’ve floated through a frictionless and illusory world of equals.
Standing in line, behind the masked Asian man, my immediate desire was to distinguish myself from him — not only to the people around me but to myself as well. Even though we would all be wearing masks in another month, the man’s precautions seemed overblown. “I’m not that kind of Asian,” I wanted to declare to the rest of the store. In the man, I saw a reflection of my hesitant voice, flat face, and general otherness. The feeling was visceral but short lived and almost forgotten. Except that in the year since the start of the pandemic, the sensation has resurfaced with increasing complexity and contradictions.
The increased focus on anti-Asian racism during the Spring of 2021 has made me more conscious of how others see me and how I view myself. I’ve begun to feel both less and more Asian. While reading news stories of Asians being threatened, spit on, or assaulted, I’ve experienced a detached anxiety; I think about my parents or friends but not myself. Somehow, I’m not Asian enough to be in jeopardy. This dissociation is a way of downplaying danger but also, more insidiously, an attempt to Westernize myself by excluding my minority identity.
At the same time, it has become more difficult, and ridiculous, to ignore how others perceive my Asianness. Every lingering or second glance from strangers while walking down the street seems loaded with new weight and meaning: suspicion, fear, disgust, sympathy.
It feels strange to be Asian, more specifically Taiwanese, without speaking the language, eating national dishes, or celebrating holidays. Growing up in suburban New Jersey, my younger sister and I rarely spoke to our parents about their lives before they came to America. We were inculcated with the standard immigrant mythology of striving and sacrifice but learned little about where they had come from. Taiwanese culture was a mystery to me — an absence I felt but couldn’t define. I was lonely for something without having the ability to describe what I was missing.
My few recollections of Taiwan, from occasional visits, are cloudy with romanticism: The lush island humidity, riding on the back of a bicycle with my cousin through the bustling streets of Taipei at night. Most of all, I remember the dream-like sensation of being surrounded by people who looked like me — of floating down a mall escalator towards a plaza teeming with hundreds of reflections of myself. But, later, when I try to ask a street vendor for directions his expression tenses. There is a jolt of confusion before an inevitable realization: he is dealing with an impostor.
My mixed feelings towards Asianness are accompanied by an ambivalence for writing about them. Will there be anything here more than meandering narcissism and petty grievance? And if so, what is translating these thoughts into words intended to accomplish?
In Minor Feelings — part memoir, part history, part cultural criticism — Cathy Park Hong writes, “I sometimes still feel the subject, Asian America, to be so shamefully tepid that I am eager to change it — which is why I have chosen this episodic form, with its exit routes that permit me to stray. But I always return, from a different angle, which is my own way of inching closer to it.”¹
For me, writing is the best way to engage with Asianness — not just as an identity but also as a gravitational force that I am pulled by and push against. Like Hong, I am in constant flux.
Moving further from and closer to Asian America, I am balancing my individual desires against my responsibilities to a community. Can I escape rigid cultural expectations without leaving familial ties behind?
Writing is a way of analyzing and reconciling the forces that have shaped my life: language, memory, racial theory, geopolitics, stereotypes, and family. For the most part, the racism I’ve experienced, both externally and internally, has been mild. Instead of trauma, more of a sense of disorientation, an inability to form an identity beyond what has been defined by my parents and society. To write the personal essay is to create my own frame, to come face to face with the stranger who is myself.
My most primal connection to Asianness is rudimentary Mandarin Chinese. Up until middle school, my father taught me the language by recording lessons on a cassette tape. Each night, before bed, I would press play on my sports boombox and listen to his voice reciting a story from a Taiwanese school booklet — realistic tales of children visiting their grandparents or something fantastical like a whole village laboring together to unearth a giant radish. After every sentence, there was a lengthy pause on the tape when I was to repeat the words after him.
Despite my best efforts, I never came close to mastering pronunciation. When I was eight, my parents and I returned to Taiwan. In a marble-tiled living room livened with paintings of flowers and carp, I recited from memory a small Chinese folk tale. Halfway through, looking up from my feet, I saw my aunts and uncles collapsed on the sofa from laughing at my garbled American accent. My cousins, peeking in from the kitchen, gleefully performed imitations of my speech throughout the day.
Conversely, my mother struggled with English. When visiting me at college, she stood impatiently outside of a “coed” bathroom waiting for the password to enter the “coded” room. She had particular trouble with pronouncing R’s; my father would ridicule her by performing impressions. At the wheel of the car on a road trip, he passed the time by making up tongue twisters for her to practice. “The duck does not like darrrrrk chocolate,” he repeated, to his own amusement, while waiting at a red light.
Even though I stopped speaking Chinese in middle school, it still has a pull on me. Now, it is not so much a language but a series of sounds that evoke a set of memories. When I hear the word for “grape”, I remember tottering in the cool shadows of the kitchen, hands full of fruit, and the wonder of biting through translucent flesh and not finding seeds inside. When I hear the word for “bird”, I am transported to the Taiwanese house of my aunt. The room is filled with worn sewing mannequins and a red fabric is draped across a table. A small green and yellow parrot, released from its cage, hops across the floor like a pebble across water.
What is this strange feeling of relearning a language as you hear it? Of feeling some deep and vestigial part of your brain kick and flutter after a few crooked syllables?
In college, my girlfriend, who is White/Jewish, and I would play a game for my amusement. After eating at an Asian restaurant, she would open our fortune cookies and read the “Learn Chinese” section where simple words are listed in their Mandarin characters and simplified English pronunciations.² Like a game of telephone, she and I would try to form a connection through a language she didn’t speak and one that I had trouble understanding. Scrunching up her face and laughing helplessly, she attempted various pronunciations at my encouragement. Usually we gave up after a few tries but there were occasional successes.
“Egg?” I guessed one night, leaning across the table and watching the words float off her lips as if that could help.
“You’re so close,” she said. “What kind?”
“Chicken egg?” I said.
“Yes! I can’t believe it.” She clapped her hands together before handing me the fortune. “How did you know?”
“I just felt it in my heart,” I said.
My favorite memory of Taiwan is a memory of a memory.
When I was young, my mother and I had a hygiene routine. Each month, I would sit in her lap so that she could pick my ear wax with a bobby pin. This is probably an Asian thing but I’ve been too embarrassed to check with any of my Asian or non-Asian friends. I’ve never been particularly close with my parents. We rarely hug, express affection, or celebrate birthdays — so this cleaning ritual was a rare moment of intimacy.
That particular summer afternoon, it had been raining nonstop. The sky had turned a noxious yellow color. Seated in my mother’s lap, I was soothed by her soapy smell and the feeling of the pin gently rubbing the insides of my ear. I began to drift off, as if descending into a heavy nap. The noise of the rain swelled around me, droplets were hitting the roof and walls so hard that the whole house seemed to thrum. Then from far away her voice and her hand pointing to the water splattering on the deck outside the living room window.
“See the rain?” she said, squeezing my shoulders. “On the fish farm, we used to say the raindrops bouncing off the ground were like shrimp jumping on the deck of a boat.”
While reading about Asianness in 2021, I’ve come across many personal essays where Asians denounce racism and express pride in their identity. It has been more difficult to find writing that echoes the ambivalence I feel and frames it in a larger context. The most helpful works have been those that analyze racialization through Sigmund Freud’s theory of mourning and melancholy.
According to Freud, mourning is a normal reaction to loss such as that of a loved one or possession. After a finite period of time, the mourner is able to gradually recover and move their energy to other subjects. In contrast, melancholy is a persistent reaction to loss, especially one that resists definition, like that of a country or ideal. Because the conscious mind cannot process what has been lost, the melancholic becomes psychically stuck and often redirects the pain they feel towards themselves.
In The Melancholy of Race, Anne Anlin Cheng — professor of English and director of American Studies at Princeton University — describes how melancholy is marked by a “profound ambivalence”.³ Because of their unresolved grief, the melancholic is only able to preserve a ghostly or empty version of the lost object that is both adored and loathed. Like my relationship to Asianness, melancholy pits the desires to retain and exclude against each other without reaching a resolution.
In this way, perhaps the masked Asian man in the checkout line, besides being the object of my scorn, was also an alternative version of myself — a lost authentic self, that I would never achieve.
As a child, I took pride in being Taiwanese. Mainly because it seemed distinct from being Chinese.
When people asked where I was from, I would make them guess and delight at their responses: China, Korea, Japan. “Taiwan,” I would reveal, like a punchline. Coming from a country that others knew so little about made me feel mysterious and sophisticated.
My parents began immigrating to America in 1983. They were leaving an island off the coast of China, that was ruled by martial law from 1949 (before my parents were born) to 1987. At the time, this was the longest period of martial law in the world and has since been surpassed by Syria.4
After meeting through a village matchmaker, my father immigrated first, studying statistics at North Carolina State University before sending for my mother. I was born during a brief stop in Las Vegas; a week after the C-section, my mother completed the final exam of her Master’s program in computer science at the University of Nevada. Soon after, the family moved for the final time to West Windsor, a suburb a few miles south of Princeton, New Jersey.
During my youth, I loved the rare instances when my parents told stories of their early days in North Carolina before I was born: my father and mother hiking in the Smokey Mountains or watching vendors sell old carbon rifles at the local farmer’s market.
Sometimes my father would linger at the kitchen table after dinner. While finishing his beer, he would reminisce about watching Michael Jordan play college basketball.
“What did he look like?” I asked, eager for descriptions and exciting stories.
“Like this,” my father said, and stuck out his tongue.
Taiwan, like the early roaming life of my family, is defined by melancholy — simultaneously embraced and rejected by the global community. On the one hand, Taiwan is a model, upstart democracy built peacefully after decades of military dictatorship.5 Academics have looked to its universal healthcare system for guidance on containing the Covid-19 pandemic.6,7 Major companies, like Apple and Ford, depend on Taiwanese factories to produce semiconductors for smart phones, sensors, and high performance computing. Despite all this, Taiwan is not recognized by most of its allies, including the United States. Presenting a Taiwanese passport will not gain you entrance into a United Nations Building.8
Taiwan’s ghostly geopolitical position is due to its contentious relationship with China, which considers the island a renegade province to be reunified with the mainland. Because of this view, any countries seeking diplomatic relationships with China must sever official ties with Taiwan. Thus, Western countries find themselves in the strange position of selling weapons to Taiwan and relying on its strategic military position to limit China’s influence while also denying the island’s existence. In this way, I was doubly removed from my heritage—first, being the child of immigrants who rarely talked about their homeland and, second, growing up in a nation that didn’t recognize Taiwan as a sovereign country.
In middle school, my excitement at being Taiwanese was replaced with ambivalence. Instead of feeling unique, I was lumped into the model minority stereotype. Nearly half my classmates were children of immigrants — mainly from Asian countries like India, Pakistan, China, Japan, and Korea. Our families, emphasizing that academic excellence was the best way of securing an upper middle-class life, pressured us to take as many advanced placement classes as possible and cram for standardized tests.9 Community gossip — passed along by parents bumping into each other at dinner parties, grocery stores, or the public swimming pool — tracked who’s child had earned perfect SAT scores or had been accepted early admission to Harvard.
For me, and other children of immigrants, intense focus on schoolwork was a way of self-segregating from our White peers. I always seemed to be surrounded by the same group of Asians, many of them my friends, as we shuffled through nearly identical classes, rehearsals, and after school study groups.
Growing up, I occasionally resisted my parents’ and community’s ideas of a stereotypical Asian — one who was docile, hardworking, and naturally gifted at the sciences. When forced to join the middle school orchestra, I chose to play the double bass, regarded as cumbersome and unappealing, over the violin. “I could barely see or hear you,” my mother complained after a concert where I had been seated behind a stage curtain.
In high school, I joined the cross country team and grew out my hair, which nearly reached shoulder length at times. I dressed shabbily, favoring thinning shirts and bleach-stained pants. To my parents’ consternation I decided to study creative writing at Oberlin College, a small liberal arts institution with a counterculture reputation, instead of enrolling at an Ivy League university.
In the end though, I’m not sure how successful these efforts were at distinguishing me from the studious Asian stereotype. After graduating from Oberlin, I applied to MIT’s graduate program in Biology. Post admissions, walking past laboratories filled with other Asians, I felt a mixture of emotions: gratitude and excitement for the chance to perform cutting-edge research, that sensation of eeriness I always experience when surrounded by other Asians, and, not quite a sense of resignation but a feeling of yielding to fate.
During my first day in laboratory, I received an email asking for digital tokens. I had no idea what the request was and thought I might have missed a certification. But on closer inspection I realized that the message had been sent to me by mistake — it was meant for another Justin Chen, one who worked in the Computer Science department.
It is difficult to write about the Asian stereotype without feeling that I should be more grateful. There are many worse fates than having demanding parents who care, perhaps too much, for you or undergoing a strenuous education. My parents, who have had a much harder time in America, rarely complain about the times that they had been passed over for a promotion or were the target of racist comments in the street.
But there are still issues with this “privileged” stereotyping. The model minority myth uses the economic and professional success of some Asian American groups to downplay the effect of systemic racism on other minorities. It also covers up a lack of Asian cultural and political representation — rendering us invisible and minimizing the discrimination that we face.
Because Asians occupy a vague position between “white” and “black”, our racialization may be particularly melancholic. We have been lauded as model minorities while our long history of exclusion has been largely forgotten or denied. In particular, the National Origins Act — which barred all immigrants from Asia between 1924 and 1952 — was the first and only federal law to legalize immigration discrimination based on race.
As David L. Eng, Professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania, and Shinhee Han, a psychotherapist at the New School, discuss in Racial Melancholia, Racial Dissociation, the history of discrimination against Asian Americans “laid the legal foundation for the emergence of the figure of the ‘illegal immigrant’ and of ‘alien citizenship’”.10
For Eng and Han, Asian Americans today continue to exist in a suspended assimilation:
“The inability to blend into the American melting pot, suggests that for Asian Americans ideals of whiteness are perpetually strained — continually estranged. They remain at an unattainable distance, at once a compelling fantasy and a lost ideal.”11
In 2016, I watched Chris Rock host a contentious Oscars Awards Ceremony. Leading up to the show, critics had pointed out that, for the second consecutive year, all twenty acting nominees and four of five nominated directors were Caucasian. Rock opened his monologue by saying, “I’m here at the Academy Awards, otherwise known as the White People’s Choice Awards”12, before continuing to criticize the lack of diversity in Hollywood. And yet, later in the show, he brought three Asian children onstage, introducing them as accountants who had tabulated the vote results.
Rock’s joke calls to mind theories of mimicry and stereotyping discussed by Eng and Han — the idea that, in order to be recognized by mainstream society and even ourselves, Asian Americans must mimic model minority stereotypes.13 Coming out of college, I had trouble seeing myself as a writer or pursuing a more artistically-inclined career. Instead, I took the more defined path and became a scientist. Not only was I interested in biology but, more importantly, I felt that attending a prestigious graduate school program would earn the approval of my parents and West Windsor’s Asian community.
Looking back, I still find Rock’s joke more bemusing than insulting. But perhaps I should be more heated. Like discrimination towards Asians, the joke seemed to exist in an ambiguous middle ground between harmless quip and noxious racism. For me, like many Americans, Rock’s joke is just inoffensive enough to look past and pretend that it had never happened.
Muting my response to racism has been part of a larger effort to erase my Asianness, to escape the pressure of mimicry or fulfilling expectations. I love my parents but I also tend to keep a distance from them. Since I’ve left West Windsor, our main connection has been a few short conversations over the phone each month. I’ve also made it a point to ignore mainstream depictions of Asianness — like the film Crazy Rich Asians or the sitcom Fresh off the Boat — and, until this past year, avoid serious thought on how being Asian has shaped my life. There is something soothing about being invisible — of being only yourself and by yourself.
I have felt most at peace when running. In high school, I ran 60 miles a week during the summers, mostly at night. I started in the suburbs where illuminated rooms seemed to float in the darkness — the shifting blue light of a television or the prismatic radiance of a chandelier in a foyer — and worked my way out into farmland. I passed acres of rustling corn and the lumpy silhouettes of sleeping cows until I reached almost complete blackness. I never wore any reflective gear, stepping into the grass seconds before a car and its fiery headlights rushed past. I wanted the invisibility, to have the physical sense of being in a void match the experience of being adrift between cultures.
The last time I visited Taiwan was in 2013 while I was in my second year of graduate school. This was my fifth trip back but this time was different: my family would be visiting the fish farm where my mother had been raised. It had been more than thirty years since she had left.
My parents’ families had gone in opposite directions. When they had met, my mother’s family was uneducated but relatively wealthy due to the success of the fishing industry. My father’s side of the family, who lived in the capital city of Taipei, was poorer but held more prestigious jobs as teachers and government workers. In the thirty years since their marriage, my mother’s family had fallen on difficult times. During the care ride from the airport out into the countryside, my father recited an inventory of my mother’s side: A college graduate, a high school dropout, a middle school dropout.
Stepping out of the car, I was met by an expanse of land. In the city, the sun had been dizzying and kaleidoscopic, reflecting in all directions off of cars, skyscrapers, and store signs. But here it was gently omnipresent, radiating down from the sky to the unbroken view of the horizon. My mother led us through a grid of rectangular ponds dug out of the ground and rimmed with concrete. They were each the size of a soccer field. Row after row after row, like a set of watercolors ranging from green to grey blue to almost white depending on the angle of the sun on the water.
“This is your maternal grandfather’s fishpond,” my father said, sensing an opportunity for a speech. “They worked all day and night to send your mother to college, which was pretty rare. Then your mother and myself worked hard to send you to college. If you fail out of grad school you could come back and work here.”
Technically, we were visitors, no one in my family still worked here. They had sold the land to a small group of farmers. One of them, a sixty-year old man with jet black hair, appeared before us on a sputtering motorcycle. Together we walked along the grassy embankments dividing the ponds while he pointed out various details: the motorized paddles near the corners which oxygenated the water, small concrete huts with a single door and window that stored supplies, a patch of bushes where he had hidden to catch poachers stealing crawfish.
My mother didn’t talk much during the tour. Most of her comments were observations of the landscape. “Oh, here’s the road we used to bike down,” she said, “it’s still here.”
Like someone checking their limbs after an accident, she seemed only to express herself through the presence or absence of things.”
My mother and I were only able to discuss the trip and her early experiences in America five years later. And even then, only under the pretense of a formal tape-recorded interview for posterity rather than a more natural heart-to-heart.
“I never wanted to leave [Taiwan] because I couldn’t speak English” she said, sitting across from me at the kitchen table. Originally she had thought she might be in the United States for a year until my father completed his Master’s degree. But then, he was accepted into a PhD program. “So then Grandma told Dad, ‘Continue to study and don’t come back.’”
For students, like my father, who had been blacklisted for political reasons, American universities offered the best chance for a successful career. The pressure was intense, as continued enrollment and stipend payments depended on academic performance.
“Everyone studied really hard. They didn’t pay attention to their wives,” my mother said. “One wife cannot stand this, because she had a good life in Taiwan, so she killed herself in the bathroom. Then all the husbands were nicer to their wives. Every time they came home, they checked the bathroom to make sure it was okay.”
“So did Dad check the bathroom for you?” I asked.
“Not really,” my mom said, and chuckled.
“But didn’t you miss Taiwan?” I said.
“There was no time to miss,” my mom said. “I needed to learn a lot of things because everything was new. If you cannot speak English, you have a lot to learn.”
After 40 minutes, I asked my mother one final question: Had she ever thought of returning to Taiwan after retiring? I had a fantasy of her reconnecting with family and old compatriots, of not having to struggle to speak the language, of being able to relax into a culture.
“Why would I do that?” she responded. “Everyone I know, all my friends, are here.”
There will never be a simple way for me, or my parents, to relate to Asianness. Like Cathy Park Hong in Minor Feelings we are constantly straying and returning. Identity is not something we innately possess. It is something that is framed and reframed by the stories we tell ourselves.
After completing my doctorate at MIT in 2018, I left academia to work on the communications team at a healthcare nonprofit. I was redefining myself in many ways. The woman I had been dating for four years ended our relationship and moved out. Most of my friends, fellow graduate students, were leaving Boston in search of academic jobs elsewhere. On the weekends, I would sit in my hollowed-out studio apartment. The morning light, illuminating the white walls and oakwood floors, made my life feel expansive and weightless.
My parents were perplexed by my career change; for several months my father wouldn’t acknowledge my new job. But then, a year later, when I was visiting New Jersey during the summer, he seemed to have come to terms with my decision.
“That just the trend,” my father said unprompted while driving us to the grocery store. The first generation of immigrants become scientists and mathematicians to earn enough for their children’s education. The next generation, who assimilate more into society, become doctors and lawyers. “And then the third generation,” my father half-joked, “they are super rich so they become … how do you say this? … bloggers and fashion designers.”
“But, whatever you do,” my father concluded, “just work hard.”
For now, the best I can do is to write. Through writing, I achieve the same meditative void as running. Both actions have a kind of invisibility — of being completely yourself and by yourself. But while running is a form of escape, writing is an act of definition. On the page, the writer has the power to reveal only what they choose to or to become someone else entirely. And even reading your own words is to see yourself anew from a distance.
Before we left the fish farm, my family visited my mother’s childhood home. A simple, two story white brick building with a small veranda enclosed by a wall. The house had been abandoned for more than a decade — before entering we had to usher away a stray dog who kept circling back towards the front of the house. Later, we discovered that she had given birth to a litter of puppies in the far corner of the enclosure.
Walking through the first floor, I felt as if we were intruding not on people but time itself. The house was still and bare. All the colors — of the walls, carpeting, wood paneling — were bleached and faded. The heat of the sun through the windows was stultifying as if we were in a greenhouse. My mother ushered us into her old bedroom where the floor was raised into platforms for sleeping. Old tatami mats and bedding had been stowed away in the closets. Wandering back out into an otherwise empty hallway, I noticed a darkly stained, wooden nightstand that seemed out of place. Opening its drawer, I found dozens of pictures of myself as child. Stacked on top of each other, they were nearly half a foot tall.
“We have to save them,” my mother said, as we skimmed through the pile. These were pictures she had mailed to her parents while they were still alive.
In the photos, my younger self was dressed in the bright orange and turquoises of the early 90s. Me, leaning back in a highchair with a fist full of cheerios. A year or two later, in the backyard wearing only underwear with the blank, feral look that young children have. The pile ended with professionally taken elementary school portraits where I, already in glasses by the second grade, posed in front of a velvety blue backdrop.
Seeing the familiar scenes of my childhood framed by the walls of a foreign house was so shocking that I briefly thought the pictures must be of some other child. I felt the dizzying sensation of being both the viewer and the subject. It was like hearing a recording of your voice, where you are at once recognizable and foreign, inside and outside of yourself.
I had never met my mother’s parents. They had died when I was still a young child. I tried to imagine what they might have thought of the pictures. Was I instantly familiar or alien to them? Someone to embrace or a phantasm already beyond the reach of family and culture? Although my grandparents had most likely set these photos aside and forgotten them, for a second, I let myself believe, in that moment, that they had deliberately stowed the images away, anticipating the off chance of my return.
Image: Jogging photo created by jcomp – www.freepik.com, licensed under CC 2.0.