At KTV, my friends and I rented a private room and hid our alcohol in the bathroom because we weren’t allowed to bring in outside drinks. Between songs, we stumbled into the bathroom to find the bottles of various hard liquors purchased from 7-Eleven lining the sink and the top of the toilet tank. Then we would burst back into the room and join in on whatever song was up next. None of us could actually sing, which was what made it fun.
We sang a lot of songs in English, like “Fuck You” and “I Want It That Way,” songs that are fun to scream off-key while making dramatic arm gestures, but my favorites were the Mandarin songs. That year, I was living in Hong Kong, and my friend group was made up mostly of other confused Asian Americans, many of whom were Chinese American, like me. Yelling song lyrics in our broken Mandarin was a bonding experience. We always did “朋友”, “依然愛你”, “童話” and “對面的女孩看過來”, songs that would not have been considered cool by young people in Taiwan, Hong Kong, or China, but they were canon for Chinese Americans who pick up on trends years or decades later and like things that are easy to understand. Sometimes, we’d pick a harder song, like “那些年”or “紅豆” and get tripped up on the same characters because we’d all gotten to similar levels of college Mandarin classes. The other Chinese Americans and I were all Cantonese and had feelings about being able to read better in Mandarin (and therefore able to make out the lyrics easier for Mandarin songs), but in the moment, it didn’t matter.
When we weren’t at KTV, we spent a lot of time having angsty conversations about how we didn’t know what we were doing with our lives and felt guilty about being college-educated Westerners who could show up in Hong Kong and teach English without any qualifications. One of my friends liked to point at random things, like the double decker buses or the matcha soft serve at McDonald’s, and announce, “This is what diaspora stole from us!” We laughed because it was a ridiculous thing to say. With our U.S. passports and purchasing power, exempt from the city’s political and economic realities, we had no right to feel like anything had been stolen from us.
This is what I told myself because I was embarrassed. I didn’t want be like white people who went to Asia to find themselves. On the MTR, I sometimes I felt comforted to be in a subway car full of people speaking Cantonese. Then I would think, I don’t deserve to feel this way. I have so much already. It’s selfish to want more. But it was also in Hong Kong that I began to realize how much I had been shaped by growing up in a country where I would always be considered foreign, where I became aware of all the slights and humiliations that I had absorbed into my body. And it was living in this city where everyone looked like me, where I could get drunk and KTV with other Asian Americans who were similarly privileged and sad, that I began to heal.
I grew up in a part of Los Angeles where there were many Asian Americans but few Chinese Americans. Most of the Asian kids I went to school with were Filipinx or Korean, and I went to after-school activities at a Japanese American Buddhist Church, where one of my parents’ close friends worked. My concept of Chinese American culture came almost entirely from my own family, especially from my parents. They consider themselves to be part of a “half generation” because they each have one parent from China and one parent who was born in the U.S. Both of them grew up hearing Cantonese and Sze-yap, but neither of them can speak either. When I was ten, my dad wanted to teach me some Cantonese, but the only thing he could think of was Diu neige ma, fuck your mother.
My parents also spent their twenties in the Bay Area during the Asian American Movement. They met because my dad was working at Chinese Culture Center and my mom was managing an Asian American women’s spoken word group that was using the space to perform. As a kid, I liked it when their artist friends came over because they were often better playmates than children my own age, pretending to be lions with me under the table of the Korean barbecue restaurant or enthusiastically analyzing each item in my toy kitchen because they were high. I didn’t like it when they sat at the dinner table long after everyone had finished eating and talked about the state of Asian America or whatever because that meant I would have to play by myself.
Even though my parents didn’t speak Chinese and were pretty Americanized, they did their best to help me feel connected to Chinese and Chinese American culture. My mom tried to teach me Mandarin from some old textbooks she had in high school (I would have preferred to learn Cantonese, but everyone said Mandarin was more “useful” and easier to learn since it had fewer tones) and told me stories about growing up in SF Chinatown. We did a lot of our shopping in LA Chinatown and in Monterey Park, where my parents also liked to eat at the different Chinese restaurants. It was only after taking Mandarin classes in college and studying for a year in Beijing that I found out my parents didn’t really understand the menus at these restaurants and usually ordered the wrong things. But college was also the first time I found myself in a predominately white space and faced the pressure to assimilate in a different way than I had growing up. My parents’ efforts to keep us connected to our culture were, I realized, admirable.
But college was also the first time I found myself in a predominately white space and faced the pressure to assimilate in a different way than I had growing up. My parents’ efforts to keep us connected to our culture were, I realized, admirable.
College was also where I started meeting Chinese American people my own age for the first time. Overwhelmed by all the white people at my school, I gravitated towards people I might have something in common with. But even with the other Chinese Americans, who were mostly second generation and from Mandarin-speaking families, there was a lot of culture shock. There were things I was familiar with, like boba and hording shopping bags. There were more things I’d never heard of before, like folding dumplings on lunar new year, jokes about tiger moms and being pre-med, Wang Leehom, and of course, KTV.
There were aspects of this type of Chinese American culture that made me uncomfortable. Many of my classmates seemed to equate “Asian” with “East Asian” and didn’t seem interested in grappling with the political aspects of Asian American identity. Once I was talking to a friend, a cis gay Chinese American man, about the fact that Asian Americans have high levels of income inequality. He said, “But there aren’t a lot of poor Asian people. Maybe people in Chinatowns. I don’t know a lot about them.”
I also felt like I didn’t fit in a lot of the time. When I told other Asian Americans at my school that I was fourth-generation and that my parents and two of my grandparents were born in the United States, they said things like “And both your parents are Asian? You’re not, like, half white?” and “Wow, I didn’t know people like that existed!” On top of that, I was still a long way off from coming to terms with being queer and nonbinary, but there was something that felt off about being in mostly cishet Asian American spaces, like I was always too weird or too much.
But there were also the friends who challenged me to consider my own privileges as a light-skinned East Asian person whose family had been here for generations and to think about Asian America in relation to anti-Blackness, capitalist exploitation, and imperialism. There was the lunar new year where we all crowded into my dorm to boil dumplings in our rice cookers and water heaters. There was taking the train to New York City so that we could spend all day eating at different restaurants in Flushing. There was my first KTV experience freshman year when we connected someone’s laptop to a large TV monitor in an empty classroom.
At the time, I hadn’t learned enough Chinese to sing any of the songs, but I liked watching my friends. They all had different Chinese levels, some of them stumbling on every other character, others singing fluently. I’ve heard so many times that Asian America is about being caught tragically in the space between, never fully accepted in the U.S. and too Westernized to ever be Asian. But listening to my friends, I thought there was something defiant about singing in languages that we were told would never be ours, languages that this country wanted to force us to forget. Cheering for them as they sang, I started to believe that the space between was not so lonely if we reached for each other.
These days, I see my friends over video chat. Many of them are Chinese or people who could be perceived as Chinese. We make jokes that aren’t really jokes about government collapse, mass death, and hate crimes. Then we watch Love is Blind with Netflix Party. I remind myself that I’m lucky to have stable housing and some money saved. I get anxious anyways and then berate myself for it. I spend a lot of time worrying about my family because most of my relatives are over the age of 60 and bad at staying home and because we’re almost all Chinese.
I make myself think about all the Asian American activists I’ve been lucky to know all my life, like my parents, like the queer and trans people who remind me of the resilience of our communities, who are making sure that in this moment we are working in solidarity with other communities to create a future where housing is considered a human right, where there are actual safety nets and a healthcare system that meets everyone’s needs, where we’ve completely changed our relationship to the planet.
At my most inert, I look at the pictures of friends and random images of dim sum that I’ve used to decorate my walls. I make pork and napa dumplings and text my dad for his fried rice recipe. I watch the videos for “紅豆” and “對面的女孩看過來”on my phone and imagine being at KTV singing in with my friends in our broken, perfect Chinese, the feeling of not just safety but joy that I’m trying to hold onto.