My Identity Crisis

Chinese people call me ABC, American Born Chinese; Americans call me Chinese American. “Twinkie” is what I and my closest friends call me (you know, yellow on the outside, white on the inside). Growing up, I didn’t want any of these identities. I wanted to be white like most of my classmates. I wanted a big house with a furnished basement, a backyard and a golden retriever; not a 3rd floor apartment with a live-in grandma who slept below me on our bunk-bed and who snored so loud I used to climb down my bunk to tickle her feet so she would stop snoring for a precious second. (Wait, I had to edit my post to add this: I love my grandma!)

In elementary and middle school, I secretly resented being Chinese. I refused to go to Chinese school every Sunday like most Chinese kids. I spoke only English to my handful of Chinese friends, and together we would make fun of other Chinese people. I never hung out with the Chinese kids at school, nor did I join the Asian Pacific American Club. I had nothing against them, I just didn’t want to be a part of them.

A college dorm-mate left me a surprise on my computer one day. Thanks for the reminder!!

Aside from Chinese holiday gatherings, growing up in a home that smelled like mothballs, eating rice everyday, and speaking Chinese at home, I was totally Americanized. I mean, I am American. Right?

My identity crisis hit really hard when I started settling-in in China. To Americans I look obviously Asian (many can’t figure out what kind of Asian I am) but to Chinese folks I look foreign/mysterious/Chinese-but-not-that-Chinese/different/mixed. A lot of Chinese people think I am half-Chinese half-white. That flatters me, but also troubles me because they don’t regard me as Chinese so I am treated differently. Bargaining, for example, is tough because vendors jack up the price when they see me in case I am foreign. My funny unidentifiable accent and nose ring don’t help. In America my nose ring was cool, in China I’m a bull on the loose.

Internally I identity with the foreigners living in China and get overly-excited when I see one (when I was young and fearless, I would run up to any white-looking individual and tell them I was American and could speak English), but they don’t see the bond with me because outwardly I appear Chinese. The one time I actually was approached by someone, I startled him and he ran off. My newly acquired inability/obvious discomfort/awkwardness in socializing with strangers makes the process of making friends verrrry difficult in this country.

The thing that confuses me is I am Chinese because Chinese blood runs through my veins (a fact I grew to be proud of). But I was born on American soil so my nationality is American. I used to tell people I was American when they asked me “what” I was, but today, I think it’s weird when people ask Chinese-looking people (like me) “what” they are and they respond “American.” When people ask me that question now, I don’t know how to answer. Even my salary reflects my identity crisis: my salary is higher than my Chinese coworkers but less than my white English-teaching counterparts. I AM SO CONFUSED!

It’s not that I don’t feel like I belong here. I believe I belong everywhere! I felt like I belonged in Bushwick, Brooklyn where people thought I was the owner of the local laundromat, and when people called me “Jackie Chan” in the streets of Barcelona and Marrakech. When I was staying overnight near Erg Chebbi, one of Morocco’s sand dunes, the man who worked at the lodge asked me if I was a girl from the neighboring town! I belong. I just don’t know how to identify myself.

In these past few weeks, I’ve more or less come to terms with my exhausting identity crisis, perhaps a first step in “finding myself.” From now on I should just consider myself a unique individual. Maybe that’s the answer I’ll give the next time someone asks me, “So what are you? I mean, where do you come from?”

“I am a unique individual. I come from nowhere in particular. And yourself?”


36 Comments on “My Identity Crisis”

  1. Thanks for this post. The sense of Identity is very complex. Though I can fit in many places I have yet to find a place that feels like home. To bad I didn’t know you in Brooklyn, I would have stomped on those people calling you Jackie Chan. I’m inspired to write about the same idea.

    • Emily He says:

      Thanks Mr. Mary! That’s the nicest thing anyone’s ever said to me: “I would have stomped on those people calling you Jackie Chan.” I didn’t mind it, though. I thought it was hilarious!

      Funnily, I think I’ve found Brooklyn to be my home. I was most comfortable there, even with bedbugs.

      Looking forward to reading your post about identity!! You say some funny sh#%!

      and in case you see this comment again, are you a teacher? You mentioned that you love teaching in a previous comment.

      • I love Brooklyn, that was where I was born and raised. I live in Queens now.

        I teach a lot, most science stuff. I even start a charter school as part of a not for profit I started with some friends, but that’s a story for another day.

        I am always a bit apprehensive when I post anything to the blog. I am a fearful that people wont see what I am saying behind the nonsense.

        I still got your back just in case 🙂 if ur back in NYC again

      • Emily He says:

        Charter school! Ooo, I went to one of those Panel for Education Policy meetings once between Charter schools and Public schools. What a battle! It went on till 2 in the morning so I didn’t see the outcome. But from the NY Times, it seems the charter schools won since Bloomies’ advocating for more of ’em. I want to hear ALL ABOUT your school (my dream is to build a school, but probably not in the States)!!!

        Nonsense, schmonsense. If people can’t read between the lines, then they ain’t worth your rhymes! (I was born a poet.)

        Anyway, thanks 🙂

  2. Michael says:

    Thanks for sharing Emily. And wishing you “Gong Xi Fa Cai” in advance. !!!

  3. Whenever I travel, If people ask me where Im from I usually tell people that Im from Scotland, rather than England, maybe its the whitish /blue pelt I have and the fantastic T-Shirt tan… or perhaps its because Im 6-4″ with sticky out ears!
    When I was in Bangkok I was in a hotel lift with some of the staff, they were laughing at me like I was a giant…..
    What Im yakking on about is that you have true identity to both cultures and understanding, its unique and extremely powerful tool to have. We English are an awkward bunch, you can spot us a mile off…….

    • Emily He says:


      Thanks Alan for those comforting words 🙂

      Anybody slightly over 6 ft here is pretty weird here and reminds me of Yao Ming (the Chinese NBA basketball player just in case you didn’t know!!) Besides the English, the Russians are also easy to spot. There are sooo many tall, model-esque Russian women here that stick out like sore thumbs wherever they go. I wonder if they ever get used to it? Do you?

      • To be honest, being over 6ft tall in northern europe is quite dull we are all 2 a penny. what I find interesting is seeing tall women with really short men!!! what i mean by this is seeing couple walk down the street not…. anyhoo!
        I always thought I was tall at school and everyone nicknamed me ‘Tree’. Not that my skin was like bark and I shed my leaves in Autumn, its because I was tall, stick thin, with a huge mop of ‘Jesus & MaryChain’ type hair on top. My word, the mid 1980s were harsh…
        A bit like Sideshow Bob in The Simpsons.

      • Emily He says:

        Hahaha you should post a picture of yourself from then!

        Tree…could be a worse name out there for ya. People used to call me Emily He-She, or Emily heheehehehe. Oh wait, they still do.

        Now that you mention it, I don’t think I’ve seen that many tall women with really short men besides Katie Holmes and Tom Cruise…hmmmm

      • There is still a photo of me from that era but I will have to steal it from my mothers mantlepiece….oh… those were the days of hair…. long gone now.
        And speaking of noserings, had one of those myself, hurt like buggery it did, I was never asked to remove it for official engagements and even when I was asked to remove it I would reply that my head would fall off, and you dont really want to see that do you!!
        Going back to your original point, I think the multicultural aspect to your own identity is very interesting indeed. Most people crave their history / geneology to be colourful as it creates a greater sense of oneself with your ancestors. The definition of your own distinct culture is worth praising as we did all spring out of the same pond or there abouts anyway…..
        If anyone dares to call you Emily Heehee or any other variation they will have to deal with the wrath of me first…..

      • Emily He says:

        Days of hair! hahaha, I hope I always have hair! Wow, Alan, a nose ring for you too eh? The next time my mom asks me to remove it, I’ll tell her what you told people: my head will fall off!

        I most definitely feel colorful because of my background; I guess I just felt “lost,” which sounds cheesy, but it’s true! I actually had bouts of frustration which made me miss my friends back home like crazy because they never made me feel this way. But you’re right, we’re all from the same pond/ocean/bathwater.

        Next time someone pokes fun at my name unlovingly, I’ll tell them, “I’m telling Alan!!!!” 🙂

  4. occultoantonio says:

    It’s a great luck for me you are american girl because i don’t speak chinese… 😉 YOU ARE A CITIZEN of the WORLD. Kisses

  5. Another great post! I think we’ve all shared your struggle in one way or another. We’re kind of conditioned these days to be overly concerned with identifying ourselves with/as something (“I’m 2% Polish,” “I’m a writer,” “I’m a New Yorker,” “I’m a Yale grad,” etc.) I’ve never been an “outsider” until coming to Guatemala and it’s given me a whole new perspective on it. I also know that Asian-American volunteers here have had a lot of issues with insensitivity from locals…people calling them Jackie Chan, Chinito (even when they’re actually Japanese, Korean, etc.), or pulling at the corners of their eyes to mimic their appearance. And it’s not out of spite or even disrespect that they do/say these things, it’s more of an ignorance, and a fascination with another culture that they don’t understand in the least. But to face those kinds of things on a daily basis would be hard, to say the least. Hell, I get sooo tired of hearing “Canchita” everyday–I’ve never considered myself “blonde,” but here, I’m Canchita all the way. Go figure.

    • Emily He says:

      Thanks Hannah! It’s true about the ignorance and fascination thing you mention, which is why I was never really offended and instead laughed with them. Gosh, I thought it was freakin’ hilarious when they called me Jackie Chan! But unfortunately, I’m not very happy that my boss in China pays me poorly just because I am Chinese, even though I am just as, if not more, qualified than a white English teacher. For another job I interviewed with at China’s biggest English-teaching institution, I was told I had to follow the same training as the Chinese teachers and therefore probably get paid equally even though they pay white Americans a shitload of $$$. They also said I had to take out my nose ring because Chinese parents wouldn’t be able to “handle” it, another request Chinese people wouldn’t make to white folks. Arghhh. Anyway Canchita, in my eyes you are the coolest “blonde” I ever knew!

  6. Ethnicity and Nationaity are two different things. It doesn’t have to match. I understand where you’re coming from. It’s like a doube-edged sword. You’re not really Asian to the Asians from Asia and you’re not really American because you look “so Asian”. It’s sad, really. It shouldn’t be like that. I have asian friends who are at least third generation. (sigh)

    There was a news report about an Asian American who didn’t get hired as an English teacher in Taiwan because he wasn’t white, so he sued them. After they paid him and all, they still didn’t hire him. They said, “I am sorry but the parents want the English teacher to be white.”

    Hopefully, this will change.

    • And I agree, we all struggle with this in one way or another. I had my fair share of identity crises. You inspire me to write about it. However, I will share a bizarre moment I had about “identity misidentification.” 😀 I had a woman come up to me only to tell me how German I looked. She said, “You look so German. You look like my German side of the family. You scream GERMAN.” I had to tell her that I have no German heritage whatsoever. However, I am part Polish..but no German. Nada. Zero. Awkward. Haha. 😀

      • Emily He says:

        haha similarly my roommate is Italian but she could pass for “Jewish.” She happens to work for NY’s Jewish Board who often mistake her to be one of them. Doesn’t this perfectly illustrate how intertwined all of us are?!?!

    • Emily He says:

      You make an excellent point, but I don’t know how to explain the difference to people simply. I probably make it sound more complicated than it is, but it’s been a personal struggle. Fortunately it’s getting better because like I said in my post, I’ve come to terms with it and now will just respond, “I’m from southern China” where my parents are from.

      As for the Taiwanese teacher, there is such a sad truth that he/she wouldn’t be hired. I have heard this many times from various accounts that Chinese people “kan bu qi”, or look down, on other Chinese people. It’s a shame because this kind of attitude keeps people from working together to generate a more loving, trusting and ironically Socialist state. Sigh…

      • Speaking of Jewish, I get hit on by Jewish men at the gym often. Maybe because I have dark hair, pale features…I don’t know…but they tend to think I am Jewish. 😀 I have a very mixed heritage. We’re talking Northern, Eastern, and Southern European. Hispanic, cajun, and aboriginal roots. That’s just the tip of the iceburg. I’m learning more. My mom has dark hair, dark eyes, with dark skin – she screams hispanic. 🙂

      • Emily He says:

        How diverse!

        Eeeek, people actually hit on each other at the gym? I thought that was only in the movies!

  7. Maybe I’m a little naive about this, being just white and all, but it seems like being multi-cultural would be cool. You’d be a cultural bridge between east and west? Right? Right? Bleh. But as for myself, I’m just your usual American smattering of white ancestry. French, English, Irish. I’d be very out of place if I went to those countries and if I told them where my family came from they might do me like Chinese people in China do you. 😦

    • Emily He says:

      I thought so, too. I thought I had the advantage here, but unfortunately that hasn’t been the case, at least so far. I am totally optimistic that my situation will get better–and it’s already begun–but it was a strange phrase for me. Perhaps you should try going to those places of your ancestry, blog about it, and see what happens! 🙂

  8. Emily He says:

    Cool! I’ve never been to Taiwan but hope to! I love Taiwanese food 🙂

    There’s actually a great blogger named Eileen who shares many stories about Taiwan. Perhaps you know her, but if not, her site is in case you’d like to reminisce!

    Thanks for the comment 🙂

  9. mooselicker says:

    The problem with calling yourself American is that few people do that. America is a country and not a nationality. People expect a longer answer.

    You have a nose ring? My, I never would have guessed you were such a rebel. You need to show that off more. A lot, even the most conservative looking of men, would go wild for that.

    I know, I’m no help to your identity crisis. My bad.

    • Emily He says:

      You’re right, Americans are always 1/16 German, 1/4 Irish, 1/6 Italian, 1/16 Polish, etc, etc. I am 100% Chinese (pretty sure).

      I’m not a rebel. I was just following the trend (hehe), but I’ve stuck with it for many years now even though my mom insists I look like a cow. Sometimes people take a double look at me, and for a moment I’ll think, “Oh I must look goooood today!” and then I realize they’re just making sure it’s not a huge booger sticking out of my nose. Sigh..

  10. isabellart says:

    I really liked this post because it can be hard to find your place but it is a great advantage for me to move in and out of two different cultures as well as be in my own!!

  11. it’s good to have an identity crisis and ask yourself questions, research your roots, explore the world to discover who YOU are. the thing is your identity is who you are and want to be, not what others put on you (their miss-perception and prejudices). once you are confident in who you are, you won’t care about their question. my feeling, from the last lines of your blog, is that you are almost there!

    these days i am struggling with the notion of “home”. i feel at home wherever i have a bed. a backpacker hostel can be a home for two nights. i don’t worry about it. BUT when people ask “where is home?” it can get complicated. worse: forms asking me what country i reside in…

    i have a homeland (Switzerland — which i left in ’98 and haven’t returned to since ’06) and a heartland (Ireland — where i go every year to visit my aunt and recharge my love battery). i am slowly distancing myself from the US (home for 12 years) but i still feel like rushing to every American and ask them about home; i read US news on google every day. Vanuatu was home for 8 months, then for 4 months last year i was between homes. i came across an immigration form asking what was the last country i had spent 12 months in… and it was the US even if i had left it more than a year earlier!

    i am back in Vanuatu, who knows for how long, but at least i have a cosy bed and a place i can call home if people ask. now if they ask me where i am from, i say Switzerland but it feels like the foreignest countries of all!

    a strange life we have, but very rich. good luck on your search.

    • Emily He says:

      I always feel silly when I say I’m in a process of “finding myself” but I guess people are always searching for who they are in one way or another, whether it’s “found” purposefully or as a surprise. A huge reason I moved to China, despite all my other dreams, was exactly to “research my roots” as you say (hence groundingmyroots!!!) and to spend more time with my parents. And like you, at first I also found it hard to say where “home” was, but lately I’ve been saying home is Brooklyn. I honestly feel like that’s where I will end up one day because I absolutely loved living there. I felt so at “home” for the first time in a long time.

      For a while now I’ve been wanting to write a post about “home” and what it means, but I think you should DEFINITELY write one. It’s very admirable that you can call so many places home.. you are very lucky!

      I think you’re leading such an interesting life, Janique! I always have! I wish we could talk about all your travels and discoveries over coffee and chocolates like Guatemala days..who knows? Maybe we will cross paths again!

      (Now go on and turn your comment into a post! It’s time for an update anyway! :))

      • mmm intriguing idea. i never thought about writing about it. my blog is about the ups and downs of travelling and eating (most ups), not about my inner life but i guess i am the boss and could have a few different entries…let me see how busy my day is and i may just follow your advice.

        i think it’s great that you have found a place where you love being and feel so much at home. i haven’t or i have so many times that i don’t feel i belong anywhere… but not in a sad way: i can fit in about anywhere! i like your blog’s name because i’ve always felt rootless. interestingly my last name means ‘Root’ so i bring them with me everywhere 🙂 but every now and then i wonder how long a person who requires grounding routines can live without a base. in a way i solved that once my aunt said that her home in Ireland was my home. i know i know you are doing to say that i should put all that on my blog!

      • Emily He says:

        I WAS going to say that you should put it all on your blog, and now you have! Yipeeee!

  12. […] shall we say pushed by my friend Emily. If you don’t believe me, read her blog entry entitled My Identity Crisis. I was innocently leaving a comment and she challenged me to explore the topic on my blog, which is […]

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