Li Shen: Two Sides of the Same Coin

There is a fine line between fitting in and losing oneself.

by Sabrina Li Shen | 10/2/18 2:15am

 Thanks to all of those freshman year icebreakers, I can drop a few fun facts about myself at a moment’s notice: I never really learned to tell my lefts from my rights, I’m allergic to apples and bananas, and I lived with my grandparents in China for three years. One year after I was born, I flew from Boston to Shanghai, where I stayed under the care of countless relatives spread across the biggest and brightest city I’ve ever seen. Almost all of my extended family lives in China, and I love every memory I’ve made there. I have been loud and proud of my heritage for a few years, but it hasn’t always been that way. In fact, sometimes it still feels like I’m trying too hard to disassociate myself from the community that raised me.

As a child, I had two distinct groups of friends: friends from school and the children of my parents’ friends. My friends from school were all relatively homogenous in terms of socioeconomic status, religion, race and ethnicity. This isn’t too surprising, considering that I grew up in a wealthy, mostly white suburb of Boston. The children of my parents’ friends were also relatively homogenous in terms of socioeconomic status, religion, race and ethnicity, but that was because they were all American-born Chinese kids from the surrounding neighborhoods and towns. We were all of different ages and we didn’t have much in common other than our shared cultural identity and the all-Asian parties our parents forced us to go to. I remember I used to make fun of those parties to my friends at school. I acted as if the parties were weird because all the guests were of Asian descent, and I pretended like I was constantly bored and unable to connect with my fellow second-generation Asian-Americans, who were all “nerdy” and “lame” while I was the “cool” one with my “normal” group of white friends who played soccer and attended sleepaway summer camps instead of playing piano and attending summer math camps.

Of course, these are all broad generalizations, but I was always embarrassed that I did, in fact, participate in so many of the activities stereotypical of the Asian-American child. On the other hand, I could talk about these activities freely with my Asian-American friends at our all-Asian parties. While our parents caught up with each other in their native tongues, my friends and I complained about our piano lessons and outside-of-school math classes, but we were also free to gush about them. I never liked math, but I loved music, and I thought it was so cool that I could use my classical piano training to learn pop songs or even write my own songs. However, I would have never admitted that to my friends at school, because that would mean proving true the stereotypes from which I fought so hard to distance myself. There are many things to unpack here: internalized racism, the model minority myth, the pressures of cultural assimilation –– the list goes on. But this article, like most of my pieces, is about my ongoing journey to reconnect with the Asian part of my identity.

In high school, I found the self-confidence that now plays a large part in defining who I am. My newfound self-confidence also helped me throw off some of the shame that had shrouded the way I talked about my Chinese heritage. During my senior year of high school, I created an independent study course to examine the complex relationships between Chinese and American conceptions of feminism, and I was a teaching assistant for a freshman history class while the students learned about the history of China. Over spring break, I flew from Boston to Shanghai again for the first time in years. I reconnected with relatives and rediscovered the city; I learned about the parts of Chinese history that never came up in my textbooks, and I found a thriving community of expats living in Shanghai.

I loved my white-picket-fence childhood — I actually did play soccer (poorly), and I attended sleepaway summer camps where math was never mentioned, much to my pleasure. But I also loved my piano lessons and all-Asian parties where Chinese food filled the dinner table and the lyrical tones of Mandarin filled the air. To anyone out there who is currently struggling to reconcile these two parts of yourself — the part that follows a narrow conception of what it means to be American and who you have to be to fit in, and the part that is steeped with the tradition and culture of your parents — please remember that they are two sides of the same coin. There is no shame in being proud of where you came from, and there is certainly nothing that speaks more to the better nature of what it means to be American than the entwining of different threads of experience.