It was 1987. My dad arrived at the airport early, and stood waiting at the gate. A year had passed since he had last seen my mom. A year since he had borrowed just enough from a friend to pay for his one-way flight out of China. And a year since he had said goodbye to his new family—just a month after my birth—to start school in the United States. Now, after his first year in the U.S., he had managed to save up enough to not only pay back his original flight, but to also fly my mom and me to join him.
He stood waiting as strangers filed past, one by one. And as the plane began to empty, he could feel the knot in his stomach tightening. He had planned out all the details over the phone with my mom weeks in advance. Long distance phone calls were expensive in 1987. Personal cell phones were still a decade away. And my mom didn’t speak a word of English.
My dad had sent hand-written signs to my mom in China with instructions on how to use them during her trip. “Can you help me find my connecting flight,” one sign read in English. Then in Chinese: use this if you get lost trying to make your connection. There was a sign for finding a bathroom. A sign to ask for water when thirsty. And a sign to apologize when I needed a diaper change. Altogether, about a dozen signs were packaged neatly and sent to my mom prior to her intercontinental journey. It was her first time flying.
As the last passengers filtered out of the jet bridge, my dad had to subdue his panic. Did she board the right flight? Where could they be? Are they okay? And just as fear began to flood his chest, my mom’s tiny frame slid into view with my one-year-old self tucked in her arm. She would later explain that she had intentionally waited for everyone else to exit before attempting to juggle an infant and all her belongings. We had arrived safely.
It was my first day in America.
* * *
I was raised in a home of immigrants. In many ways, it was a typical Chinese American home, if there can even be such a thing. As a kid, home meant family outings to the lake and game nights in the living room. It also involved absorbing my dad’s lessons on atomic particles, and visiting Harvard during a family road trip—all before I had finished the third grade. But primarily, it was where I could be myself. Where I could scream and jump and explore, always knowing that the primary forces to reel me in, even if not so gently, were ones that had fully embraced the challenges of my existence.
My parents raised me on a father’s graduate student stipend and a mother’s minimum wage from waiting tables and cleaning homes. Like most parents, they wanted more for their children than they ever had for themselves. And as immigrants, they pushed me—steadied me—as I inched my way along a tightrope suspended between the cultural norms of my family’s past and an American dream that stretched beyond them. I think they always knew that with every step of my journey, I would be covering a certain distance that could not be walked back. It’s a distance spanning a chasm not of love, but of cultural and generational transformation—paid for in recurring increments of assimilation. Yet even before I could understand it, my parents were pushing me down this path, intentionally nudging me further away from the life and culture they had come to embody. Perhaps they thought that by doing so, I could become more American.
Both my parents were part of a generation that lived through China’s Cultural Revolution and then competed in ruthless entry exams to gain acceptance to college after Chinese universities re-opened in the 1970s. My dad would tell me stories of filling a metal basin full of ice water, sitting in it to stay awake, and studying for China’s college entrance exams late into the night after all his farm chores were finished. My mom earned her degree in mechanical engineering before coming to the U.S. and working odd jobs to support my dad through graduate school. It was a desperate determination that drove them to America in pursuit of a brighter future. A determination to provide better for themselves, but more so for their children.
By any measure, I had a very happy childhood. My parents were amazingly resourceful in finding me opportunities to exercise my curiosity, to explore freely the world around me without much in the way of want. Even though they must have often felt out of place, they worked to make sure my brother and I had a home in America—that we would belong. And that we would not inherit the perception of being foreign that they often shouldered. It must be a harsh realization for parents—to find that so much of the rich cultural inheritance they hoped to someday leave behind would either be lost in translation or intentionally scrapped. Yet they did their best to adjust, improvising as they went, to create an American home from an adapted Chinese framework.
One weekend when I was in first grade, my parents came home from the grocery store and told me they were changing my name.
What do you think of “Jay?”
Um, It’s okay, I guess.
So it was decided. Until then, my name was Jie, which was pronounced “GEE-ye,” but often mispronounced to rhyme with “lie.” Jie is the phonetic translation (or Pinyin) for my name in Chinese: 捷—which means victory, or triumph. My parents must have figured Jay could yield some amount of American integration through its monosyllabic convenience. It was friendly phonetics at the expense of meaning and origin—a cross-cultural contract chartered with the knowledge that when a child’s future is in play, any price is a bargain. So I started writing Jay on all my school assignments. And for a while, it felt like a doppelgänger was completing my work. Then after some time and without knowing it, I was Jay. I am Jay.
I was Jie. Now, only my mom still calls me that.
I speak Mandarin at home with my parents. My mom always insisted on it more than my dad. During three separate times in my life, I have also learned to read and write in Chinese. But this I managed to consistently unlearn with alarming alacrity. Twice in elementary school, my mom guided me through a set of textbooks she had brought with her from China. After repeatedly allowing my Chinese to atrophy through disuse, I was sent to the pros: Chinese school. So in middle school I learned yet again to write essays and pass vocabulary exams. Unfortunately, my early adolescent apathy knew no bounds and after a couple years, my mom realized I had no real interest. She conceded the fight, I withdrew from Chinese school, and I forgot how to read and write one last time. Well, at least you can speak a bit, she would say.
Years later, I happened upon my mom looking through the cards and letters she had kept from my late grandparents. My father had beautiful handwriting, she admired as she flipped over one of his letters, the characters flowing across a thin sheet of paper. While the penmanship stood out to my untrained eye, the words sat silently on the page. You know, I didn’t see your grandpa for 8 years after we came to America. And then I only saw him the one time we visited China before he died. I offered her a smile and a gentle nod, trying to show that I somehow understood. She patted me on the shoulder and put the letters away.
Sometimes the cultural split between my parents and I remained a subtle, and mutually understood phenomenon. Other times, however, it seemed to be driven open by a violent wedge of our own actions. I was certainly not immune to the adolescent angst that plagues many teenagers and I often fought with my parents during high school. One of our worst episodes came after my dad learned that I was attending a homecoming dance during a period in which I was also studying for the PSAT. As he questioned how seriously I was taking my future, and insisted that I stay home, tempers began to flare. I remember sitting on the stairs just above our living space and feeling my heart circulating an audible fire through my head. As my dad shouted from an office chair below me, I barked back that he could ruin his own life, but to spare me his workaholic brand of misery. I affirmed that my only goal was to be nothing like him, PSAT be damned.
I went to homecoming the next day.
The day after that, my mom sat me down and offered an apology I did not deserve. You see, she deliberated on each word, we never had the opportunity to attend a dance, to wear a flower, to pin a boutonniere. But we would never want you to miss out, Jie. Then after a quiet pause she said she always knew I would be nothing like them. She had long ago accepted this. And so had my dad. But I had to understand something as well. That my father worked tirelessly to afford me this opportunity—to be nothing like him. He’s not perfect, Jay. But you can never say those things you said. Not to him. He loves you too much.
My parents will never speak English without a Chinese accent. They learned the words to the American pledge of allegiance when they first became U.S. citizens—but have since forgotten most of them. And they have never attended a high school dance. Yet, they made doubly sure that I could do all of these things, all while decidedly defining what being American means to me. It is not a color, a flag, or a feeling. It’s our home, broken and beautiful. The same one in which we learned to run and jump and explore. Where in moments of weakness, we can cut down those with whom we share our lives. But where we can also learn to embrace the challenges provided by our diverse histories.
I used to view my family’s story as one of Chinese immigrants who came to America. But in the setting of our current political landscape, I feel the need to reframe this narrative. My family is American. We are immigrants with a proud Chinese heritage. And we are not guests. My parents showed me that we can embody these two identities boldly and completely—that one does not detract from the other—and that neither should ever require an apology.