[This piece won Third Prize in The Diversity Story Cultural Writing Competition - High School]
BY JESSICA LIU
a fenghuang girl among starborn children,
plumes of fiery fire instead of blue and white grace,
i stand with one foot in rubble and another in a dream.
The fenghuang, or phoenix, is a powerful legend in Chinese culture, a rare omen that foretells harmony and peace. The “yin-and-yang” of traditional phoenix birds, the fenghuang is a combination of both the male and female phoenix―two separate identities harmoniously meshed to become a noble creature soaring above in burning skies with colorful plumage, lighting the way for morality, immortality, perseverance, and purity.
As for me, I am a girl made of two distinct cultures, each with their own multi-colored feathers emerging from a blank slate. Yet, what eluded me was the grace of the fenghuang―a legend possessing a variety of words somehow complementing each other to form a novel of cultural pride. I, on the other hand, saw no harmony in my future, only a constant clashing of identities and cultures―the sentences in my novel often stumbled along, tripping and stopping abruptly. And, for so long, I struggled along on the ground, unable to enjoy the carefree breeze in the slowly darkening sky.
“So, how was China compared to America?”
That question was the shadow to my sun―it always haunted me after a summer trip to visit my grandparents in the chaotic streets of Beijing, China. These summer trips were respites from the stresses of childhood, filled with rain and heat, dipping my feet into a culture that made its home oceans away from my home, and re-learning the red strings that tied my relatives and I together. We would skip across cracked sidewalks, chewing on freshly-made lamb skewers, as our eyes drank in the chaotic yet harmonious landscape of buildings in front of us, while bubbles of Chinese burst and popped around us; it was a world away from the golden skyrises of America, but somehow carried a sense of dignity and history that spoke to my soul. I still remember days of treading in the pool, running my fingers endlessly over out-of-tune piano keys, and listening to my grandmother speak about hard truths of life in a language I could barely understand. In more ways than one, I was a foreigner in China, but there was still a sense of fondness I felt for a home that was not my home.
But I could never express any of these feelings when confronted with the question asked by my peers: “So, how was China compared to America?” I was still young at the time, skipping freely through elementary school, blind to the hardships and realities of a cold merciless world. I looked out on society with rose-colored lenses. Discrimination was a word not in my vocabulary. But, even to my naive ears, I could hear the derisive sneer and smirking anticipation hidden behind the deliberately casual words.
“So, how was China compared to America?”
(What is China compared to America?)
I wanted to say that China was a home away from home. I wanted to say that it felt like a missing puzzle piece had been restored to my jigsaw soul. I wanted to say that even being caught in a deep flood while attempting to enter our hotel was an exhilarating experience that I wished to experience again. I wanted to say eating home-made dumplings or zhajiangmian (brown-sauce noodles) around the table was a novelty that brought a sense of comfort and solidarity among the people I barely knew but were somehow connected to one half of the culture that composed the human named “Jessica.” I wanted to say that despite the cracked sidewalks, cigarettes tossed in shadows, and the endlessly gray skies that stretched over my vacation, the time spent exploring the ancient culture of China, from the Great Wall to the Summer Palace and the Seventeen Hole Bridge, nurtured the growth of my fledgling fenghuang wings. I wanted to say that the culture of China was vastly different from America, and that if I could live in both places at once, I would feel at home.
What came out of my mouth was, “It wasn’t as good as here.”
The person asking the question would nod knowingly with a look of superiority and continue talking about her day. And I stood there, in the middle of paved sidewalks, dumbly, wondering why I felt like I somehow had to be indebted to America for living here rather than in China.
It was that question that began opening my blind eyes. And I finally saw who I truly was and still am.
I am Pinocchio hidden beneath layers of red, white, and blue, molded by Uncle Sam―a lie living a lie.
It was the experience of being asked this question―“So, how was China compared to America”―over a span of multiple summers that ingrained in my personality a sense of disgust at being Chinese―at being Asian. How could I ever compete with the shining golden palaces of America where soldiers spilled their blood for costly victories to ensure a legacy of democracy for their children? The proud red and gold of a culture rooted in the history of my family that once embroidered my personality and culture fell away, replaced by scratchy blue, white, and red twine that chafed endlessly at my soul. I clipped my wings, trimmed away my brightly colored plumage, and hunkered down to the ground. I realized that the sky was no longer my realm; the world was too cruel for me, and I could not deal with the rocks thrown at my fragile body.
I felt like an outsider―still feel like an outsider―in America, especially at school where looks are prized above all―a weed in a garden of beautiful blooming flowers. The stars in the sky are a symbol of mockery to me―what is the American dream if I am not even American? Who am I to call myself American when I am stained by the grime of Chinese culture? And, even so, despite my attempts to fit in―conform to the standards of society, copy the latest fashion, never speak in Chinese―the plumage of my brightly colored feathers could not―cannot―hide beneath the lie I wear around my person.
My soul was torn in two, one half residing oceans away, and the other half misplaced. No amount of consolation could reunite the missing pieces, and I lived with half a soul until high school.
Ultimately, it was the sense of realizing that I could not change who I was born as―could not change who I am―that glued the jagged edges of my identity back together. I can never change my “almond-like eyes” that disappear when I smile, can never shake the feeling that I will never achieve the unattainable American dream, can never change the expectation to be and do better than the people around me to prove myself to be an “American.”
I can never be fully American because I am not American in the first place.
It was these thoughts that caused me to seek out the bits of Chinese culture that I denied myself before. From taking Chinese class at high school to doing research on my own, my own colored plumage soon began to grow back, along with my pride at being Chinese. It is perhaps a naive thought, but I hold a sense of pride in that I am unique because I am not American. I am the combination of cultures who have met across oceans―long-lost lovers who found each other in the most unexpected of places.
But this isn’t a fairy-tale story. Pinocchio was never saved. He continued living the rest of his life as a lie trapped within a cage.
These cracks within my soul, caused by the insecurities prodded by such questions asking me to define two parts of my personal culture in comparison to each other, remain permanent fixtures in my life. They divide me into the “girl who is chinese” and the “Girl Who Is American”. I still sometimes duck my head when walking along paved sidewalks within my school among students who don’t speak with a slight accent; I still, in moments of weakness, reach for a cup of boba in American milk-tea shops in an attempt to prove myself to be both American and Chinese; I still feel ashamed at times to possess “almond eyes” and to belong to a culture that “eats dog.” And, amidst growing antagonism against Asians in the United States, these cracks have only lengthened and deepened.
However, these insecurities about my culture that I feel, although they have shaken the foundations of my identity, have molded me into the person I am today―a fenghuang who rose from the ashes of fear, doubt, and second thoughts to become someone a little more secure with herself, someone who takes pride in her multicultural-colored plumage and wings, and someone whose novel finally makes sense.
“So, how was China compared to America?”
It was like realizing the rubbles of China were palaces of history, and the dreams of America were pillars of growth.
It was like finding a piece of my soul that I missed my entire life.
It was like emerging from the ashes to become a colorful and culturally proud fenghuang girl who finally found her identity and was able to take to the night sky to soar among the golden stars.