By Candace Ng
For a really long time, I have struggled to fit in, and unfortunately, Brandeis was the most challenging place of all. It was not that I didn’t make any friends; in fact, I have met and become friends with many Brandeisians. My biggest struggle was that I didn’t fit in anywhere culturally.
On most days, my friends forget that I am an international student. To be exact, nobody asked, for everyone simply assumed that I was American-born Chinese. But I am a Hong Kong native, born and raised. I grew up speaking both Chinese and English, and strongly identified with my Chinese heritage even during the four years in which I attended an international school. I knew that I belonged though I never fully fit into the Hong Kong stereotype: In terms of appearance, my skin, although yellow, was “too tan.” My natural hair color is an anomaly in itself; it is in a shade of brown that is considered both too warm and too light. In terms of the way I acted, I spoke “too quickly” and “too much English.” In terms of my beliefs, I was “too liberal” and “too open about my anxiety.”
I was determined to go to boarding school during my freshman year of high school. Hong Kong did not feel like home anymore, and I wanted to find my place in the world. I craved independence, but mostly I dreamed of finding my “home away from home” as the school brochures advertised. The following fall, I packed my life into two checked pieces of luggage and traded a short, 20-minute-long car ride to school for a trip that takes over 24 hours door-to-door. I have not been in Hong Kong for more than two months at a time ever since.
Upon arriving at boarding school, it did not take long for me to learn that I wasn’t “American” enough: I didn’t grow up watching Disney Channel. I have never seen a pickup truck in real life. I had not heard of, or had, a Lunchable. At the same time, I wasn’t considered “Chinese” either: My accent was more British than Chinese. I decided to study German instead of Chinese at school. I traveled with my Canadian passport as opposed to the one issued by Hong Kong.
I had left home, but I couldn’t find the America I learned about from watching the news or reading books, the one that glorified its acceptance of different cultures, races and ethnicities. Instead I was stuck in an imaginary gray box of my own creation, torn between the colors white and yellow. Every trip from New York or Boston to Hong Kong, I brought a part of my newfound identity with me, and vice versa. Like the Biblical parable of the two builders in the book of Matthew, I had built a home for myself on sand. The foundation of my home was weak; its construction is unstable and constantly shifting. I desperately wanted to believe that I had found my place in either culture.
Many of my relatives and old family friends called me “gwai mui” (degradatory Cantonese slang meaning Caucasian girl) as I was growing up. The not-so-subtle nickname hinted that I had been “whitewashed.” By the time I graduated from boarding school, I felt like it was an accurate representation of who I was. Although I am still capable of reading Chinese, I read almost exclusively in English. I follow American politics rather than government affairs in Hong Kong. I consider bagels to be my comfort food (to the extent where I decided to name my dog Bagel). When asked where I was from, I would say “Hong Kong,” but my response is always followed by, “but I went to boarding school in upstate New York. Near Albany.”
Recently, I met with a Brandeis administrator to discuss ways to increase diversity on The Hoot’s staff and editorial board. She, upon realizing my East Asian heritage and upbringing, told me that I didn’t understand my own culture. Ashamed, I remained silent. Her words lingered on my mind for days after; it was all I could think about.
I tried to come up with excuses for myself. “Hong Kong is different. It is a global city. Its culture is different from other cities in East Asia.” I repeated those words over and over again in my head until I could believe it, but I couldn’t. I realized two things, neither of which I wanted to admit to: the first, my privilege in growing up in a multicultural society. The second, she might have been right.
This year marks my fourth year away from home. Four years is a long period of time—four years marks a leap year and an U.S. president’s term in office, as well as a lot of physical and emotional growth. I had left my home culture for so long that I have almost become a stranger in my own skin. I refused to be a part of cultural groups at Brandeis, with the exception of Cru (Brandeis Christian Fellowship). I became defensive when strangers pointed out small details that reveal my “Chineseness.” I became embarrassed to say my name in Cantonese, my mother tongue. I wanted to break off ties with my own roots, yet felt offended if people told me I was “basically white.”
My social psychology class defines “culture” as “a system of enduring meanings, beliefs, values, assumptions, institutions and practices shared by a large group of people.” I still can’t find the words that can do justice to both the Chinese heritage I grew up with and the Western society I spend most of my time in. While I know I am not defined by my race and ethnicity, I continue to find myself struggling to choose between my two identities. Going back and forth from one culture to another makes you restless, and allows for one identity to become superior to the other. It is hard.
I believe that I will return home for good one day, with one foot in Hong Kong and the other in America. But for now, and for the rest of the time I live abroad, I will continue to build my own culture and my own identity. That will be my story to tell.