Age: 13, Grade: 8
School Name: Horace Mann School, Bronx, NY
Educator: James Brink
Category: Personal Essay & Memoir
Yin and Yang
Chinese New Year – a festival of light, fire, fortune, and food – seems as foreign as hieroglyphics to me. The Chinese New Year that I know is Ms. Tsao from Mamaroneck gossiping with my mom about Mrs. Song’s new husband in the hallway, little kids running around with sticky fingers and iPads permanently on Fortnite, and “Big Uncle” from Paramus, getting drunk on cheap Costco wine, while laughing with my dad as he slams cards on the stained coffee table.
I’ve never lit incense with its choking fumes or offered cash to the dead, their grim smiles casting empty shadows behind dusty frames with scratched metal sides. If I bothered to light incense, it would turn our cramped apartment into a crack house, just with its sharp fumes and woozy scent. Its dizzy vapors strangle me while they fill the AC vents. We don’t even offer oranges to the dead because if we bothered to do so, they’re out of season in early February and sold at prices that would make Gucci look cheap.
I’ve never launched sparkling fireworks to scare off “Nian,” the ferocious dragon from Chinese folktales, but if we launched them, we would end up with a knock on the door from the gruff police, and a “quick” berating visit from the nosy neighbor down the hall.
I’ve never eaten fist-sized mooncakes, with their mesmerizing prints and unfamiliar characters, or even savored char siu pork, a delicacy that any Chinese person will rave about – it’s juicy, brown, and caramelized with a sweet glaze taste left lingering in your mouth. To me, it seems like a perfect mix of tender American brisket with enchanting Chinese sauce and spices. You get the crispy and charcoal texture from the west and salty and sweet vinaigrette from the east. However, all I know about this foreign dish is from its fake, bland cousin in Trader Joe’s frozen food aisle.
I’ve never bought lucky scrolls with enlightening characters and words from an old man whose wrinkles, so plentiful, they all look like they were molded into one.
I’ve never performed an intense dragon dance in order to warn off savage beasts and misfortune. All my family has is a depressing plastic and foam dragon from Gold City Chinese Supermarket, its once vibrant red scales now transformed into a faded, pale pink, its eyes bulging from boredom.
I’ve never explored Chinatown’s labyrinth of winding streets for New Year’s necessities, hunted for the freshest produce, or bargained for the finest pork chop. We shop for groceries at Costco and learn to deal with half-moldy vegetables and canned mangoes that are coated in a thick varnish of sugary syrup.
These everyday activities may seem normal or even bothersome to some Chinese people, but to me, they seem unknown, out of reach, like a luxury I’ve never experienced.
If you ask any Chinese immigrant what their favorite part of New York City is, they will most definitely say Chinatown – the city’s center of Chinese lifestyle. This is because no Chinese person could simply be separated from the rich, savory foods of their homeland. Many Chinese New Yorkers make a weekly pilgrimage to Chinatown for foodstuffs. Chinese people couldn’t possibly resist boba milk tea, with unregulated amounts of sugar, or Shanghainese soup dumplings, exploding in your awaiting mouth.
For many Chinese Americans, Chinatown is a gateway back to the motherland, but to me, Chinatown is a distracting and shady maze of back alleys and street-carts with a touch of chicanery. The Chinatown that they know is attending Mandarin classes in church basements since they were toddlers. The Chinatown that they know is making authentic jiao zi with Gao Wen Zhong’s mother. The Chinatown that they know is doing Tai Chi with Zufu in the park pagoda. However, I’ve never felt an emotional connection to Chinese culture as strongly as others do. The Chinatown that I know is full of Chinese grandmas roosting at subway entrances selling knockoff Chanel purses. Their gazes are mixed with constant fear on the lookout for the police as they haggle over counterfeit watches. The Chinatown that I know is holding on for dear life onto mommy’s purse because the men at either end of the alleyway won’t let you pass. In my opinion, culture is more important to me than my dignity. Without it, I feel lost and destitute, my voice one of the millions in America. I can’t bear the idea of my voice being drowned out and murmur-less above the crashing waves. My culture is vital to me, especially in a country where racial discrimination and hate crimes are as common as daylight. I must find a way to preserve it and persevere against all odds. However, I feel lost like a ship at sea with no land in sight.
My cultural identity is stuck in the middle of an intersection, with American tanks rolling in from the west, and Chinese warships arriving from the east. Even though I feel like one half of my soul is in China and the other half is in America, constantly being yanked on, like a flag in a game of tug-a-war, I strangely feel at peace. For many Chinese-Americans, food remains a major aspect of culture and symbolizes reunion and family that will always remain a part of me, even in the United States. I can always find peace with myself culturally through food, whether it’s artificial instant noodles at home, or elaborate meals of Chinese hot-pot, with slices of beef, endlessly flowing out of the boiling pot from the murky broth below.