When people looked at me growing up, I’m not sure exactly what they saw. They probably couldn’t tell I had ancestors from Italy, England, Scotland, Slovakia (Vikings, no less, but that’s a story for another day), and, yes, China. These identities met and mingled, and eventually melded into the DNA of a quarter-Asian girl living in Akron, Ohio.
What I do know is they saw someone… different. As a kid, I never quite fit in, with comments from classmates like “What are you?” and “Where are your chopsticks?” jolting me out of a lulled sense of belonging and laying the groundwork for life-long anxiety.
The biggest difference between me and the other Asian kids I knew, was that most of them grew up with parents who immigrated to the United States, so they had the shared experience of living in their home country to connect them—something I never had. The only thread I had was my grandfather who immigrated to the U.S. when he was a teen, before the dawn of communism in China. When he came here for high school, stayed for college and medical school, eventually met and married my white grandmother, and settled in Ohio, there wasn’t a whole lot of culture left. My dad and uncle grew up in the 50s and 60s, a time when embracing your Chinese heritage wasn’t exactly the norm. Once my brother and I came along in the 80s, our grandfather was the only person who held the key to that part of our identity.
For us, that meant hanging out at the local Chinese restaurant eating braised tofu and shark fin soup (something I was embarrassed to even mention to my friends), dodging the Peking duck hanging from the ceiling in our grandparents’ basement, and listening to stories of my grandpa’s adventures as a young man. My grandfather was gregarious and loved by the community, but most of all he was loved by me, the so-called “apple of his eye.” He died when I was seven, and although I can’t say that I immediately embraced being Chinese, as it took over a decade to feel that pride, his memory is a big part of why I want to wrap myself in the armor of my Asian heritage and teach my young son to wear it proudly, too.
In the flash of a devilish grin or the tilt of my son’s head thrown back in giggles, I can sometimes see a glimpse of my dad or grandfather. But to the untrained eye, my son doesn’t look Chinese at all, nor does he share my Chinese name (I kept it for myself after marriage for many reasons, but one was to hold on to that part of my identity).
They say your genes are made up of all your ancestors who lived before you. Maybe you have the same smile as a great, great uncle who died well before you were born. Or maybe your laugh is identical to a long-forgotten sister who your grandmother cherished from way back when. I like to imagine that even though our ancestors are no longer here—we’ll never know the warmth of their hands or the bite of their humor—they are still within us, showing up for their great, great (infinitely great) grandchildren in these small ways. Maybe my son shares one of these traits with my great grandfather or his father’s father. I’ll never know for sure, but here’s how I plan to keep our culture alive through him.
Connect through family recipes (with a vegetarian twist).
Since my kid is all in on pizza and mac and cheese at the moment, this one may have to wait a few years. But we do have a collection of Tsai family recipes in a bound cookbook—stir-fried cellophane noodles are my favorite—and I want to share my love of these flavors with him. We may have to skip the Peking duck since we’re vegetarians (Peking tofu just doesn’t have the same ring to it), but we can improvise.