It isn’t always the easiest trying to raise an Asian-American kid in the Midwest. I try to overcompensate for the lack of Asian-American representation by exposure to food and arts, spending time with extended family, and focusing on our mother tongue. This is what I envision my toddler son would say/think as a teenager, about how I’ve tried to merge our culture and his environment.
“Midwestern Asian Kid.” Things that make you go, “Hmm.” I’m half Chinese, half Caucasian. Kansas City is home. I have a bit of a twang when I say “hill” (sounds more like “hail”). In my opinion, the proper way to describe anything large, is to say, “big ol’ ________” (whatever said thing is). My grandparents on Dad’s side are Gigi and Poppy, and they live on land in the country with chickens and cows. But I also speak Chinese with an extensive vocabulary and excellent tonality. At least that’s what Mom says, but she likes to toot my horn.
You’ve heard of Crazy Rich Asians? My family is like the Crazy Loud Asians. I have a rather large, extended family on my Chinese side, and get-togethers are always lively — to say the least.
My mom and I grew up in very different times and cultural environments. Mom was raised in a strictly Chinese-speaking household by my great grandparents. We speak both English and Mandarin in our house. My aunts and uncles on Mom’s side all lived in neighboring cities, and they all saw each other almost weekly at family gatherings. None of Mom’s side live nearby, so I don’t have constant communication with other Asian family members. When Mom was in school, she said she saw just as many people that looked like her, as she did the number of people who were black or white. At my school, there are less than 10 kids who look like me, and I know (of) them all. Mom is always trying to befriend their parents and get us to hang out.
It’s very obvious that we don’t see as many Asians (specifically Chinese, Mandarin speaking) here, as Mom did growing up in Southern California. She is adamant that I learn the language, eat the food, and experience the culture. Since as far as I can remember, Mom usually only speaks to me in Chinese. She addresses me by my Chinese name, and usually doesn’t respond unless spoken to in Chinese. I switch back and forth from languages, when I talk to Mom and Dad. It ain’t no thing; I’m used to it. When we are around family on Mom’s side, she requests that they only speak to me in Chinese, too. It gives me more practice, she says.
I know Mom worries about me missing out on half my culture. She tries really hard to give me what I’m missing from the coasts, with regards to my ethnicity. Food is my love language. More specifically, snacks are my jam. We often go to the Chinese store or Asian markets for special ingredients, and I get to pick out a treat. Pocky sticks and Koala snacks are where it’s at. What we can’t get here, my grandpa and grandma on the coasts will send me in care packages so I don’t miss out. Mom takes me on lunch dates, and they’re almost always at an Asian restaurant. Our favorite is ABC Cafe, where the dim sum game is strong and the aunties speak to me in Chinese. I also love music, and Mom likes to take advantage of the 25-minute drive to school, by only playing Chinese music. Growing up it was a lot of Chinese lullabies or fairy tales on CD. We would sing together the whole way to school.
Perhaps the most important thing my mom teaches me, is to just be me. She tells me to embrace my identity, which sometimes seems blurry to me. Half Chinese, half Caucasian, living in the Midwest. I speak a language that isn’t popular and don’t see many people who look like me on a daily basis. But the other side of me goes to the farm and gathers eggs from the chicken coup. I love me some Kansas City barbecue AND I can’t get enough of my Chinese grandma’s home cooking. Mom says I can be in both worlds, that they are equally part of me, and that makes me special. I think she has to say that as my mom, but I believe her when she does.