A Tribute to My Jiā

Home is jiā in Mandarin, but jiā is also a house. Home isn’t always a house, but a house is a home—just sometimes not the right one. There are tens of thousands of houses in Silicon Valley, but not all of them are jiās. My neighborhood, my jiā is covered in yellow. Our parents were immigrants from China, Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, and we, the second-generation offspring, grew up with each other. We grew up with the college prep centers down the street and the after-school boba shops in close proximity. We took the same SAT classes. We bought our rice cookers at the same supermarket. We talked about getting into the best colleges in the nation; we taped our monolids when we should have been studying and pretended we weren’t so yellow. We wondered if we were good enough.

Once, my English teacher asked us to describe the connotations of the word “home” and the word “house.” We said that a home was warm. A home was a sense of belonging. A home was where your family was. A house was a physical manifestation of a place you could live in, but it wasn’t always a home. Home was jiā—flat, even tone in Chinese.

This was my home, but I didn’t think it was my jiā. Here in America, we bought suannai (sour yogurt) and tofu from the local plaza, but there was a feeling of homesickness when we looked at the labels and they said made in China. We looked at the statistics of college admissions—the rates decreased each year—and suddenly, our friends were now our enemies. Yellowness meant good scores, good grades, good extracurriculars. Yellowness was everywhere, and it became our competition. Sally Zhang had scored higher than us. Sally Zhang was going to Harvard. We envied Sally with a kind of intense jealousy, the worst kind. She walked into school with her textbooks and we crawled underneath the desk to see what classes she was taking. We struggled with the color of our skin, not realizing that it wasn’t paint, but permanence.

The collective “we” was dreaded, feared because we wanted to be seen as individuals, but it was so difficult. When we talked about our ethnicity, we had to talk about Nanjing, Chinese New Year, working on rice farms that we knew nothing about. Our grandfathers became “Grandpa Jia” and “Grandpa Yuan,” just because they had to be cultured and Confucius-like. Calligraphy contests for “kids like me” were hosted by American organizations chock-full of paternalism. My friend once asked me why I didn’t write about dragons and chowmein, her voice condescending, and I told her that it was because I didn’t want to be entrapped by the system of indirect assimilation Asian-Americans are forced into today. The system was why my Geometry teacher was still saying, “I thought Asians were supposed to be good at math.” The system was why my English teacher never believed I could read and write English because my parents were immigrants and spoke the language with accents, distinctly un-American.

My decision to transfer to a very, very white high school was motivated by my desire to find the quintessential sense of America the way I’d read about it in novels. Suddenly though, it was as if the real America became evident. Classmates looked at me, pulled their eyes up in slants, asked me to pronounce Japanese words—”oh, all Asians are the same, though.” The concept of fengshui became all too clear; the environment that’s best suited for you is the place where your surroundings are at peace. In its own way, yellowness was a type of peace. Yes, social Darwinism was always evident, but it wasn’t real in my community the way it was outside of it. I don’t think I became aware of how blind to color I’d been until I saw more than one.

There was no way to describe the longing I felt for a sense of family. Homesickness, loss, grief—these words all seemed too inconclusive. I had a house, I had a home. I saw my yellow friends going to Homecoming—they painted their graduation years on their faces as if it meant something—and I thought that this, this was true nationalism. Maybe we weren’t quintessential Americans the way an American defines the word “American,” but we had the spirit. I missed that culture, the way we’d known that being in America, land of the free and home of the brave, was something to be proud of. I wanted the opportunity to see yellow again. I wanted to come home.

Testing Day came, the day we would all take our respective SAT IIs in our second language. We clutched our pencils, our headsets, our admission tickets in our hands, and waited outside: a line of yellow. We gave each other tips, convincing ourselves that it wouldn’t be so hard after all—we were basically native speakers. We went to China, Taiwan, Japan, South Korea every summer. Our grandparents asked us how we were doing in school, and we could always reply in our second language. If language was the flagship of identity, then we were wholly identified. Yellow turned around, smiled at me nervously, went back to talking to her mother in rapid Chinese. It was cold outside, but at that moment I’d never felt warmer. When the doors opened, we walked inside, grimmer than a line headed straight for death itself.

The testing room was silent, but there was still a sense of belonging. This was what our parents had come here for, so that we could succeed. This was our pursuit of American education. We set our pencils on our desks, lines of yellow. Instructions were read, batteries were plugged in. At the moment before we’d all become tangible representations of the American Dream, we looked at one another and smiled. And for that second, everything was alright. We’d get through this together, despite the obstacles. We were products of the immigrant community we grew up in, and we’d get through America together, if not physically, at least in spirit. Even if I hadn’t seen these people in two years, I thought: these are my people. This is my family.

I won’t lie and say that I never thought about yellowness as anything less than it was, because I did. I undermined my identity as a yellow person, as a Chinese-American, all throughout middle school. I never included Asian-Americans in my APUSH essays, simply because there was no room for them—us. Now, though, I’ve come to realize that to forgo the A of ABC is to dismantle the Asian-American character as we know it. That’s something I’m not willing to do, because my community is my home. Somewhere along the way, I’d lost sight of what it was, but now I see. So here’s to my home. Here’s to our test scores, our smart ones. Here’s to our weekend Chinese, Japanese, Korean lessons. Here’s to boba after school and boba before it. I love my jiā, in all its yellowness, and this is my tribute. This is my homecoming.

Valerie Wu is a high school student in California. She has previously studied writing at Stanford University’s pre-collegiate program and Interlochen Center for the Arts, as well as conducted research for Questioz, the international journal for high school research. Her work has been featured and/or recognized by Susan Cain’s Quiet Revolution, the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, The Huffington Post, Teen Ink, and various local publications.

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