I was in a meeting with my teacher Joann. I had suggested that we take turns sharing our identities. Joann started first, listing with deep knowing: Woman, overweight, short, working class, Jewish. Rural. Old. When it came my turn, nothing arose. I stumbled over “Buddhist”, noted my Chinese and Japanese ancestry, and rejected the concept of womanhood. Joann asked me to pause.
Identity is not a theory or concept, she said. Let go of the mind. What is true in your body?
There was a tenderness and vulnerability in my body, tears arising in my eyes, a hollow core, and deep rolling sorrow. How could I explain that lines were arising, lines connecting to farmland in China, to Hong Kong, to ships across oceans? Lines connecting to the sugar plantations and pineapple farms of the Hawaiian Islands, back to fishing villages in Japan, crossing oceans to reach me? Lines signifying distance to my ancestral homelands, and journeys taken long ago.
How to explain that this place I call home is not mine at all, but colonized land, taken from others who still call it home? This place is the endpoint of lines criss-crossing oceans, lines that intersect in a San Francisco suburb called Pleasanton. These lines remind me of all the things my family left behind in other places.
What was lost in the arriving?
In the process of assimilation, what was adopted as our own?
I tell Joann that there is emptiness in my body, resistance to claiming any identity.
Identity is not something you choose, Joann said. It’s something deep in the body. The feeling of finding comfort in the familiarity of a Chinese noodle shop in a foreign country. The knowing of the body before the mind kicks in.
I imagine the rituals of my father’s mother – my Yin Yin – waking up early to craft my favorite foods, shaping shumai with practiced hands. Sharkfin soup before fins were illegal, one bowl rich with remnants of the ocean. Her habit of saving everything. The way she tends to her backyard garden, growing orchids, roses, apple trees. Our trips to the cemetery to pay respects to ancestors, bringing fresh flowers, cutting the grass, wiping the tombstones free of dirt. Three slow bows. These rituals become my own. Her devotion and sacrifice to family, her fear of scarcity, her love is my inheritance.
My great-grandfather Mun On Gin was the “paper son” of American citizens in Arizona that shared our family name. In 1920, at a time when the Chinese Exclusion Act barred Chinese laborers like him from entering the country, my great-grandfather boarded the S.S. Nanking ship in Hong Kong bound for Santa Barbara, California. He was 11 years old, and his papers gave him citizenship to a country he had never seen. Gum Saan, Gold Mountain, a place of possibility and fortune. A white family hired him as a house boy, allowed him a basic education, and taught my young great-grandfather how to cook. Later, he would attend an American high school and purchase a restaurant in Skid Row, downtown Los Angeles. When my grandparents immigrated from China to Los Angeles, they too worked at the restaurant 7 days a week, peeling potatoes before dawn each morning to scrape by on less than minimum wage.
My father was the fourth and last child of my Chinese grandparents. He grew up in severe poverty, hungry, my grandparents too proud to receive food stamps from the government. At age 11, my father’s parents purchased a liquor store near Koreatown in Los Angeles, and began to save money. My dad would go on to UC Berkeley and vowed that his family would live in financial abundance. His success at capitalism was evident in a drawer always flush with lunch money, short lessons on investments that he would deliver as I got older, a few real estate properties. Money was a way to escape the difficulty and shame of poverty.
My mother was born and raised on the Hawaiian Islands, lands colonized by white settlers who built plantations to extract resources from the earth. My Japanese ancestors immigrated to Hawaii to work on plantations as cheap labor for white landowners, displacing native Hawaiians from their homeland. The Japanese and other Asian immigrants born in Hawaii are called “kamaʻāina” (locals not of Hawaiian ancestry), while white people are “haole” (foreign in Hawaiian).
What is it to be local to a place but not claim indigeneity? When the language itself recalls the journey of your ancestors? Perhaps the feeling is similar to the lines emerging in my vision when asked to speak of identity – as a person with light skin, class and educational privilege, inhabiting an Asian body.
On the mainland, my maternal grandparents raised me on white rice, Vienna sausages, and eggs for breakfast, art and culture during the day. I remember formal meals of Japanese Hawaiian sukiyaki (hekka) on a stovetop in the dining room, sticky glutinous mochi balls in warm broth for New Year’s Day (ozoni). Culture communicated through food. My grandfather was and is a blend of tenderness and masculinity, who defined manhood as being tough and taking care of the family at any cost. One time I kicked my brother in the face and broke his glasses, and my grandpa just decided that my parents didn’t have to know.
In many ways, my immediate family adopted the culture of whiteness as our own. I learned capitalism at home and in school, learned that power and ease derived from having money and that under no circumstances would I want to end up poor. I learned that I was to sacrifice everything to get a good education and find a high-paying job, and that this was the path to happiness and success. I got very good at being comfortable. I sought comfort in foods – rice and noodles mostly – and in cozy upscale environments. I still feel at ease in nice places, cafes surrounded by people, a warm tea and pastry by my side. Now I shapeshift when I end up in places with less material wealth on display.
I grew up in a home that valued material things – mostly technology. I learned to navigate technology and computers as second nature. I grew up in a household that valued books and reading; my mom would take me to the public library many days after school to pick out new books, and to the bookstores to buy whatever we wanted. I was a writer and an artist from a young age, utilizing prose and poetry to process what I could not say aloud.
My family did not address conflict together. Challenges were swept under the proverbial rug and never spoken of again. My dad would hold grudges for years against people he perceived had caused him harm. Sometimes my dad’s unspoken rage would erupt in terrifying ways – my dad tearing through the house alternately cleaning and yelling at us to pick things up. I received no support from my family in learning how to meet difficult emotions. I learned that anger was bottled up and released in bursts, or expressed through blaming other people. On the other extreme, my mom never held onto difficult emotions; within hours, she could let go of whatever was upsetting her. My mom would say, “I have a bone to pick with you” with a wagging finger pointing straight at me, and then reference something like a sticky kitchen counter, a tissue left in the laundry, not putting my dishes away.
My mom expresses her love through acts of service and occasional words of affirmation – loads of laundry often framing her day, running errands, text messages with emoji hearts and love. My dad loves through acts of service, gifts, and financial advice. On visits home when I was younger, he would take my car in for an oil change or refill my gas tank. Now he advises me on good investments and market trends, takes the family out to nice meals, and hands me checks on my birthday and major holidays. He pays for my weekly psychotherapy and regular chiropractor appointments. Quality time and physical touch are less common for my parents.
I return to questions of identity with compassion for the me that struggles to name anything. It’s tender to name capitalism, land theft, and assimilation as part of my story – and yet I cannot escape them. I acknowledge the bravery and hard work of past generations, immigrating to a new land with hope for children and descendants yet to come. I touch the poverty and struggle for survival in near and distant lands. I see my parents building a better life for me and my siblings. I carry the stories and experiences of my ancestors as my inheritance. They are not separate from me.