Lost in Translation: Redefining what Asian American means to me


Nicole Ong

Picture of the Singapore skyline with the headline written across.

Nicole Ong, Editors-in-Chief

When I was younger, my childhood Chinese teacher posed this question to the class: “Which part of China are you from?”

The question was not so much where the student was from, but where in China the family was from. The other students answered with one city. Guangzhou. Shanghai. Funan. A single area where generations upon generations of their family have stayed.

But my response was stuck in my throat, I hesitated.

Do I say I’m from China? I’m Chinese, but my parents are from Singapore. So are my maternal grandparents. And likely earlier generations of my family. Singapore isn’t in China, but calling myself Singaporean feels natural, it feels like home — but can I call myself Singaporean? Who am I?

I had thought about this question for years, but whenever I (repeatedly) asked my mom in the hopes of gaining clarity, her response was a prompt sigh and an “ask me later.” It wasn’t until much later when I discovered the answer: while both of my parents, maternal grandparents and earlier generations of my mom’s family were born in Singapore, their predecessors immigrated from Shanghai, Guangdong, Fujian, Taiwan and other parts of Asia.

So, I hesitated. I told my teacher the honest answer: “I don’t know.” The class laughed. Suddenly, I was filled with shame and guilt.

I learned a valuable lesson from this experience: stay quiet about your roots, because no one will understand your story.

I have always felt that being Asian American meant that I had two completely separate identities: Asian and American, but never Asian American. Yet, I never lived up to either title. I’m never “American enough” because I’m Asian. I’m never “Asian enough” because I was born in America.

At the same time, my Asian heritage left me more confused than anything. I am ethnically Chinese, but I am more influenced by Singaporean culture — a mix of Chinese, Indian, Malaysian and Eurasian cultures, the elements of which are all westernized to some degree — than I am by strictly Chinese culture.

Despite being a Chinese person, I have never felt culturally “Chinese”; my Singaporean heritage meant my experiences with being Chinese didn’t match up with those of my peers. What they called “hot pot” or “huo guo,” I referred to as “steamboat.” While Chinese foods such as dumplings and egg tarts are easily recognizable by many of my peers, my favorite Chinese-influenced Singaporean dishes such as kaya toast, hokkien mee and chwee kueh seem to confuse people more than intrigue them.

Even my last name was a source of confusion. Ong, a Hokkien romanization of the Mandarin surname “Wang,” is an extremely common surname in Singapore. Despite Hokkien being a Chinese dialect, people would ask me why I didn’t have a Chinese surname. And I would always have to explain that my surname is Chinese; it’s just a dialect. Even then, no one knew what Hokkien was. I don’t blame people for not knowing, but at some point, I got tired of explaining.

For a long time, I was ashamed because of this disparity. While Chinese culture is well known, I always found myself explaining Singaporean culture to my peers. Classmates would ask me why I don’t speak Chinese at home, and I would have to tell them I was Singaporean. Then, they would ask, “So what language do you speak?” or, “So you’re not Chinese?”.

Slowly, I internalized the fact that many of my fellow Chinese peers would never understand the significance of my Singaporean background, and I hid my identity in attempts to fit in. While my friends had pride in their heritage, I felt ashamed for never living up to what many expected my culture to be like.

My perspective changed when I enrolled in high school. In an effort to quickly meet the UC’s two-year language requirement, my mother pushed me to take the placement test for the Chinese classes. I protested, claiming that I could barely read any of the characters and couldn’t pronounce anything. After many arguments, I reluctantly signed up for the Chinese placement test. When testing day came around, I begrudgingly wrote an essay about wanting a dog as a pet and another about my love for Singaporean Hainanese Chicken Rice. A few weeks later, I was shocked when an email notified me of my placement into the Chinese 3 class.

On the first day of my freshman year, I nervously walked into my fifth period class. I kept my head down and avoided eye contact with the Chinese teacher, Ms. Chen. I told myself that I couldn’t speak the language and that if I hid in the back I would not be called on . She made us introduce ourselves (in Chinese, of course) and recounted hilarious tidbits of her summer break. Soon, I began to feel at home in the class.

Though I was by no means fluent in Chinese, I still looked forward to coming into class every day. Ms. Chen was funny, and her teaching style kept me motivated to learn. Student skits implemented vocabulary words in a comical fashion, and Chinese movies highlighted cultural aspects that could not be learned from just learning a language. Her class kept me motivated and engaged, and the life lessons she incorporated into the curriculum will stay with me forever. Turns out, I underestimated my Chinese ability; though my accent and grammar weren’t great, I could read and write far better than I had expected.

Last year, as a Chinese 4 Honors student, we watched the movie “You Are The Apple of My Eye” or “那些年,我们一起追的女孩” in Chinese. In the movie, a song I instantly recognized began to play: a song my mom played in the car, a song that I usually asked her to skip. After class, I rushed to tell her and ask for the song’s name. I began to listen to the song on repeat; I even printed out the lyrics so that I could translate it. My mom was shocked to hear that I was listening to Chinese music and that various Chinese songs made their way into my playlists (sorry, mom. Your music is actually pretty good). While this moment was seemingly insignificant, I think this was when I truly began to realize just how much I appreciated my culture.

My growing love for Chinese music still shakes my mom to the core, and admittedly, my Chinese still isn’t so great. But, after spending endless days reading about Chinese New Year customs or the Dragon Boat Festival, along with many nights asking my mom about the nuances of Chinese grammar, I can say for sure that I have gained a greater appreciation for Chinese culture. At the same time, my love for Singapore and its culture has never ended either. Between my grandma’s stories of her childhood in Singapore and my mother’s ever-present knowledge of Chinese idioms, Singaporean and Chinese cultures come to influence me more ways than not.

Slowly, I’m beginning to break down the divides between my Singaporean and Chinese identities and accept that they can coexist. My Singaporean roots and ethnic Chinese background are not mutually exclusive, and I’ve realized that it doesn’t matter whether
I’m “Chinese enough.” It doesn’t matter to me anymore if none of my Chinese peers understand my love for pineapple tarts and kueh lapis, some of my favorite Singaporean desserts. I refuse to spend my life ashamed of a culture which has given me so much.

I am of a generation where my identity has no “real” title. Singapore has only been an independent country since 1965; this doesn’t leave much time for emigration from Singapore, making it hard for me to find people who are like me: an American-born child of Singaporeans. Where the past four generations of my family get to call themselves Chinese-Singaporean or Taiwanese-Singaporean, there is no identity for me that encompasses all of my cultural identity: Singaporean, ethnic Chinese, Asian American.

So while I am told to fit into boxes — to assimilate into American culture, conform to Chinese culture or quiet down about my Singaporean roots — I want, and I deserve, so much more. The complexities of my culture confound people to this day, but I cannot live my life suppressing a central part of my identity for the sake of simplicity.

It is up to me to define it myself.