By Zhi Lin
Summer Youth Leadership Program
Chimamanda Adichie, in a recent TED Talk, spoke about the danger of single stories and how it can lead to stereotypes as well as misunderstandings in the society. Her voice echoes as I think about my own experiences living in two different countries.
From when I was as young as I can remember, I listened to the adults around me fussing about how great of difference there was among lives between my home country China and other places. I heard them comparing living standards, government styles, and income level. Even though I did not really understand the meaning of these conversations, the adults’ comparisons already carved a view of foreign countries in my mind. As I grew older, I continued listening to these conversations but then began looking at lives in foreign countries through world news, books, and movies. I remember thinking that America and other European countries all had tall buildings with neon, colorful lights sparkling in the night sky, and all Americans (who I thought were only Caucasians) only ate steak with a knife, dressed in formal clothing in high-scale restaurants. At that time, I was under the age of nine. Somehow, this is why western culture appealed to me, and perhaps, to most Chinese. This is the single story which I am both fortunate and unfortunate for, to be able to become both a target and a disseminator, allowing me to gain insights from two different perspectives.
Since our immigration almost nine years ago, my mom and I have visited our friends and families in China a few times. Occasionally during every visit, no matter how hard I try to deny it, I cannot help but feel that there is some kind of invisible line between us and our friends, and even our families. Whenever we visited my old friends or our families, they always seemed to be making assumptions of me. When we are eating, they would ask if I am ok with eating Chinese food and not hamburgers. When I am trying to figure out how to turn on the ceiling fan, they would help me and apologize for such “low-tech” equipment. Some would ask me if all my friends are Caucasian. When I deny that, they would seem astonished and would continue, “Wow! Your Chinese is still so fluent! How can you remember it? You probably don’t even talk to your mom in Chinese.”
At first, these assumptions seemed ridiculous to me because none of those are true; it made me feel a sense of grievance and even some embarrassment. I didn’t understand why they think I would behave in such ways just because I live in America. On my first visit, these feelings bothered me during the whole trip. That’s when I remember what I myself used to believe, and this is the single story toward Chinese Americans, and now I’m a target of it. Some of my old friends not only believe that all Chinese Americans are rich, living a good life, have high English proficiency, poor Chinese proficiency, and isolated from the current Chinese society, but also think that Chinese Americans look down on them. Now I would patiently tell them that “I eat Chinese meals at home every day,” “the ceiling fan switch is not “low-tech,” “I am just not used to this kind of switch,” and “no, I do still remember Chinese because that’s the way we communicate at home.” As I get older, I realize that years after immigration, it is inevitable that distance has pulled me and my family/friends in China into different paths of thinking. Because of the difference in the media and the societal environment we live in, single stories are easily created. What we should do is to understand and broaden our view before making assumptions based on one perspective.
Even though some of their assumptions seemed unfair and made me feel left out, it also helped me gain a more accurate view of this single story because I can finally have a chance to understand things from the other side. I now know how and why the people living in China would have these views, and most of all, what being an American Chinese immigrant actually is like. We work hard to fit into the American society while trying our best to preserve our Chinese heritage and culture. I understood that Americans are not only Caucasians, but rather a blend of races and cultures from all over the world. Besides eating steaks in fancy restaurants wearing fancy clothes, Americans also enjoy a variety of foods and restaurants. “The thing about stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete,” Chimamanda Adichie had said in her talk. Overall, I hope that one day, everybody can have the chance to see things from different perspective and acknowledge that there are many stories instead of just a single story. (end)