My Chinese New Year

Monday, January 23, 2012

Me and my Chinese Costa Rican roomate, Lily
By Melanie Tom

Growing up, I felt like an outsider. When holidays like Chinese New Year came around, I would panic. My Taiwanese friends would talk excitedly about how they would spend their New Year money and compare their plans for the holiday. As for me, I had nothing to say. Instead I would go home, wishing that my parents were hiding their special knowledge of how to be Chinese and that this was the year they were finally going to teach me. That never happened.

My parents don’t even know when Lunar New Year is. Their annual reminder is not the lunar calendar but when the ads for the San Francisco Chinese New Year parade hit the local television. And without fail, when they see the first ad pop on television, their reaction is utter surprise, “Hmmm, it’s Chinese New Year again?”

My mom (far right) in front of our family store in Tucson, AZ
As a child, celebrating Chinese New Year seemed like tangible ways to be authentically Chinese. Like a checklist, if I was able to acquire enough items, I would finally gain membership in a special club. From my perspective, being ABC (American Born Chinese) was just too amorphous. I didn’t belong anywhere.

My parents probably felt the same way, too. My mom was born in California but grew up in Tucson, in a neighborhood of Yaqui native people. My father was born in China but was brought to San Francisco by my grandfather, just like his father did before him. My mother was caught between the brown/white divide, a “Chinese Arizonian”. My father was what I like to call “Chinatown riff-raff” who chilled at the YMCA, played baseball, and ate brown gravy over rice at the corner diner.

Both of them learned that it was dangerous to be Chinese. They grew up when immigration from China was restricted to a little over a hundred people per year. The Cold War and anti-Communism was in full swing. Japanese Americans had just been interned and Asians were the foreign threat.

Our stability in the U.S. was fragile. My family was made up entirely of Paper Sons and Paper Daughters—starting right after the 1907 San Francisco fire, which burned all the Chinese immigration records, my family took on false identities so they could immigrate and work in the U.S. My grandparents were interrogated at Angel Island. Eventually, my strong family was allowed to ‘confess’ their true immigration status in the late 1960’s but decades of secrecy and fear no doubt took a toll.

Thus, English became the most important subject in my home. We avoided buying Toyotas and Hondas because they were ‘too Asian’. Celebrating holidays like Chinese New Year was something that we had to give up along the way.

So my parents were quite surprised when I decided to go to China to visit our ancestral home through the In Search of Roots program. After learning how not to be ‘too Chinese,’ going to China was frightening—and it felt wrong. I felt like I was going to explode from anxiety on the plane.

It ended up being one of the most healing experiences I’ve ever had—and not because I found a home in China but because I found a community of Chinese migrants around the world, the Chinese diaspora. I finally found my home.

I went back to Taishan, my hometown, where I learned that almost every country has at least one Taishan migrant who lived or is living there. In fact, one person observed that every family in that area probably has at least one relative living abroad. I also discovered the Chinese language to be incredibly inclusive and found that I could state my identity as a Chinese American or member of the Chinese diaspora in words that everybody understood.

As a result, I decided to go back and lived there for nearly two years. I developed friendships with other young people from the Chinese diaspora who were from Germany, Costa Rica, Panama, Cuba, Canada and Peru. Living in China didn't come naturally me and the complexities of being 'back' in China was something I could discuss with comfort at length with my new community.

This year I will be celebrating Chinese New Year with friends. Some are looking to form a queer-friendly lion dancing team and others are planning to watch the football playoffs while making dumplings. Together, all of us will bring our histories together—which are so different and varied—as members of the Chinese diaspora.


  1. Melanie,

    I admire the refreshing, upfront style of your writing. I believe every ABC can relate.

    Thanks for writing!