All Bright, some white

Writing my name 均明 (jūnmíng — ‘all bright’) injects me with a burst of buoyancy. It feels like air in the lungs.

DESCRIBE THE IMAGE FOR ACCESSIBILITY, EXAMPLE: Photo of a chef putting red sauce onto an omelette.

According to my roommate’s candid assessment, I’m whitewashed. The assessment is unsavory but fair, not far from the truth. I used to call myself ‘Wasian,’ short for white & Asian, putting the capital ‘W’ right at the front of my identity. The term left little doubt as to the pecking order of my identities, confirming that whiteness was the first ingredient baked into me. Following this recipe, whitewashed went down with ease. Then I started to relish the ambiguity of “mixed.” Now, whitewashed smacks of regret. It’s not an airy morsel that dishes up confirmation of me prioritizing white before Asian. Because I’m mixed, “whitewashed” feels like a failure to live up to what my exterior denotes. The allegation presupposes an incomplete relationship to Chinese culture. If I’m whitewashed, then there’s a gaping void where Chinese culture should stand. Since I no longer subordinate “Asian” to the capital ‘W,’ I have a hunger to relate to my Chinese heritage.

Most often, being whitewashed is characterized as a battle between ethnicity and nationality, not competing ethnicities. Andrea Bian, a writer at Northwestern University, captures this dynamic in her opinion piece, “My fight against ‘whitewashed.’” For her, being a first-generation American leads to a perceived lack of authenticity among other Asian Americans. They deem her “whitewashed.” This pejorative is flung about even though it carries the weight of loss, the surrender of Chinese culture to American culture. If Chinese culture is delicate enough to be overrun with such ease, is there any way it would survive in a mixed somebody like me?

Contemporary mixed race literature answers me. Yes, it says, my Chinese roots await their harvest. In her memoir Crying in H Mart, Michelle Zauner nourishes her Korean identity through food. She once took her Koreanness for granted, then fears losing connection to it after her mom dies. Zauner finds herself stranded without a cultural anchor, so she starts to cook Korean recipes her mom made for her while growing up. A byproduct of these childhood recipes is that they bolster her claim to Korean identity and culture. The Korean taste belongs to her by birthright. Zauner’s message is agreeable to my palate, but my childhood diet consisted of American foods as much as Chinese foods. And my grimace at my family’s Chinese New Year banquet belies discomfort with traditional Chinese food. My childhood relationship with Chinese food is worlds apart from Zauner’s to Korean food. Consuming Chinese food will not make me more Chinese.

Even so, Crying in H Mart comforts me because it shows that connection to my Chinese heritage is within reach if I put in the effort. But my resolution will look different. My resolution will be peace with being unprecedented, suppressing the urge to be perceived as “made in China.” The scary part of resolving toward ambiguity is that authenticity is off the menu. Without the burden of measuring up to an impossible standard of authenticity, I hope the allegation of “whitewashed” will lose some of its teeth. Uncertainty of my Chinese heritage will feel like less of an unforgivable mistake, and accepting this ambiguity means the chance to connect to my ethnicities and those who share them.

For now, learning Mandarin threads the needle between being whitewashed and my Chinese ancestry—taking some of the bite out of the whitewashed allegations. The language is a refreshing change of pace from German, by now an old friend after seven years of study, and the familiar feeling that is prioritizing my whiteness.

Writing my name 均明 (jūnmíng — ‘all bright’) injects me with a burst of buoyancy. It feels like air in the lungs. I inherit grief from that name too, for it was my late great-grandmother who named me. I have no memories of her. I do have one photo of her holding me as a newborn. Her frame embraces me with tenderness. Her face seems to tilt upwards, lifted with mirth. She exudes brightness, her skin a mirror to the camera’s flash.

A toddler Matt Chen sits on the lap of his great-grandmother.

I’ve gleaned tidbits about her past. She emigrated from Guangdong—a province in southern China—to New York City in 1938. The slow boat took a month, and she landed in Canada before taking the Amtrak to Ellis Island. She was able to come despite the Chinese Exclusion Act since her husband was already in the States. She ended up outliving him by 40+ years, dying after becoming a great-grandmother to me and my older sibling. Remembering so little of her, I like to think about the future she saw for me. 均明, All Bright. Armed with Papaw’s prophecy, incomplete knowledge of my Chinese heritage feels like less of an insurmountable hurdle. Instead, I feel a complexity of longing and pride.

I must also credit my Chinese professor for cultivating this quiet pride within me. On my first quiz, I couldn’t remember how to write my name, let alone any of the vocabulary. I scored a 4.5 out of 10. The abject failure stunned me, but my professor remained unconcerned. She took offense only to “Name: Junming” in hastily scrawled felt-tip ink. In response, she wrote: “Chinese?” I hadn’t bothered to learn the characters, and she rejected my flippant imposition of English conventions onto something as sacred as my name. After class, she explained that I have an auspicious name—especially míng, which contains the radicals for sun (日) and moon (月). You should really learn it, she said, it’s a good name. The new feeling of pride permeated my being. Even now, my professor’s words persist. I trace my name into the steam of the shower door. One time I carved it into brick. And on quizzes, I write it with a glitter pen, embodying brightness right down to the ink.

Armed with Papaw’s prophecy, incomplete knowledge of my Chinese heritage feels like less of an insurmountable hurdle. Instead, I feel a complexity of longing and pride.

The lesson I won’t soon forget is that incompetency ended in connection to my Chinese heritage. To develop that connection, I first had to accept myself as an outsider with imprecise linguistic abilities. Will embracing this position end in the cultural connection that I seek?

Perhaps. But it may be more apt to say I’m a juvenile, not an outsider. One of my housemates would agree. She’s a graduate student from China, and we bonded when I reached out for help on an oral exam. I was struggling to pronounce the simple sounds “ci, chi,” and “zi, zhi.” I could hardly distinguish between the four, despite her claims that she was pronouncing them all. The breakthrough came after an hour of painstaking work. Once my cheeks hurt from the persistent drilling, my pronunciation of ‘zi’ sounded fluent. I did it five more times with ease, egged on by her growing excitement. I felt gratitude that she was so patient with my bumbling. She went on to explain that this is how she learned to speak Mandarin. The patience and generosity that astounded me was her simply passing along the favor. She learned these simple sounds as a child. So, at 20, I’m a child again—greedily absorbing new sounds and sights so that I can recreate them. I am not an outsider, and I must resist the urge to think of myself as one.

An uncomfortable truth is that my whiteness reveals itself when I speak Mandarin. When I speak, I want people to be shocked. This desire is born out of seeing white people speak Mandarin and having their proficiency heralded as miraculous. Because this demographic was my reality growing up, I desire the same applause they receive. It’s bizarre. I failed to consider that speaking Mandarin might seem run-of-the-mill because I don’t look like them. The assumption could be that it’s my first language—I’d learned it at home. As such, my rich tones and hearty sentences may be standard fare to my audience, not a delicacy worthy of applause. If I gorge myself on the thrill of others’ astonishment whenever I speak Mandarin, then I’m leaving little room for a substantial connection to Chinese culture. I would be whitewashing myself by treating Mandarin in my mouth as exotic.

Subconsciously, it’s the notability bestowed upon white speakers of Mandarin that I crave. I must resist this craving. My language abilities should not be the source of rave reviews. The point of learning Mandarin is to feel connected to Chinese culture. Indeed it adds an important ingredient to my heritage that was missing when I grew up. Yet, linguistic capabilities can only take me so far. I must continue to grapple with the conflict that arises out of competing ethnicities and being whitewashed.

My overarching dilemma is one of making identities—often pitted as rivals—square with each other. In my case, it’s my Chinese identity with being white and whitewashed. It’s a real fear of mine that this competition between identities might end in alienation. My mom already told me that exploring my Chinese identity equates to rejecting her. If she’s right, is there any way to refute “whitewashed” without sacrificing that which is white, including her? I’m optimistic. I refuse to believe my identities amount to a zero-sum game. My identities are messy and ambiguous; they don’t add up to 100% or fit into a brownie pan squarely.

Up until recently, whenever someone asked if my hair is permed, I was confused. No, it’s natural, I got it from my momma, I would say. I was confused because I didn’t see the underlying logic: You’re Asian, so hair like yours only comes from the salon. The most recent time, a class friend asked while we were out to lunch. Later I realized that I haven’t told her I’m mixed, so underpinning her question must have been the perception of me as East Asian. In that light, I appreciate her question. But my previous confusion points out that being authentically, wholly Chinese is not who I am. My mom figures as a vital part of me. That’s why this question is confusing rather than affirming. So, I stake my claim in the shifting ground of ambiguity. I won’t carve myself into half-Chinese-half-white-sized pieces; I’m much more than just one or the other, and am left unsatisfied when I limit myself to digestible bites of identity.