A few weeks ago, I helped my brother Matthew edit an essay for the seventh grade, a personal narrative about overcoming his fear of roller coasters. Having never ridden a roller coaster with him, I asked Matthew whether any of the story was true.
“No,” he responded, “I made most of it up to sound more American.”
Matthew claimed that the real version of the story, the Chinese version, was too uneventful to put on paper. It would have just been a day at the amusement park with the parents. There would be no climactic confrontations, no corny displays of affection between father and son, no elements of a good American story. Instead, Matthew whitewashed my father into a less funny Bob Saget who spat dated clichés like, “now you’re a real man,” and “don’t be a baby.” My parents were made to “giggle” with one another and given perfect English grammar. The entire narrative achieved a sitcom realism no real family, regardless of race, resembled.
As an older brother, one is an odd type of determinist. You can predict with near scientific precision certain experiences that your sibling will have simply because the causal chain of events has already played itself out in your own life. Most of the time, older brother means half-heartedly try to impart brotherly wisdom, only to take reluctant comfort in the fact that you ended up fine so this little dude must be alright too. Matthew was a breathing, feeling time capsule of myself. One with the same goofy mannerisms I had, the awful done-at-home haircut, and the same penchant for writing essays about fearing roller coasters (mine got me into college). He was also the mirror through which I would have to watch again the awkward pain of a Chinese boy figuring out how to put the pieces of himself together.
These days, I am almost too distant from my boyish self to remember that not even childhood innocence can blind a Chinese kid from race. I came to the U.S. without a word of English, but it was not until I familiarized myself with distinctly American rituals that I began to see myself as Chinese. It quickly became obvious that my parents lacked any of the cultural knowledge that I had picked up from television and playing with other kids; no stay-at-home mom to make peanut butter sandwiches or siblings to share bunk beds with. Instead of being perceptive enough to recognize that my parents were just students juggling a job and a graduate degree and a child, I clung stubbornly to the most visible markings of difference, my race. On play dates, I invented the fiction of an older sibling to plug the hole left in my American story by the one-child policy. Sometimes he was a brother; sometimes she was a sister. On playgrounds, I made fun of the kid with the spiky hair whose hair seemed spikier because he was Asian. Race offers a lazy and ignorant way to explain what we don’t understand in others. I used it as a way to explain what I didn’t understand about myself. It was easy to blame not fitting in on my Chinese genes or my Asian parents who couldn’t buy me all the things that would make me white.
No one explicitly told me to draw lines between Chinese and American. I fortunately never experienced the hatred or violence that would harden them into stone walls. Rather, my thinking was rooted in a child’s desire to fit in and enabled by the barely perceptible social pressures to “act” one’s race. I noticed a surprising amount about my skin color, like how it was easier to get by a conversation if I just pretended my parents gave me an allowance, or how others kept insisting I was good at science even though my best grades were in social studies. No one declared that I had to act a certain way, but expectations often have the power to enforce themselves. Countless encounters made it easier to just accept this divide and make sure I fell on the right side of it instead of explaining every cultural difference to people who had trouble understanding. At twelve, I was no champion for my heritage, I just wanted an older sister.
I wondered whether the same combination of cultural normalization and denial had also made my brother internalize this bizarre relationship between race and family. Maybe it’s because popular culture can only conceive of perfect loving families as white while Asian households consist of only tiger mothers and obedient sons. And maybe this popular understanding is so pervasive and unquestioned that it convinces even little Chinese boys that it is what their families look like.
What I did not have to wonder about was how my brother, at the age of twelve, was already viewing the world through yellow tinted glasses. His race – his difference – is a difference that, once noticed, reproduces itself like bacteria and colonizes the consciousness until it is the only difference that matters. Every perceived dissimilarity seems to result from a canyon between Chinese and American. Race feels like it is the prime mover unmoved, offering up the explanation “because you’re Chinese” to every moment of conflict between who one is and who one thinks he is supposed to be. It causes people to edit out parts of themselves, to decide that one half of their identity is not worthy of being told.
It took an entire undergraduate education to reprogram my beliefs about Chinese and American identity. Somewhere between consciously avoiding Asian cultural organizations and feeling slightly uncomfortable around groups of white friends, I worked out that racial lines are culturally drawn, but often self-enforced; that privilege can convince those who lack it to accept such poverty; and that not thinking on such terms is the best way to enrich oneself. Affirming one identity does not have to come at the expense of another. Societal expectations about how my race should behave are pervasive, but they are still just expectations. I enjoy being the unexpected.
However, these realizations also point to the difficulty of understanding the social construction of race when one is both an agent and subject of that construction. It is not individual acts, but rather subtle social forces and self-rationalizations that produce attitudes about skin color. Twelve-year-old boys should not have to edit their lives out of shame, but how can they ever recognize that at twelve?
Looking at Matthew, I am stuck only with the familiar feeling of the reluctant determinist. I could tell him to write the Chinese version of the story because it is the real version. I could relay the complex and fucked up ways race works in America and to assure him he would eventually learn to navigate his two identities if only he would stop believing in the oversimplified categories he has created to make sense of the world. I could hope that this advice, though it contradicts every experience he will have growing up of feeling alienated, might make at least a dent in the determinist’s argument. But all I managed to do was correct his grammar mistakes and take comfort in the fact that maybe one day – like his older brother – Matthew might write about overcoming his anxieties toward race instead of roller coasters.