Since I was a child my elders would call me, an American- born Chinese, "jooksing," meaning empty bamboo. All form, no substance. My father's friends would ask me in Cantonese, "Hey Jooksing! Why don't you learn to speak Chinese?" In contrast, white people would ask me where I learned to speak English so well. How crazy-making is that?
Years ago, on vacation with my family, a store clerk asked where I learned to I speak English so well. The same day at a Chinese restaurant the waiter got my order wrong even though I ordered in Cantonese. "Brainless jooksing," he muttered under his breath. At that moment it hit me: I was culturally homeless, not Chinese enough, not white enough. The betwixt and between dilemma of my life.
During adolescence, I wore the label jooksing as a badge of resistance, fighting hard to refute the pejorative. Over time, I came to see strength and value in the very emptiness of the bamboo metaphor, to make it useful, flexible and resilient. I am reminded of the character Tevye in "Fiddler on the Roof," who came to value the strength it takes to let go rather than preserve tradition in its absolute form.
Each year I find myself closer to becoming the holder of the many traditions of Chinese culture for the succeeding generation. Quite a daunting task. I wish to impart to my children the belief that they are good enough. I wanted them to feel whole, but it starts with me. I am still in process of defining what it means to be Chinese-American.
In the traditions I have retained I see the structure of the bamboo. In my ability to adapt them, I see its emptiness. However, I've come to accept the reality that I can't preserve all of them. I imagine that others who have been raised bicultural experience similar struggles, and that I am not alone.
This New Year, I observed tradition by having the family over to celebrate, but gave it my own twist by placing tangerines and a pomelo for display and giving lucky red envelopes to the kids only partially knowing why.
I guess this jooksing's got a bit of substance after all.
With a Perspective, I'm Larry Lee.
Larry Lee is a psychotherapist, diversity trainer and father of two.