Cultural Intimacies with Strangers

Editor’s Note: This is the latest of 12 installments in our series on AAPI identity. Amanda Ong is our 2017 Mike Honda Writing Fellow. She is an undergraduate in Ethnicity and Race Studies and Creative Writing at Columbia University, a copy editor for the Columbia Daily Spectator, and an organizational chair member for Columbia’s Asian American Alliance. We’re honored to have her writing and storytelling skill enhance our mission to increase AAPI representation in American political life.

Since moving to New York City, I have found the Chinese parts of myself in funny places—in the backs of cabs, the elevators of Chelsea apartment buildings, lurking in corners and springing out of alleyways.

I am not used to these experiences. More often than not they scare me, make me shift back and forth in discomfort. I have spent most of my life with the Chinese parts of me locked up in some box beneath my skin, a hidden, second self, like a shadow of the rest of me. When I was younger I used to secretly scribble my Chinese name in the corners of my notebooks, just to stare at the characters and wait, hope, to feel some epiphanic connection to this other name, to myChinese self.

These experiences are different from my ones surrounding race; growing up in a predominantly white suburban area I was used to feeling like I stood out racially. Anyone with half-decent eyesight or a pair of glasses could see that I’m East Asian—my race can be seen and interacted with, but I’ve always believed my culture lived deeper within me, safe from the touchof others. 

My culture, Chinese language, food, and customs are things embedded in a very deep sense of who I am and my connection to my heritage. I have only ever been able to move fluidly between American and Chinese with my family, and even then I, in my American foolishness, still stumble through the nuances of my own very Americanized, Chinese-American identity. The only other times I let these Chinese parts of me be seen were in the few moments I chose to make them seen, at Chinese restaurants and grocery stores, or on the days my other Chinese friends and I spoke in hushed Chinglish to disguise our gossip right in front of our classmates’ faces. 

My Chinese self has always been a very intimate part of me, only able to be begged forth by family or called out when I wanted to make it present. When I moved to New York, I expected that strangers and passerbys would make odd comments and shout derogatory statements about my race at me in the street; I already knew how to handle slurs and these kinds of everyday threats. What I wasn’t prepared for was the way in which complete strangers would invoke my Chinese self from me. 

Sometimes walking on streets that I myself am still learning to navigate, older men and women approach me from nowhere, already speaking in worried Mandarin and asking me for directions. I once fawned over a toddler in an apartment building elevator and his motherproceeded to introduce him to me in Cantonese, telling him I was “A Yi”, a word that literally refers to a younger aunt.

A few weeks ago I caught a cab from a driver who spoke only a few words of English. The moment I got in the car he asked, “Chinese?” and then dove into a million questions in Mandarin: where I’m from, where in China my family is from, when I had last visited China, if I was the same age as his daughter. I kept apologizing profusely for my less than subpar Mandarin skills and my inability to understand half the things he said, but he just kept telling me, it’s okay, your Mandarin is very good! You are American. 

I wondered for a moment, if he looked at me and saw his children’s children, if he looked at me in search of a family past that is his present. I wondered if he saw in me a future that he himself hopes for. I remembered then that my mother’s uncle too was a cab driver, I rememberedmy great-grandma, a cook in a church and later a beauty shop worker. I used to spend entire days sitting on the floor of the decrepit, 300-square-foot apartment in Chinatown she lived in for over fifty years, while I come from an upper middle class background, grew up in homes always at least ten times larger than her apartment, and now attend one of the most prestigious universities in the world.  

When I meet these people, I can’t help but feel a dissonance between all of the different parts of me: what I come from, who I am, where I have been. These people ask for me to openly disclose an extremely intimate part of my identity with them, one that I still struggle with. I am never sure what to do when a complete stranger on New York City streets asks me to give to them a part of myself that I have only ever known how to give to my family. In a sense, the mother who called me A Yi made me her family in the moment that she uttered those words, and her mine. 

I realize that cab driver may often not have a conversation all day, working late into the night, and that there is a reason the mother was so quick to see family in my face. These people are always so grateful to find someone like them in a world where everything is new and different—so grateful to find me—and I have an opportunity to make their world feel just a little less foreign. Though these experiences unnerve me, they help me flesh out the world I live in,what I come from, who I want to be, and where I want to go. And I will always be happy to be family for anyone who needs it, even if only for the briefest of moments along New York City streets.