"Fried Rice With a Side of Cultural Awareness," Jasmine Yount (Summer 2016)

A red and bronze dragon with ten legs gallops past the rows of tables, writhing to the steady beat of a golden drum. A group of girls with olive skin and jet-black pigtails squeal in delight as red money packets rain down from the stage. Somewhere, a man bellows “Kunghei fachoy,” Cantonese for “Happy New Year.”  The crowd thickens as Caucasian parents and Chinese children crowd around the steaming platters of fried rice and pork dumplings.  To an outsider, the food might appear as a typical demonstration of the Chinese diet; however, to the event’s participants, the food signifies much more than a tasty meal. Through the Chinese cuisine and cultural celebration, the adopted, olive-skinned children are maintaining their connection to the culture they left behind when they were brought to The United States.

I was adopted from the Liang Jiang Orphanage, in the Chinese province of Guangdong, when I was one year old. Like many Chinese adoptees during the 1990s, I was brought to the United States by a loving couple with little knowledge about Chinese culture.  What the couple did understand was that many adopted children struggle to establish a healthy understanding of the term “adoption.”  To ensure that I would grow up unashamed of my heritage, my parents made a tradition of exposing me to the food and celebrations of my heritage. Still, despite my participation in the annual Chinese New Year Festival, there would be moments during my childhood when I was embarrassed of my appearance as a  “white-washed” Asian.

Cultural identification is a concept that most adopted, Chinese children struggle with.  At one point in their lives, almost every adopted child is faced with the question, “Why don’t you look like your parents?” This simple question has a simple answer. However, to a child who is uncomfortable with the idea of adoption, it might be a source of embarrassment. Like any other person, an adopted child associates themselves with the food and religious culture of their parents. If someone had asked four-year-old me if I liked to eat Kung Pao Chicken, I would have said, “No, what is that?” I was being raised on American food, such as spaghetti, broccoli, and pancakes, and I was blissfully unaware of stereotypes such as “All Asian people eat rice.” After graduated from pre-school, my parents decided it was time for me to learn about the culture of my biological ancestors.

In 2004, we began to attend the Chinese New Year Festival held in San Rafael, California. At the time, I was five years old and I had grown aware of the fact that my dark, brown eyes and tan skin was very different from the peachy skin and blue eyes of my parents. The annual festival, hosted by the Marin Chinese Cultural Association, was created for one purpose: to spread a positive awareness of Chinese traditions through celebration and good food. In the auditorium, long tables placed along the back wall overflowed with oranges, chow mein, fried rice, and glazed meat. A man dressed in traditional Chinese garb welcomed us and gestured towards the courtyard. There, to my delight, I saw several tan, brown-eyed, little girls skipping about in colorful cheongsams similar to the one I was wearing.  My delight would eventually turn into surprise as I watched fair-skinned parents gather up their Asian children and usher them inside to eat. These families were just like mine.

I was unaware that my participation in this event would change my life.  Ironically, the dinner that was presented would be my first taste of Chinese food. It was served in a buffet and it was greasy, salty, and delicious.  The night contained skits, Chinese dancing, and the utterly terrifying lion dance performance. The elderly members of the Marin Chinese Cultural Association followed tradition and handed out little, red envelopes stuffed with coins and paper cutouts of monkeys.  The celebration was unlike any I had ever attended.  It was during this happy, chaotic, event that my parents reconnected with two families who had flown to China with them.  These families would become close friends of ours. As a result of our similar backgrounds, their daughters and I would grow up understanding that being adopted should not be a point of embarrassment.

The Chinese New Year celebration in 2004 became the first of many American-Chinese engagements.  In the following years, my family and I continued to attend the Marin Chinese Cultural Association’s the New Year Festival.  We also explored Northern California’s Asian community and added new traditions to our agenda, such as the Dragon Boat, Lantern, and Hungry Ghost festivals.  While there are some aspects of Chinese culture that we refuse to support, such as the Yulin Dog Meat Festival, my family and I have embraced and shared my Chinese heritage with family and friends.

It is 2016, the year of the monkey, and I am seventeen years old. A green and gold dragon darts by around the courtyard, controlled by five disguised dancers.  Hordes of olive-skinned children with almond-shaped eyes scramble to throw red envelopes into the beast’s enormous maw. It has been twelve years since the first time my American family and I celebrated the Chinese New Year. Yet, we are back for the thirteenth time.  Three teenage girls sit next to me, their faces buried in their smartphones. Thanks to our exposure to the food and traditions of our heritage, we have developed our individual identities, which contain virtues from both American and Chinese culture. For my family, participating in the Chinese New Year Festival has strengthened their respect for people of different cultures. As for the girls that giggle next to me, I realize it is likely that we will continue to attend this annual event together until we become elderly. Then it will be our turn to hand out the red envelopes.  However, we will never be the Cantonese-speaking, cheongsam-wearing adults that wander around the auditorium. Nor will we be the fair-haired, blue-eyed parents that chat animatedly around the trays of pork dumplings. We will be us, completely Chinese in descent but not in culture. We will be Chinese American citizens with our own cultural celebrations and our own unique identity.