Chopsticks, Harvard, and Chicken Claws
By Joseph Lu
I’m 174 centimeters tall, weigh 51 kilograms, and I wear stylish
glasses with one heck of a cool frame. I can study a total
of six hours straight. Parents love me. I’m Chinese.
I’m shorter than six feet—the average—and weigh between 110 and
115 pounds by the end of the day, depending on how much I eat
at lunch. And I have hair that looks like a patch of carpet that
has been ravaged by a rabid cat. I can bench the bar, a
whopping forty pounds, and sometimes when I turn sideways people
can’t find me. I’m Chinese-American.
I’m a person, yet I’m two different people. No, not a bad
case of schizophrenia, just a product of today’s ethnically diverse
society. As a Chinese person who has been raised on potato
chips, “Friends,” weekly changing boy bands, and the assurance
that my future career holds more for me than being a doctor or
an engineer, I surely am an ABC, standing not only for American-Born
Chinese, but also American: Born Confused.
The confusion starts with my having to lead an American-by-day,
Chinese-by-night kind of life. At school I’m with my friends—White,
Black, Hispanic, Indian—some of them even Chinese, ABC’s to be
more exact. I act naturally with them, and we do things
. . . “American,” whatever that means. I even get to use
the Promethian fire of Western civilization, the fork. When
I get home, however, I walk through the door to the smell of beef
stew and tea eggs, and at around seven o’clock, I am faced with
the challenge of having to make two ominous, wooden sticks open
and close; otherwise, starvation awaits at my failure to perform
this task. Being brought up with Chinese parents in a typical
American suburb is like . . . getting hit in the groin with a
football, annoying and also very painful. The two just don’t
First and foremost, there’s the matter of academics. Most
parents are fine when their kids get anything above a “B.”
Heck, sometimes they’ll even settle for a “C+” if they’re in a
good enough mood. Well, let me tell you something.
Chinese parents are never in a good mood when it comes to bringing
home report cards. You know how the grading scale is from
zero to a hundred? Well, the Chinese version of it is from
ninety-six to a hundred, and the ninety-six is parental justification
for child abuse. For me, it got to the point where I no
longer studied to enhance my intellectual capacity so as to better
myself in the future; no, I studied so I wouldn’t get beat.
No, I’m just exaggerating, but it really is hard for Chinese parents
who grew up in an academic environment where grades were the one-way
ticket to a life of prosperity and good fortune!—an environment
where grades were everything, and nothing else really mattered.
And then we get to Western education. Here, it’s not all
about studying until you see who among your friends has the most
gruesome crook in his neck from burying his head in books.
Rather, it’s based on a more versatile set of criteria: extracurricular
activities, volunteer hours, the whole works. But try telling
that to Chinese parents! They’ll just think you’re lying.
You can’t really blame them though. All they really want
is for their children to get admitted into respectable colleges,
which brings me to another point: colleges.
America: home of the world’s most diverse educational system
of colleges and universities—east coast, west coast, liberal arts,
premed, pre-law, community college—you name it. But try
showing that list to Chinese parents. Nothing will jolt
them from their die-hard conviction that there are only three
colleges in the United States: Harvard, M.I.T., and if you really
have to, Stanford. If not those three, then trust me, they
will not believe you got accepted into a real college,
and the only thing they see down the road of life for you is peddling
for change at some deserted subway station.
Fear not. There’s more news from the battlefront between
East and West. Chinese school: the dreaded institution that
has become a lethal poison ingrained deep within the souls of
ABC’s everywhere. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday . . . all the
way up to Friday, and then bam!—it’s the weekend: Chinese
school. You know, it wouldn’t be so bad if it didn’t teach
Chinese. The teachers make you write columns and columns
of the same character so that its ornate strokes become drilled
into your head forever—or at least until after the exams, and
if you accidentally skipped one character box during the toils
of hand-breaking labor, brace yourself for the thrashings of the
teacher’s wooden ruler. I even once considered photocopying
one column of my written work and copying and pasting to the other
columns, but the red lashes from last week reminded me to do better.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m not against the intention of Chinese
schools. I respect that the institution wishes to bequeath
Chinese traditions to our culturally handicapped generation of
ABC’s, but this could be better accomplished within the confines
of each family, which better understands the needs of its children
and their hectic Chinese-American dichotomy of a timetable.
The cultural clash between East and West exists not only in America,
but also in a foreign arena—or should I say, in the homeland
arena. The reason that many ABC’s find their places of ethnic
origin to be foreign is that they simply are not welcome by native
adults and peers alike. We step off the plane with our Tommy
Hilfigers and Polo Ralph Laurens and immediately find ourselves
under heavy fire of disapproving glares from the more modest
natives. It’s our means of expression that bothers them,
but also the way that we walk, talk, and—well—pretty much everything
else that we do. I mean, it’s not that all ABC’s are being
snobbish when they visit their homelands, but rather, it’s the
way that American society has inadvertently molded their every
single action. The finest nuances that have become integrated
into our normal behavior have been influenced by what we,
as permanent residents of the United States, have seen on TV and
what we’ve picked up from the people around us in American society.
Everything is different from what native Chinese have experienced
in an environment where modesty permeates all mannerisms, unlike
American society, which is characterized by openness and maybe
even by dignified arrogance (or whatever you would call
positive overconfidence). It’s not just the little things
either. OK, if you’ve ever bore witness to the Amy Tan’s
Joy Luck Club scene where the Caucasian male gets dogged
by his Chinese fiancée for his cultural ignorance of Chinese dining
etiquette, you’ll know what I mean. No, Mrs. Tan wasn’t
exaggerating; that’s how we ABC’s live from Day One in hostile
enemy territory, our homeland. It goes something like this:
“You must be starving from your twenty-hour flight from America!
Here, have some scrumptious chicken claws.”
“Why, thank you, Auntie . . . but chicken claws don’t exactly
ring my bell.”
“No, you must! Very good!”
“No, it’s really OK.”
Next thing you know, after dinner you’ve become the extended
family’s worst case of a stuck-up ABC who snubs everything Chinese.
“Why, thank you, Auntie! I will try some scrumptious
“Oh, aren’t you sweet! But I must warn you. Chicken
claws not sweet enough! Very bad.”
You think, “Then why’s she offering it to me?” You take
it anyway to maintain your current goody-goody reputation.
Heck, you want to boost that reputation, so you decide to make
the scrumptious chicken claws even more scrumptious by adding
something sugary to them to accommodate for their non-sweetness.
You reach over for that convenient bottle of honey, and WHACK!
The next thing you know, you’ve got a permanent, red palm-mark
imprinted on the left side of your face. How were you
supposed to know everyone Chinese criticizes most harshly his
most prized works?
Anyway, considering all these liabilities that come with being
the classic ABC, what are we to do? Maybe we should just
find ourselves a little corner of the world to spend the rest
of our lives in isolation, just to save everyone the trouble of
having to deal with us cultural misfits. Or maybe we should
try adapting because isn’t that the point of life? With
everything becoming so . . . multi-everything, especially
when it comes down to ethnicity and culture, shouldn’t we try
to “go with the flow?” Or maybe some other time when we’re
more ready to face this world of chicken-claw-stuffing relatives
and chopsticks-toting parents with Harvard expectations in their