Write It Poetry
Critic's Picks: HUMOR

Background information on piece:
I felt that it was important to articulate the experiences of adolescent Asian Americans growing up in the United States. I wanted to combat the ungrounded stereotype of Asian Americans as the "silent minority"--both by personally vocalizing the Asian-American experience through an unconventional medium like humorous nonfiction, and by revealing the many cultural factors that shape the experiences of Asian Americans in America. I hope people who read this essay will walk away with at least a slightly different perspective of their Asian-American friends and colleagues.

Editor's Comments:
Joseph provides a wry, sardonic commentary on growing up A.B.C. (American-Born Chinese). His tongue-in-cheek humor is—at times—laugh-out—loud funny and—at other times-sobering.

Chopsticks, Harvard, and Chicken Claws

By Joseph Lu
age: 15

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 mix.

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 chicken claws.”

“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 veins.

Poetry    Essay    Memoir
Short Fiction    Humor
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