Helen Zia Tells Us Her Dreams

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Our Daily Lives page present excerpts of women’s autobiographies, essays,letters, journals, diaries, oral histories and testimony with the hopes ourreaders will respond to the authentic emotions and ideas, see a connectionto their own lives, and write email us a note. Women’s Enews will postselected reactions from our readers for all to read.

This week we present an excerpt from a book written by a daughter of Chinese immigrants who grew up in New Jersey. She charts the transformation of Asian Americans from small, disconnected clusters into an influential self-identified racial group.

In kindergarten, I learned the Pledge of Allegiance. Or rather, I learned to imitate it. The words spilled out of my mouth in one long jumble, all slurred and sloppy. I’d stand tall and put my right hand over my heart, mumbling proudly, like a five-year-old on a drunk. Even then, I understood that “Merica” was my home–and that I was an American.

[But] if I was truly American, why did the other American people around me seem so sure I was foreign?

By the time I was a teen-ager, I imagined that I was a “dual citizen” of both the United States and China. This was my fantasy, my way of soothing the hurt of being so unacceptable in the land of my birth.

When I got to college, I decided to learn more about “where I came from” by taking classes in Asian history. I even studied Mandarin Chinese. This had the paradoxic effect of making me question my Chineseness. I sounded like some hick from New Jersey, stumbling along as badly as other American students next to me.

[In the summer of 1972] China cracked open the “bamboo curtain,” allowing a small group of Chinese students to visit the country as a goodwill gesture to the United States. With a special fellowship from Princeton, I joined the group and became one of the first Americans, after Nixon, to enter “Red” China.

In China I fit right in with the multitude. I suddenly found my face on every passerby.

I visited my mothers’ eldest sister. Using my elementary Chinese, I struggled to communicate with Auntie Li, who seemed prematurely wizened from years of hardship. My vocabulary was too limited and my idealism too thick to comprehend my family’s suffering from the Cultural Revolution, still virulently in progress. But girlish fun transcended language as my older cousins took me by the hand to the local “Friendship Store” and dressed me in a khaki Mao suit, braiding my long hair in pigtails, just like the other young, unmarried Chinese women.

Real Chinese stopped me on the street to ask for directions, to ask where I got my tennis shoes, to complain about the long bus queues, to comment on my Shanghai-made blouse, to say any number of things to me. As soon as I opened my mouth to reply, my clumsy American accent infected the little Chinese I knew. My questioners knew immediately that I was a foreigner, a Westerner, an American, maybe even a spy–and they ran from me as fast as they could. I realized that I didn’t fit into Chinese society, that I could never be accepted there. If I didn’t know it, the Chinese did: I belonged to America, not China.

When I got back to the States, I took my new appreciation of my Americanness and went to Washington, armed with a degree in public and international affairs and a minor in East Asian studies. I landed my dream summer job as an intern on the China desk at the State Department.

When I reported to work on the designated day at a the State Department monolith in Foggy Bottom, the personnel officer greeted me with “We have no job for you.” He offered no explanation about the job I had worked so hard to get. I walked to Congress and found the offices of the two senators from New Jersey, Harrison Williams, Jr., and Clifford Case.

I was told that the State Department had a policy that no persons of Chinese decent should work on the China desk, no matter how many generations removed from the ancestral bones. This would protect America in case some genetic compulsion twisted my allegiance to China.

I was incredulous. Hadn’t they noticed earlier that I was Chinese-American? I was terribly disappointed that I wouldn’t have a chance to do the one job I felt perfectly qualified to do.

As I became more certain of my Americanness, my government again asserted its ambivalence to me. But I understood what the Pledge of Allegiance meant–that America was my home.

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