American-born Chinese: The Balance Between American and Chinese

When I was in elementary school, our school had a diverse population of students of different ethnicities. A few years later, I moved to another elementary school that was predominantly white-American students; if I remember correctly, there were only five Asian-American students in my class. At first, I wasn’t worried about it because I thought to myself, making friends shouldn’t be a problem because I’m not limited to having Asian friends. I didn’t notice many changes when I moved schools, but it soon became apparent that I was struggling to fit in. In middle school, I began to realize it was hard to make friends with people based on first impressions and outer appearances, especially on the first day of school. Even though I was born in America, my looks and facial features lean towards being more Chinese than American because of my ethnicity. Between being both Chinese and American, I had once felt lost in figuring out what my identity was: I have adapted to the American culture, but I also have a Chinese background. While popular media portrays American-born Chinese, or ABCs, as people who struggle to associate themselves with either one of the two identities of being American or Chinese, ABCs have the ability to find balance between the two identities and cultures of being both American and Chinese.

In the television show, Fresh Off the Boat, it talks about a Chinese family moving to Orlando, Florida. The main character, Eddie Huang, and his two younger brothers are American-born Chinese. In the beginning, Eddie struggles to fit in with his classmates who are mostly white-skinned American. Eddie is also American, but he was judged based on his yellow-skin that made him feel inferior to his friends. Because of this, Eddie also tries to befriend the only other non-white student, Walter, who is black-American so they wouldn’t be the only outsiders and be able to find ways together in order to fit in. Consequently, Eddie had found the need to prove that be was similar to his friends and had similar interests by shopping for Lunchables, earned money to buy the video game his friends were talking about, beg his mom to buy him a pair of Air Jordan, and let others know that he is a fan of Wu Tang Clan. Eddie states that hip-hop was your anthem when you were an outsider (Fresh Off the Boat), using it as something to have in common with other kids in order to fit in. He’s able to dress in trendy hip-hop clothing, which also contradicts the stereotype that “every Asian character on a sitcom seemed to always wear short-sleeved, button-down shirts with pocket protectors and glasses” (Yoshihara). In a scholarly article written by Wendy Jorae titled “The Limits of Dress: Chinese American Childhood, Fashion, and Race in the Exclusion Era”, she reiterates that “some children believed that by replacing their ethnic clothing with American clothing, they could more easily blend into society. The simple act of changing one’s clothes became a strategy for deflecting racial violence” (Jorae 461). This demonstrates why Eddie dresses in shirts with different hip-hop rappers on the front at school because he believes it will help him fit in.

Besides the show broadcasting the struggle Eddie experiences in order to fit in with his friends, we also see Eddie having difficulties fitting in with his Chinese side. After Eddie’s mom, Jessica, has a moment of realization that her family may be losing their Chinese identity after living in America for so long, she begins her mission to make her kids reconnect with their Chinese side by making them speak only Chinese at home, attend after school Chinese tutoring, eat chicken feet, and have a framed photo of Buddha. Not only do we see Eddie rebelling against his mother’s wishes by not participating in his Chinese lessons with the tutor who hilariously plays the part of the stereotypical Chinese teacher, who enunciates every word in a loud and obnoxious way, we also see him unable to fit in with other ABCs in the class and participate in the Chinese cultural activities. Essentially, he’s lost between finding the perfect balance of being American around his friends while still being able to connect with the Chinese side of him. This is something that I have struggled with and can relate to. When I moved schools, it was hard for me to make new friends because my new school had mostly white-skinned American students. Unlike the school I had previously attended, the new school did not educated us much on diversity. Not only was it hard to assimilate with other white-skinned American students, but it was hard for them to understand that I was similar to them. Trying to fit in with students in my Chinese Saturday School was also hard and another struggle I had. If I couldn’t fit in with both the students at my normal school and at my Chinese school, who could I have fit in with?

Another artifact that displays the struggles of ABCs assimilating to either identities is the book, Crazy Rich Asians, by Kevin Kwan. In this book, the main character, Rachel Chu, is an ABC going to Singapore with her boyfriend, Nick Young, for a wedding. Using Rachel’s naiveté about how little she knows about Chinese culture, we read a different reaction people have to ABCs instead of Americans reacting to ABCs. Before Nick’s mom, Eleanor, had the chance to meet Rachel, she and her friends began making assumptions about Rachel based of what they’ve heard about ABCs; they assumed that “ABCs are descended from all the peasants that were too stupid to survive in China” (Kwan 83) and “ABC girls can be tzeen lee hai” (Kwan 83), which “tzeen lee hai” is Hokkien for “very sharp” or “dangerous.” Even when Rachel had proved all those stereotypes wrong when she met Nick’s relatives, she still could not fit in with his relatives and his friends in Singapore. In another example that indicates her lack of knowledge in Chinese etiquette, Rachel had planned to wear a little black dress to the wedding, to which her friend, Peik Lin, scolds her for wearing a dress of mourning colors. Peik Lin also asks Rachel out of frustration, “Are you really Chinese? How could you know that?” (Kwan 274). This proves that even though her heritage traces back to China, she lacked the ability to fit in with the people in Singapore. This is also something that applies to me; even though I look more Chinese than American in terms of facial features, it does not mean that I am able to blend in with other Chinese people. For example, my friends thought that I would be able to easily blend in with other Chinese people when I went to Hong Kong; however, that was not the case. I had felt like the foreigner in what some people had assumed was my home country. There were times when I disagreed with some of the ways Chinese people acted because it was culturally different than the American ways I was accustomed to. Going to China made me really open my eyes, as I had realized that I was the foreigner in the country where my heritage traces back to.

In addition to Rachel’s struggle to assimilate to Chinese culture in Singapore, she also showed her dislike towards Asian men before she met Nick. When Sylvia, Rachel’s friend, tried to set Rachel up on a date, she started out by listing all the good things. But when she came to what Rachel liked to call as the “fabulously dysfunctional detail” (Kwan 68), she was forced to tell that he’s Asian. Almost immediately, Rachel dismissed the idea of going on a date with him. Sylvia then points out that she’s “the most self-loathing Asian I’ve ever met!” (Kwan 69) and concluded that “the real reason you treat Asian men the way you do is because they represent the type of man your family wishes you would bring home, and you are simply rebelling by refusing to date one” (Kwan 70). What we read in this scene is that Rachel is rebelling against the norms of dating a Chinese male because her heritage is Chinese. She knew she wouldn’t like a Chinese husband because they wouldn’t have similar values and priorities, so she chooses not to find one and accommodate her American lifestyle with someone who has a Chinese lifestyle.

In the scholarly article titled “Re-territorializing transnationalism: Chinese Americans and the Chinese motherland” by Andrea Louie, she focuses on her case study about hua yi, or descendents of overseas Chinese (646) and the relationship to their ancestral country. Through a summer camp project called “In Search of Roots,” ten Chinese American participants go to China and have a heritage tour, as well as a visit to their “hometown” (Louie 653). In a narrative written by Fred Chang, a participant in the project, he wrote that their tour guide had greeted the group and joked about what they call Asian Americans. “So you come from America, what do they call you, ABC’s? Or is it Banana?” (Louie 654). Fred then thinks to himself about how the moment they step foot into the home of his ancestors, he gets insulted by his tour guide. In addition to the insult that the participants had received from their tour guide, a Guangdong native named John Lim mentioned that “Chinese Americans couldn’t get used to living in a Chinese society. ‘They will be fooled by [mainland] Chinese, like a big child’” (Louie 657). One insult after another, we read how the native Chinese people continuously insult the ABCs during their trip. This is another great example that exhibits the difficulties for ABCs to assimilate with Chinese natives because of a cultural gap. It is also “remarked that second and third generations often have different living habits, recalling one hua yi who would not eat Chinese food and another who, unused to squat toilets, had to be taken to another county to use the bathroom. For them, these incidents raised issues about whether hua yi can still be considered culturally Chinese” (Louie 657-658). In the simplest manner, we can reason that it is nearly impossible for ABCs to only identify themselves as Chinese.

On the contrary, the song “ABC” by MC Jin, an American-born Chinese himself, proves that there can be balance between two ethnicities. His lyrics hints at the struggles he goes through, like “I bet you wouldn’t even know if I didn’t tell you” (Jin, 2007) refers to how he could be passed off as another Chinese immigrant and not an American citizen with a Chinese heritage. Not only does this present the flaws humans have with first impressions, MC Jin is also straightforward about how dismissive it is when referring to someone’s identity. Another set of lyrics in his song is “don’t worry about where I was born” (Jin, 2007). This is monumental to those who are American-born but with parents from a different country; the lyrics points out the issue whether or not it is important to know someone’s ethnicity, and what it would change if they did know. Growing up, I’ve always found that being dismissive about my cultural background was easier than to go into full details and explain to someone that despite my yellow-skin, Chinese-looking facial features, I understood American culture more than Chinese culture. In a way, I found that spacing myself away from Chinese culture when I’m around my American friends had made communication and bonding with friends easier. But with the struggles MC Jin and I both face as ABCs, we also find the balance of being able to find a mix of both identities. MC Jin’s song is rapped in both Cantonese and English, proving that he is capable of combining both languages to represent the song that stands for American-born Chinese; furthermore, the success MC Jin has in his music career in both America and in Hong Kong demonstrates that ABCs can find such balance between their American and Chinese culture.

Referring back to the TV show, Fresh Off the Boat, Eddie finds his balance between the Chinese side his parents had influenced on him and the American side that he is surrounded in. Despite the lack of enthusiasm Eddie shows when he got assigned the country China for his World Day Project, he stands up for the Chinese side in him when his friends made fun of China by calling attention to all the achievements China has accomplished. He makes his mother proud even with the “F” he earned on the project. Rachel from the book, Crazy Rich Asians, finds her balance with her boyfriend who acts more like an American than he a Chinese. This represents her ability to balance her American identity by continuing to live in New York with her boyfriend, but also able to continue her Chinese identity by speaking Mandarin to her mom and to Nick’s family.

Similarly, the scholarly article Wendy Jorae wrote in “The Limits of Dress: Chinese American Childhood, Fashion, and Race in the Exclusion Era,” it points out “Asian American youth have successfully carved out a unique cultural space for themselves… which often results in an ‘emergent culture of hybridity’ that mixes elements of both worlds… Most families did not feel compelled to completely abandon their heritage, but instead they adopted a sort of hybrid identity by selectively adapting objects and customs of both cultures to their own lives” (Jorae 454, 466). For ABCs who were once lost in finding their identity between being American and Chinese, they are now familiarizing themselves to find the balance somewhere between the two ends of the spectrum in order to fit in and combine different components of both cultures to integrate into their own identity.

As I had mentioned before, there were times in my life when I had felt like I didn’t know which culture and identity I assimilated to, whether I was American or if I was Chinese. In either country, whether in the United States or in China, I would sometimes feel like a foreigner because I struggled to fit in. I have been on both the receiving end of stereotypes from Americans and by Chinese people, in which most consider me as the “white washed Asian” because I am an ABC. I am what the characters in the book, Crazy Rich Asians, assume as the Chinese who had become too westernized because I was born overseas. But as I’m maturing, I have found myself adapting and finding my own mix of identity, embracing and balancing both the cultures in me. I can speak both English and Cantonese and I have friends that are American, Chinese, and American-born Chinese. Throughout this research and analysis I have conducted when looking into the identity of ABCs and media’s portrayal, I have learned that having a Chinese heritage will be influential in one way or another; but how much it will determine a person’s cultural standpoint is under his or her control. Despite the struggles ABCs face in order to assimilate to either an American or Chinese society, they still have the ability to find balance between the two identities. I can choose to embrace either side of my culture whether it’s the American side based on where I was born or my Chinese side based on my heritage. I am not just Chinese, nor am I just American; I am an American-born Chinese. Like the chorus in MC Jin’s song, “ABC that’s me, that’s me!”


Works Cited

Fresh Off the Boat. Prod. Nahnatchka Khan and Jake Kasdan. American Broadcasting Company. 10 Feb. 2015. Television.

Jorae, Wendy Rouse. “The Limits of Dress: Chinese American Childhood, Fashion, and Race in the Exclusion Era.” The Western Historical Quarterly 41.4 (2010): 451-71. JSTOR. The Western History Association. Web. 18 May 2015. <;.

Kwan, Kevin. Crazy Rich Asians. New York: Doubleday, 2013. Print.

Louie, Andrea. “Re-Territorializing Transnationalism: Chinese Americans and the Chinese Motherland.” American Ethnologist 27.3 (2000): 645-69. Wiley. American Anthropological Association. Web. 18 May 2015.<;.

MC Jin. “ABC.” ABC. 2007. Music Video. YouTube. Youtube, 17, May 2007. Web. 3 May 2015. <>.

Yoshihara, Craig. “5 Stereotypes ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat Is Obliterating.” Babble. N.p., 20 Apr. 2015. Web. 14 May 2015. <>.



2 thoughts on “American-born Chinese: The Balance Between American and Chinese

  1. Hi Kathy!
    I would like to let you know that I liked reading your post! As I was reading, I felt that I can relate to you because in my head I was thinking, “Finally! Someone understands!” You mentioned that you sometimes found it difficult to identify with either culture, and I just wanted to say that I completely understand how you felt because I’m also from two different cultures. Thanks so much for writing this post!
    Have a good summer!

  2. Hi, Kathy

    I really like your post and I got really engage with it. I got some similar experiences like you and being struggle with self- identity. I think having two cultures it might be a benefit because you can choose the coolest thing of the two cultures and mixed it and it will become your own identity. I know that is difficult to balance it but I became more confident after thinking on that way. All in all, I really like your post and thank you for sharing your thoughts, have a good break!

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