With a Chinese yo-yo, I pull the strings. Balanced on a thin white rope, the dumbbell-shaped yo-yo rolls on the floor. The plastic wheels skate across the cracked ceramic tiles. Grasping two wooden sticks, I pick up the yo-yo. The wheels begin turning faster, and the gold sticker on the wheel facing me spins into a blur.
As a child, Chinese yo-yo was the one thing I looked forward to on Sundays. My parents made me go to Chinese school on Sundays, and it was boring. I hated it. But after Chinese classes, I went to Chinese yo-yo class. And with Chinese yo-yo, for once, I was the one who pulled the strings.
Here’s the more complicated answer to my cultural background. I am of Chinese heritage, and I was born and raised in the U.S. My dad is from the Philippines and my mom is from Taiwan. I call myself a Chinese American, no hyphen.
But I am American. No matter what people tell me, no matter what politicians say, I was born here, I grew up here, and I will stay here. I am an American who is of Chinese descent. So, a Chinese American.
My dad is Chinoy, or Chinese Filipino. His entire extended family lives in the Philippines – his parents, all his siblings, his cousins, second cousins, aunts, uncles, everyone. Their ancestors are from Fujian province in China, and they migrated to the Philippines to do business.
My mom came from Taiwan. But she isn’t a mi-nan-ren, the majority ethnicity of Taiwan and a Han Chinese subgroup. Her father is a wai-shen-ren, or a mainlander, who immigrated from Jiangxi province around the time when the Republic of China came to Taiwan. Her mom is Hakka, a minority population in Taiwan and a Han Chinese subgroup with a dying language and culture.
I wish I could say that I knew Hakka or Fukken or Taiwanese or Tagalog. But I don’t. And sadly, these languages are being erased.
Mandarin is what I have left.
I loop the string around the golden metal center and rhythmically pull the yo-yo back and forth. The yo-yo whistles, and these whistles become howls as it spins faster. Other students also accelerate their yo-yos, and the howls fill the room, bouncing off the walls and zooming towards the high ceiling.
When my hands are gripped around the wooden sticks of a Chinese yo-yo, it is the only time I feel in control. I pull the strings, making the yo-yo spin faster, tossing the yo-yo into the air, weaving webs to balance the yo-yo. I throw the yo-yo into the air and spin quickly to catch it as it plunges back to my string.
But I can never spin as fast as the yo-yo. And although I pull the strings, I’m not completely in control. Sometimes the string can’t keep up. The yo-yo rolls up the string and tangles it up. Sometimes, I don’t catch the yo-yo, and instead it hits the hard ground. Sometimes, when it spins too fast, the holes on the yo-yo scrape the skin off my hands.
I speak Mandarin Chinese with my family. And I went to Chinese School for 12 years, from kindergarten to junior year of high school. Other than Chinese yo-yo class, which I attended for a few years, I hated every minute of Chinese school.
Other kids got to play with their friends on Sunday. Me? I had to copy Chinese characters 30 times each, memorize Chinese passages and sit in a dull classroom, watching the teacher write traditional Chinese on a chalkboard. I didn’t want to be there. In fact, no one else did. By the time I graduated Chinese school, our class only had three kids. When I was in kindergarten, there were probably about 15. I was so glad to be done and enjoy my one year of high school without Chinese school.
I’m glad my parents forced me to go to Chinese school for all those years though. After I graduated Chinese school, I knew I had to keep learning. As a Chinese speaker, if I let go of this language, it would be ke xi, I was cautioned, a pity.
When I got into college and moved out of home, I felt my language skills decline. I wasn’t speaking to my family as much as before, and a part of my identity was beginning to slip away. In Skype conversations with my grandmother I struggled to speak in complete sentences. In our family dining room hangs a handwritten poem by my paternal great-grandmother about how she missed her homeland. The words are elegantly written in calligraphy, but my mind draws a blank when I try to read them.
I wanted to see the homeland of my ancestors from generations back, and how it has changed. So I decided to study in China.
In China, I looked like everyone else, and other than my somewhat Taiwanese accent, I talked like everyone else, too. In some ways, I fit in a lot more than I did at home.
Interestingly enough, maybe because of my Taiwanese accent, or maybe because I was with my American friends, or maybe because of my mannerisms, strangers would ask me where I’m from. When I say I’m from the U.S., some were befuddled.
People ask me the same questions over and over. And when I answer, they still keep asking.
And maybe I’m like that, too. As a Chinese American, I’m trying to figure out the balance between the privileges I have as an American but also the racism and microaggressions I face.
Maybe one day I will learn the other lost languages from my background, maybe I won’t. But I will keep studying Chinese. I will keep educating myself on different perspectives. Hopefully one day, I will have the opportunity to travel to China again and other parts of Asia, too. And perhaps by then, I will know what are the right questions to ask and if there are right ways to answer.
Like a Chinese yo-yo, the narrative can suddenly spin out of control. But I know how I want my narrative to look, so that’s how I’m pulling the strings.