Navigating Different Worlds

"If no one was going to accept the identity I had for myself, then what is identity? Is it given to us by others? Or is it what we define for ourselves?  Why is it important to me? And why do I feel like my identity is such an integral part of me if what I think doesn’t seem to matter to others?"

 Rochelle Liu

Blog Guest: ROCHELLE LIU graduated the University of Iowa with a B.A. in English Literature and minor in Chinese. She is currently teaching English in Taiwan after having taught a year in Thailand and is the fiction editor for Niche Magazine. She encourages others to accept cultural differences, and implements it in the classroom. Rochelle enjoys writing short fiction, poetry, and an occasional book review. 

“Being Asian American means practicing blending values of the greater good and independence.  It means practicing civic responsibilities such as voting and serving on juries.  It means embodying respect, reciprocity and integrity to create a compassionate, educated and responsible society.  It means appreciating life on multicultural levels.” – Leslie Moe-Kaiser, PhD, State Farm Public Affairs, Bloomington, IL


My paternal grandmother is what I consider a pioneer. She was the epitome of a woman of a misogynistic society: quiet, soft-spoken, and never raised her voice. She took good care of her family, maintained her passivity at my grandfather’s angry, and oftentimes unjustified, outbursts, and remained the rock of the household when there were financial troubles. Never once was she swayed by her trying circumstances.

You may, in fact, see her as a product of a misogynistic society; reserved, seemingly un-opinionated, and without a conscious ‘self’. However, she is a pioneer to me because I remember the way she held my stubborn, naïve hand when I argued with her vehemently about my American identity. The way she coaxed me to open my mind to embrace different views, to think for myself.

It began with being required to learn Chinese when I was younger. I hated it. My argument was often: “We live in America. I don’t need to learn Chinese.” Flawed logic, but I thought that I was, inevitably, indisputably American. I believed that no one could change the way I saw myself. I don’t know where the idea came from or why I fought so incredibly hard against my family when they said otherwise.

My grandmother was the only person who laughed when I declared my identity to her. Other family members found my mindset less humorous. Instead, my grandmother took me aside and asked me what language I was using to speak to her. What better way to make a person think? To encourage thought and to realize that there is a potential for being wrong. And most importantly, it’s OK for us to be wrong. Rather than telling me what I should think, she asked questions. Questions to dwell on. Questions that turned the rusted gears in your head. For someone who came from a misogynistic society, “doomed” to an arranged marriage, you’d expect her to be conformed to something similar to a robot. Instead, she was inspiring me to find the road to my own thoughts and beliefs.

I had always believed that I could only be one and not the other. I was either Chinese or American. The idea of being both was foreign to me. How can I be both of such opposing cultures and philosophies? Wouldn’t my existence be a hypocritical one? Wouldn’t that mean that my values and views are, essentially, hypocritical? And in the end, what did that make me?

I spent my childhood defending my American status to my traditional Chinese family. I say “traditional” as, they valued propriety and having strict boundaries in the household. I was disciplined the old-fashioned way when I broke their trust (bamboo stick--painful.) It was fine if I didn’t get fantastic grades, or if I bought baggy clothes, as long as I acted with dignity and virtue and didn’t do anything that could shame my family name or my blood. As I grew up, I became molded into this idea that I was Asian, and that blood is my main source of cultural identity. I was surrounded by other Asian-Americans and “minorities” at my middle and high schools, and not once did I feel like my identity as Asian was a problem. At school, the minorities had become the majority, and I felt that I fit right in.

I then went to a Midwestern university where cultural diversity meant that I was one of the special ones. One of the ones that is highly likely to be featured on the cover of the prospectus or promotion pamphlets. Where I was the minority—not the majority, not the way I was back in middle and high school. Being one of the minorities is having to feel like an outsider, that no one understands, that you are always being misunderstood, that you are alone. Even if you aren’t.

I was at peace with myself, and then I was thrown into the Midwest, where my identity’s fragile balance was destroyed by my best friend’s hardheaded boyfriend. Long story short, he refused on all counts that I was Chinese. I was an American. That was all. No grey areas. No regards to my Chinese background. Never mind that I believed ethnicity is equally a part of me as the culture of the place in which I was born.

He was decidedly stubborn about it. And my view of my identity was, as a result, swayed by it. If no one was going to accept the identity I had for myself, then what is identity? Is it given to us by others? Or is it what we define for ourselves? Does identity matter when I see one identity for myself, and another sees differently? Why is it important to me? And why do I feel like my identity is such an integral part of me if what I think doesn’t seem to matter to others?

I studied in Beijing for six months; one reason was to knock off three semesters of Chinese in order to complete my Chinese major within four years, and the other was to understand my roots as a descendant of the Chinese. I went to visit my ancestral home to see my extended family, and loved them as if I had known them my entire life. I met Chinese people who were kind and warmhearted, who loved their country.  Despite all of my experiences, I returned to the States still unable to pinpoint where I stood in the Asian-American community. I loved China and the Chinese, and my family, but I was not, as best friend’s boyfriend stated, Chinese. I wasn’t like them, but upon returning to the States, I realized I wasn’t quite American either. Where does that leave me?

I had, by some stroke of luck, run into the University of Iowa’s Bridging Domestic and Global Diversity Program. It required an interview, and having been accepted, we attended various workshops to introduce us to diversity, and what it meant to be diverse. Having gone through the workshops, I realized that I had been going about my identity all wrong. I hadn’t been able to discover my place because I hadn’t completely accepted my identity as Chinese or American. I was always on the cusp between hating my Chinese background and hating my American culture. Diversity isn’t about tolerating differences. It is about accepting them for the imperfections and advantages. That is, stripped down to the basics: Love. Not the love we see between two people, but the one that encompasses all human beings, for all their strengths and faults.

That is Acceptance.

That is Love.

After having this realization, I was finally able to accept myself as Chinese-American. It was freeing, and it was what my grandmother was trying to knock into my hard head. I was so rooted in my convictions, in stereotypes, that I forgot about being able to enjoy just who I am, and who the people are around me. The frustrations I felt with myself, and with those around me, were rooted from lack of Love. My identity as Chinese-American was supposed to be rooted in Love. I had the rare opportunity to be born with both feet in different cultures—why haven’t I been embracing it?

Being Chinese-American isn’t being one or the other. It is loving everything that is encompassed in those cultures, and having the capabilities to understand both. To accept both. And to weave the best of both cultures into our thoughts and philosophies. It’s about balancing two cultures and seeing them live in harmony. It’s about being the embodiment of that harmony and realizing that there’s really nothing so different between the two that would make either one a threat. If I can do that within myself, couldn’t I do it externally, with other people and cultures? Here I am, no compass, no ship, and no guides, in a world that is nothing like my own. It’s frightening, but fear grows in the absence of Love, and fear is what turns into hate.

For me, being Chinese-American means being able to Love.  Identity is what is rooted in our philosophies and our views. What others think is their own identity. It has nothing to do with the rest of us.

I taught English for a year in Thailand, and am currently teaching English in Taiwan. I plan on continuing with graduate school in Australia. And throughout all of my adventures (past, present, and future), I hope that I can use what I was taught, what I learned, to navigate and explore different cultures and worlds. To love and accept all of them. All because my grandmother asked me, “What language are you using to communicate with me?” to set forth my expedition to discover my identity.

So who am I?

I am Rochelle Liu. I am Chinese-American. I am Love.

And the best part of it all is: so is everyone else.

*written in honor of Asian-American Heritage Month, and in memory of my beloved grandmother.

Happy Mother’s Day, 奶奶! 母親節快樂*