My Asian-American Story

North Beach Alley
Alley in North Beach

I am a second generation Chinese-American. Both of my parents immigrated to San Francisco, CA, USA from Guangzhou, China in the ’80s. I was born and raised in The City and Cantonese was my first language. I attended preschool in the oldest Chinatown in America, where I first learned my ABC’s and had my first waffle with syrup. I had only ever studied English during my childhood and had actually chose to attend Saturday Chinese school when I was 11 years old, a decision all my own. While kids my age grew up watching American sitcoms and cartoons, I had watched Chinese dramas and variety shows on top of that. Mandarin-Chinese easily became my third language which I had taken upon myself to study on my own.

I was born into a flat on Nob Hill where my parents and I shared the first two years of my life. I recall breaking out of my crib at night and crawling over to my parents’ bed to sleep between them as they watched The Simpsons with me between the age of two and three, probably closer to two (the extent of my memory is quite scary). I received my first pair of chopsticks (they were pink!) and quickly learned to use them expertly, also at the age of two. My late maternal grandmother would often visit and frequently brought banana mochi (香蕉糕), which was my favorite confection of all time back then. Playing by the fountain in front of the old Levi’s store on Stockton Street (Union Square side) was my favorite pastime with my grandmother.

Swings at Washington Square
The very swings I sat on as a toddler

We promptly moved to one after another single-bedroom apartment in North Beach when I was not even three years old yet, I was constantly passed around between my four aunts as I was the first child on my mom’s side of the family and I was showered with nothing but love. I spent most afternoons at Washington Square with my aunts and my mom. When my mom was working, my grandparents would be babysitting me until my dad got off of work later in the evening. On nights when my mom worked late, my dad and I would bond over a couple of stages of Super Mario Bros. on our Nintendo console. On weekends when we did not go yumcha (飲茶) or “have dim sum” on Powell Street, we frequented the McDonald’s on the edge of Chinatown with my parents, grandparents, and aunts – coffee was my grandmother’s beverage of choice – my love for coffee had also stemmed from this. My baby brother was born shortly after I turned three and both my parents worked day and night in sweatshops and restaurants while my grandparents were left in charge of dropping my brother off at day care and me at preschool. My parents would pick me up occasionally after school when they could, I always enjoyed the walk home through Stockton Street as we passed by the bakery that always had the scent of freshly baked cupcakes oozing from it.

Washington Square
People cooling down on a sunny afternoon at Washington Square

My grandparents’ apartment was just a short walk away from our place, located at the foot of Telegraph Hill, a few blocks from Coit Tower – we would often take evening strolls up the hill after having dinner. I learned to write my Chinese name at the age of three, my grandmother had started my foundation for extensively learning Chinese while my grandfather nurtured my interest in art (he was an artist and teacher in China before he immigrated to The States). We spent two more years at our last apartment just off of Filbert Street, the four of us in a single bedroom that also served the purpose as our living room. I temporarily attended kindergarten on Treasure Island as a majority of my classmates from preschool were sent there, probably by affiliation. I recall the alarm going off at 4:00am or 5:00am (can’t remember) every morning as my dad had to get both him and I ready for the day. The day usually starts with my dad preparing breakfast, something that I can stick in my backpack and eat later during recess because I had every intention of sleeping through the entire bus ride to school and he knew that. He would drop me off at the school bus stop on Powell Street, where I would then board the yellow school bus to Treasure Island before he headed to work in China Basin. On days that we both overslept, my dad would personally drive me over the bridge to get to school on time as I had obviously missed the school bus. Needless to say, I was quickly pulled from that school and continued kindergarten back in The City, in the Sunnyside district, where we lived for the next 14 years.

Little Italy / Chinatown
A collision of two worlds – Little Italy meets Chinatown

Much of my school days were average at best. Luckily for me, school was just literally around the corner from our new house so I always made it home in time to catch the last 15 minutes of Power Rangers and then switch channels to watch Sailor Moon. Some afternoons, I would play in the backyard or out on the block with my brother – sometimes I would be playing with the hula hoop, sometimes I would be jump-roping, sometimes kicking around a ball. I would proceed to do my homework after my afternoon activities and then dinner would be ready by the time the Cantonese news is on. My parents would never allow us to watch TV during dinner but apparently the news was acceptable. The prime time Hong Kong dramas would broadcast at 7:00pm so I would always quickly finish my dinner before then, allowing myself a few minutes to run upstairs to my aunt’s room to catch the latest TVB show (there was no cable downstairs). TVB was my gateway exposure to Hong Kong and it’s culture, I quickly fell in love and had even wanted to live in Hong Kong. I had indeed mastered majority of my Cantonese through both family and TVB, of course, determination had a lot to do with it as well as I wanted to understand what I was watching at the time. After an hour of Cantonese TV, I would return downstairs to watch an episode of Rugrats or whatever cartoon was on at the time. Saturdays started with cartoons in the morning, sometimes I would watch American cartoons, sometimes I would watch Chinese cartoons. We would eventually make our way out to Chinatown to pick up groceries for the week with the family (grandparents, aunts, cousins included) and grab some lunch. We typically ended the afternoon with an hour of play time at Portsmouth Square (花園角). When we returned home, I would catch some anime like Nintama Rantarō (忍者亂太郎) and Chibi Maruko-chan (櫻桃小丸子) or Japanese shows like Ultraman that were dubbed in Cantonese, and then an episode of Clarissa Explains It All. Dinner would be served alongside the viewing of an episode of Super Trio (獎門人). We would usually spend Sundays at either Costco or Serramonte Shopping Center. In the summer, I would be watching Blue’s Clues and other educational shows with my baby brother so that he can have a foundation for the English language as he had not attended preschool like I did.

Monterey Blvd
Montery Blvd., Sunnyside District

As I grew older, my interest in television changed a bit as I would opt for more Chinese shows rather than an equal amount of both Chinese and American. My favorites all hailed from TVB. If we weren’t able to keep up with all of the newer TVB shows, we would rent the VHS tapes from the video store on Broadway Street to catch up in the summertime. With that being said, I obviously had limited topics to discuss with my friends and classmates in school, which resulted in isolation with the exception of one or two close friends. Because I was only allowed to speak Chinese at home since my parents weren’t fluent at all in English, I often found it a challenge to fully adapt the English language. I recall a time when one of my friends pointed out that I was reciting the Pledge of Allegiance incorrectly, mistaking one word for something entirely different – I did not enjoy that embarrassment to say the least. Though I did not have a Chinese accent while speaking English (nor vice versa), my vocabulary was actually quite limited. There was even a time when I thought chicken pox was a soup! I had at one point refused to speak as much Chinese, even at home, after being made fun of by a classmate who literally bursted out with “ching ching chong chong” when she heard my friend and I discussing something in Chinese, but apparently it was completely acceptable for her and her friend to talk in Spanish. I eventually found a way to reconnect with my American roots through music and TV. I grew up listening to Britney Spears, Backstreet Boys, and *NSYNC. I continued watching cartoons like Arthur, Hey Arnold, Pokémon, Dragon Tales, Magic School Bus, etc. and sitcoms like Boy Meets World in the afternoons and Lizzie McGuire and Sister, Sister in the evenings. I would stay up to watch whatever was running on Nick @ Nite like Bewitched, The Brady Bunch, Three’s Company, Facts of Life, I Dream of Jeannie, Laverne & Shirley, I Love Lucy, and Gilligan’s Island. While I was attempting to fit in with everyone at school, I still found it difficult to stray from my Chinese upbringing. I often found myself enjoying songs from Andy Lau (劉德華), Jacky Cheung (張學友), and other Canto-Pop artists at the time. When I came home to my mom catching up on TVB shows, I would sit down and join her. Bobby Au-Yeung (歐陽震華) is still my all-time favorite actor to this day!

As I moved on to middle school in the Excelsior district, I chose to incorporate Chinese school into my education. Saturday mornings still started with cartoons before heading out to Chinatown to attend Chinese school, where I perfected my handwriting and calligraphy, while also establishing a foundation for learning Mandarin as we would have a Mandarin teacher fill in for an hour every other week. I was quickly elected vice president for the class (probably due to my age as I was one of the three 11+ kids amongst a class of 5-7 year olds) and I would often be hanging on the monkey bars at Woh Hei Yuen (和喜園) after school. While I’ve made several good friends during middle school, I was also frequently bullied, almost on a daily basis. Those who were close had fortunately stayed close, and just so happens to share the same interests as me in terms of TV shows and music of choice. I put my new-learned pinyin (拼音) skills to use when I wanted to download more Chinese music and eventually brought my Mandarin skills to an advanced level due to my frequent use of pinyin and exposure to Taiwanese dramas further down the road. Though I was taught to read and write in Traditional Chinese (繁體) in Chinese school, I would often familiarize myself with Simplified Chinese (簡體) at home as that’s what my parents would write in and that’s also the language displayed on the search engine I used for Chinese music. I’ve quickly became a fan of Alan Tam (譚詠麟) and Hacken Lee (李克勤) upon viewing a VCD recording of their Neighbors (左麟右李) concert as well as Leo Ku (古巨基), Ronald Cheng (鄭中基), Twins, S.H.E., and many other Canto-Pop/Mando-Pop artists and groups. I often visited the public library in Visitacion Valley after school because they had one of the largest collections of Chinese CDs. Some time between 7th and 8th grade, my friend had introduced me to Korean music and that was the beginning of a new era for me – mind, this was a good 4-5 years before everyone else hopped on the “K-Pop train” – My favorite band at the time was H.O.T. (High-Five of Teenagers) and favorite solo artist was BoA (보아) but I enjoyed her Japanese songs a lot more than I did her Korean songs. I’ve had my mind set on learning the Korean language because I had a strong desire to understand these lyrics and the culture. This wasn’t exactly my first introduction to Korean media because there was a time when KTSF would broadcast Chinese-dubbed Korean dramas like Winter Sonata (겨울연가), Stairway to Heaven (천국의 겨단), and Lovers in Paris (파리의 연인). The obsession was real. It did not take me long to Google websites that taught Korean at a beginner’s level. Though I never officially enrolled in a real class, I had managed to learn the entire Korean “alphabet” and some basic phrases on my own. Because I was familiar with their alphabet system and how characters were formed, it became extremely easy for me to read and write in Korean eventually – I still don’t understand what I’m reading though, but I can definitely read it to you!

Dim Sum
Dim Sum

I opted to attend high school by Fisherman’s Wharf on the opposite side of The City due to the fact that everyone that I had not gotten along with in middle school were all headed to schools in the same area as our middle school. As difficult as it was for me to separate from my best friends, I stood firmly by my decision because I really wanted a new start and I never looked back since. High school was easily the best four years of my entire life. Things were simple and I had many, many real and true friends. Not ones that were just there for a few weeks and then turned their backs on you, not ones that would be friendly with you and then gossip about you behind your back, not ones that would spread endless false rumors about you, but real friends who cared and listened- a lot of whom I actually still keep contact with today. The first semester of freshman year was both extremely hectic but also rewarding. I’ve spent most afternoons playing basketball and volleyball at Chinese Recreation Center (better known as C.C.) and Chinese Playground. I was enrolled in JROTC and those who are familiar with the program might recall the school district’s many attempts at removing the program. I took part in my very first organized protest located at the headquarters of the San Francisco Unified School District with the intention of preserving JROTC – through that single event, I have learned that speaking up really can make a difference, a fact that I had always failed to realize since I was always the oppressed one whether it be at home or in school (before high school). I’ve spent a total of 6 semesters enrolled in JROTC – 5 semesters as a cadet, 1 semester as the sergeant’s TA. I honestly have JROTC to thank for keeping me in school, it was within the program where I had the chance to develop life-long friendships and also practice self-discipline (this might be further discussed in a separate blog post). I had dropped out of Chinese school after completing my fourth year, which was after my freshman year of high school because I wanted to utilize the time for team practices that often took place both after school and on the weekends. I could no longer commit to Saturday classes but doing the exchange was well worth it because team practices had counted towards extra curricular credits on my transcript and had indirectly laid out an easier graduation path for me in the long run.

A lot of my friends were seemingly more well off than I was in terms of their financial situation, whether it was my friends of the same age or friends who were older, they all had more spending money than I did. Friends of my age stated that it came from their allowance or lunch money that was provided daily, looking at around $5 a day. Older friends had worked part-time either after school or over the summer and they had lived off of that. I completely understood that it wouldn’t have been reasonable for my parents to give me more than what they could give me, so I looked to get a job as soon as I turned 16. I was fortunate enough to find an employer that was willing to give me the chance at the age of 16 with no working experience, and at above minimum wage. Junior year was when I first began to frequently miss school due to fatigue and lack of sleep because I would work for three hours three days a week after school, and 8 hours a day on both Saturdays and Sundays. My commute was literally all the way across town so it involved an hour long bus ride each way. Waiting for a bus took an extremely large amount of patience in the evenings because once you missed one, the next one would not arrive for another 30 minutes, at least. I often got home just by 8:30pm on work nights and would immediately do my homework after grabbing a quick bite. I would get to sleep just before 12:00am and would have to wake up at 6:00am to get to school before 8:00am in the morning. A lot of times, I would just miss class if I could afford it, I never had issues passing any classes even with that attendance record. I seldom had time to do anything other than go to school and work, so the majority of my income was collecting dust in my bank account. On mornings when I did make it to school on time, depending on who I ran into, we might just still skip class and go out for breakfast by the pier, often paid for by yours truly since I had nowhere and nobody to spend my money on. High school came and gone in a heartbeat, it really was a huge chapter in my life that I will always look back on and still not regret a single thing.

Science Hall, City College of San Francisco

I had immediately started college at CCSF because it was close to home and I had not applied to any universities since my main concern was to make a stable income (now kind of wishing I hadn’t spent all my money on food). It was at work when I had actually experienced my first ever encounter with the public’s ignorance and inconsideration for my existence as a Chinese-American. I’ve once spoke with a gentleman who had asked for my “real name.” After repeatedly indicating that “Joyce” was indeed my real name, he had the audacity to say “no, no, ‘Joyce’ is your American name. You’re Chinese right? What’s your Chinese name? That’s your real name.” Well, Mr. Customer – I was born and raised in America, I hold a blue passport and in it, my name is listed as Joyce, my birth certificate says Joyce, and my social security number card says Joyce, I’m not exactly sure which part of “that is my real name” did you not understand. Telling me that you have many Chinese friends with Chinese names does not help the situation. Working in the heart of Downtown, San Francisco, I had the pleasure of meeting thousands upon thousands of tourists and international students throughout the years. It was always a fresh experience with the exception of a few obnoxious and irate assholes that lingered on Market Street. Being in such a diverse city, I never thought that I would see the day when an out-of-towner would walk into my store and openly announce “Wow! So many Asians…” I had to walk away, and he actually repeated the remark in front of my manager who had then immediately asked him and his father to leave the store. What made this family thought it was okay to say such things is completely beyond me. My racist experiences are thankfully limited however, because for whatever reason people don’t often see me as Chinese. They do see that I am Asian, but I would always be the last person anyone would ask for a translation. I’m 99% sure it has a lot to do with my physical appearance because I honestly cannot think of any other reasons. Ever since Frump’s election, the racism got real. Though I’m thankfully still not personally experiencing the hate, I have indeed witnessed a coworker being told to “go back to China” many, many times. Nowadays when I am asked if I am Chinese, I always find myself wanting to carefully answer this question without being overtly blunt and rude. I have met many people who were often confused by the fact that I spoke Chinese. The one thing that both Americans and the Chinese have in common in my experience is that they both wonder how is it that I speak Chinese so fluently – my answer was always the same, “if you wanted to know it, you’d learn it, and you’d master it.”

I grew up with Chinese traditions at home that include questionable (in my opinion) practices like not washing your hair throughout the Chinese New Year festivities, specifically the first three days of Chinese New Year or on your birthday. Similar “rules” apply to getting haircuts. These are “taboos” that I was just told to avoid but have never been provided an explanation. As I grew older, I started to worry about my personal hygiene a lot more than I did tradition – obviously the hair wash rule immediately went out the window. Other traditions I found odd were the fact that we would “practice” Buddhism on certain holidays but not as a religion as a whole. So technically, Buddhism has just been around the Chinese for so long that it’s just eventually become incorporated into our culture and traditions. There are still things that I don’t understand about the Chinese culture but I have really tried my best at researching and recalling on memories. At the least I know better than the majority of my fellow ABC’s.

I am ethnically Chinese but my nationality is American. I speak both Chinese and English fluently. I like eating dim sum but I also enjoy a good burger. I like a good night singing karaoke and I like a sunny afternoon barbecue. I offer incense to Guan-yin (觀音) on Chinese holidays like Chinese New Year and Mid-Autumn Moon Festival and I have turkey for Thanksgiving and a Christmas tree for Christmas. I’ve spent some summers in China and some winters in Reno, NV. This is my Asian-American story, what’s yours?

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