Enjoying hot pot with friends. Digital painting by the author.

A Love Letter to Tomorrow

And Other Stories of My Asian American Upbringing

Author’s Note: these stories I’m about to tell draw upon many complex and diverse topics — none of which I will be able to explore in full. This set of stories is but one in a tapestry of works among the diverse experiences of Asian Americans in the United States.

Thanksgiving with Fried Rice

It’s a cold winter day. After my family parks on the curbside, we carry our foil-covered dish to the door. Happy Thanksgiving, come on inside! We’re immediately flooded by the familiar smell of home-cooked Chinese food; the aromas fill the air, followed by the sounds of oil over sizzling heat and the familiar greetings of family friends. I scan the room, trying to take it all in at once. In one corner, a handful of adults laugh and chat over a game of poker. At the obligatory “kids table”, a handful of children sit and stare at their phones, absentmindedly tossing around some Mahjong pieces and arranging them like dominoes. The endless trays of food stacked together for the potluck resemble presents under a Christmas tree. That’s when I see it: in the middle of the kitchen island sits a beautiful Thanksgiving turkey, stuffed with sticky fried rice.

For many Asian Americans in my community, myself included, food has been a common love language. Perhaps that’s why this memory holds a special place in my mind, even after all those years. The feeling of community, of all of us huddled together in one house escaping from the cold winter air, sharing stories over a meal that was as idiosyncratic as our own experience; in a way, it felt like a singular representation of the crossroads where I so often found myself. Turkey stuffed with fried rice. Where else could you find such a thing?

As a kid, I sometimes resented my identity for making me feel out-of-place. I wasn’t Chinese enough to confidently carry an identity around a past I had long forgotten; I could no longer read or write in my mu yu (母语), my “mother language”. At the same time, I wasn’t American enough to fit in with my classmates; I couldn’t relate to their pop-culture references, enthusiasm for local sports teams, or their taste for music. And it wasn’t for lack of trying. On the weekends, I would go to Chinese School, a Sunday school dedicated entirely to making sure I didn’t lose my grasp on my 母语; as you can probably guess, at ten years old I wasn’t entirely thrilled at the idea of spending a perfectly good weekend morning taking classes. At school and elsewhere, I tried my best to blend in, but I could never quite shake the idea that very few people in my school — the teachers, the students, anyone — looked like me. It didn’t help that one of my classmates once walked up to me and said “my Mom says we don’t like Chinese people.”

Whether I liked it or not, there was always a little bit of tension between the Asian and American parts of my identity. I’m not proud to admit it, but there were plenty of times when I was embarrassed of who I was. That shame wasn’t innate, it was learned through years of experience. I remember feeling embarrassed when my parents struggled to answer simple questions in English, or when they stumbled over their sentences as they tried to communicate to locals. I remember being embarrassed of the way my food smelled when I brought cold lunch to school or extracurricular events; if the mere appearance of the food I brought wasn’t enough to tip off others, the pungent smell of soy sauce was usually enough to garner a few side-glances or snide comments. I remember looking in the mirror and wondering what I would be like if I were white, and then feeling ashamed of even letting that thought enter my mind. Will I ever be enough?

I’m still tackling some of the residual emotions today. At the same time, growing from these experiences has shaped my life in significant, sometimes unexpected, ways. I’m incredibly proud of my family’s story- the more I learn, the more I recognize the depth of the love and sacrifices they made to come here. My father is now in a managerial role where he leads a team with passion and dedication. My mother got a PhD in brain-computer-interfaces and is now working as a senior research scientist in machine learning for security. I aspire to have the tenacity, grit, and bravery that they embody on a daily basis. In my personal life, I have taken my family’s traditions with me. Those who know me well will know that I often have dumpling-making parties, where friends can gather at my apartment to make and (more importantly!) eat homemade dumplings. We’ve also done homemade hot-pot, a tradition from my family’s southern-Chinese roots. My friends and I would cook and chat for hours as we discussed topics ranging from the most recent midterms we’ve taken to current events and domestic politics. We’d often end our meals with a signature snack from the Asian supermarket. Over the past few years, I’ve come to redefine what it means to fit in.

As immigrants, we hear this all the time: why aren’t you doing more to fit in? Why don’t you just be more American? To those people, being an American means one thing: being more like them. To those people, the vision of America is one of uniformity; a culture where you’re either all-in or all-out. But there’s another view of America, one that is aspirational rather than prescriptive. This could be an America with dumpling-making parties and turkey stuffed with fried rice, an America where we can gather around a table and reminisce about our pasts while dreaming about our futures, an America where no one has to wonder am I enough? If we have the courage to imagine that reality, one day we may be fortunate enough to see it realized.

Goodnight, I Love You

In traditional Chinese families, it’s uncommon for parents and their children to tell each other “I love you”. The direct translation, wo ai ni (我爱你), is usually used between romantic lovers, and even then, it’s not used as commonly as it is in English. More generally, Chinese parents are often more reserved about displaying exaggerated outward emotions. This story is a familiar one, a confrontation of the traditional versus the novel, the familiar versus the foreign.

In my conversations with other children of first-generation Asian Americans, I’ve felt this tension play out in a variety of ways. In politics and activism, the older generation tends to be a bit more moderate and reserved, sometimes even hesitant. It’s easy, as the younger generation, to believe that the older generation is slow to adapt, that they’re holding onto their roots and unwilling to let go. In dynamic and uncertain times, that sense of tension gives way to urgency, as we begin to feel like the older generations are resisting the necessary changes needed to radically transform society towards a brighter future. In the midst of these discussions, it’s often easy to forget that our parents, many of whom weren’t much older than we are now, chose to leave the comforts of their own country and set foot into a completely unknown culture. These are risks that I wouldn’t dare to take myself, yet my parents took the leap in hopes that my brother and I would have a better future; a future that at the time was far from guaranteed.

In short, first-generation immigrant parents, our parents, have a much better track record of radical change than we give them credit for. Radical change whose rewards, as it’s often forgotten, would primarily fall on us, not them. Given the time, our parents may continue to surprise us with the lengths to which they are willing to adapt and change in the face of new information, new questions, and new understandings of the world that we live in.

Over the years, I’ve seen my parents evolve. In so many ways, they’ve blended these two cultures beautifully, taking inspiration from their own past in China and integrating it with their new experiences in the United States. Our home is a unique collage of cultural references, with paintings of scenes from Disney movies as well as traditional Chinese watercolors adorning the walls of our rooms. When the Olympics are on television, we watch intently, rooting for both the American and Chinese sports teams (double the fun, and many more victories to cheer for!). At the dinner table, we’ll often chat about domestic and international politics, discussing the diverse perspectives of Americans, Chinese natives, and Chinese immigrants; a kaleidoscope of interwoven viewpoints that has led to several thought-provoking discussions about our own place in it all. I’ve seen them adapt in the way they’ve raised my younger brother and myself, having moved away from the more traditional tiger-mom model of parenting towards a more growth-mindset approach.

Over the years, we’ve developed a few new traditions of our own. Every evening, my family huddles around a foosball table and plays a round-robin tournament until one of us inevitably ends up shouting loud enough to alert the neighbors. At night, before we head off to bed, we gather for “fruit time”, where we enjoy some fruit and occasionally kick back with a nice book to read for half an hour. And finally — this is my favorite one — we always end the night by saying I love you.

When I first began what has now become a nightly tradition, I simply said “I love you” without expecting a response. I knew that my parents loved me; they didn’t need to tell me that for it to be true. I could tell they loved me every time they picked me up to send me to swim practice, or when they woke up at 6 AM to drive two hours to a debate tournament. I could tell they loved me when I came home to an impeccably neat room with perfectly folded clothes (none of which was my doing). I could tell they loved me when, in the darkest of times, they would always be there, with a bowl of soup or a warm hug where I could choose to hold on and never let go. And so, when they began saying it back, I had already begun to let go of the intense symbolism with which I held that phrase. Those three words served not as an action of love, but as a reminder, of a story woven into my own identity. A story of sacrifice, of setting foot in the unknown, for an uncertain future. A story of hope, and loss, and love. A story that began thousands of miles away, and many years ago, across the vast ocean, from a place where I was born.

Every night, I hear waves from this ocean crash against the shore.

Goodnight, I love you.

A Love Letter to Tomorrow

It’s a warm, summer day in Dallas. I’m sitting with a group of friends, eating pho at a local Vietnamese restaurant, watching the shadows flicker through the windows, dancing on the carpet below. The restaurant is mostly empty, so the owner has a chance to strike up a conversation with us. We ask her about what brought her to Dallas, what motivated her to uproot herself from her native country and travel to America. She said something that has stuck with me ever since: Ever since I was young, I was told that in America, you could find Heaven. Today, I’m still searching.

Her story is a hymn that rhymes with many other immigrants in the United States. In my native Chinese, the word for America, mei guo (美国), literally translates to beautiful country. For so many immigrants, the promise of America leaves a strong impression; for them, the city on a hill is not only a metaphorical ideal, but an aspirational goal for their own lives and those of their children (for Chinese Americans, where San Francisco was often the first point of contact, the city’s name 旧金山 literally translates to old gold mountain). The American Dream was ultimately a recognition of the dignity of humanity, driving faith in the ideas of opportunity, justice, and equality. For many, America is the Heaven they could see, a place where opportunity and hard work were paths to a better life. And, sadly, many are left searching.

I was reminded of how far we are from finding Heaven this week, when a hate crime was committed in a massage parlor in Atlanta, killing eight individuals, six of whom were Asian American. Racism in America is not new, and it takes many forms, as we’ve been reminded in the past year with startling frequency, from police brutality to the terrorist uprising on January 6th. I worry that the dialogue we are using to describe these acts of violence has become impoverished in its ability to evoke the humanness of these situations.

Whenever hate crimes are committed, I see people treating the perpetrators as monsters and the victims as martyrs. I understand where they’re coming from: when a terrorist commits a hate crime, we seek a narrative to latch onto. But when we play this game of angels and demons, we conveniently forget the humans involved; we ignore the underlying forces that could have motivated a human being to commit an atrocity of hate, and we ignore the human toll of the victims by portraying them as martyrs for a cause they didn’t volunteer to champion. Make no mistake: recognizing the humanity of the perpetrator doesn’t entail forgiveness; instead, it’s an urgent reminder that we, as humans, are capable of truly horrific acts of violence. We cannot ignore the centuries of violence, racism, and discrimination, often perpetuated by fellow citizens and bystanders, that serve as the backdrop for these acts of hate. When we paint the aggressors with broad-brush words like monster or mentally-ill, we are not doing a service to those who have passed away. Rather, we are using our language to sweep under the rug the uncomfortable reality of the conditions which we as a society have created to enable this violence to persist, a society where a human could believe in false narratives surrounding Asian Americans, or Black Americans, or anything but straight-white-male-Americans. We conveniently choose instead to distance ourselves from those non-people, those monsters, and then proceed to wash our hands of it.

In painting aggressors as monsters, we also subconsciously reduce victims to martyrs. It makes it easy for us to believe that the victims died to galvanize a cause, and to forget the complexity of the lives they lived. These weren’t perfect people; they were so much more than that: they were human people. Think about what you want to do most when the pandemic is over: maybe meet with your friends, see your children, attend the movies with those you love. They will never get to do that. Think about the things you’ve always wanted to do: places you’ve wanted to visit if you had the time, books you’ve wanted to read, the things you’ve wanted to say but haven’t yet had the chance to. They will never get to do that. Think about the things you’ve dreamed about, and watch all of those futures close abruptly, an ink-stained period ending in the middle of a story. These weren’t martyrs, they’re just like you. They lived their own lives until hate cut them short, stories that were rich and full of love, loss, happiness, embarrassment, and everything in between. You would’ve loved to meet them. But you can’t. Do you understand?

Every time we come face to face with racism in America, we dehumanize the perpetrators and victims at our own risk. In failing to engage with the humanity of this violent act, we wipe our hands clean of the situation. Don’t worry, we say in the back of our minds, the matters of Heaven and Hell are beyond our grasp as mortals. We ignore the societal scaffolding that enables violence to take place, and in doing so, eliminate any chance that we have at addressing the root from which this insidious tree grows. Is it any surprise that a year after phrases like “the China Virus” and “the Kung Flu” took headlines by storm, something like this would happen? Is it any surprise that after years of spreading the idea that the country is being “taken over by immigrants,” that something like this would happen? Is it any surprise that after centuries of perpetuating the myth that Asians (especially Asian women) are submissive and weak, something like this would happen? How often are we willing to be surprised?

It’s a common misconception that criticism implies distaste. In the context of the immigrant experience, this is often manifested in the statement if you hate this place so much, why don’t you go back where you came from? In reality, those who care most deeply about a country will seek ways to make it better. Just as you would give advice to a friend or family member when you feel they have been led astray, an individual who truly cares about the country in which they reside will use activism as a tool to inspire others to dream of better futures within our grasp. America isn’t Heaven, and it may never be, but it can still yearn to the human goals and aspirations that we set forth. If you’ll repeat after me: more perfect. Our critiques of today are love letters to tomorrow.

The story of immigrants is an overwhelmingly human story, the story that F. Scott Fitzgerald alluded to in the Great Gatsby when he mentioned “boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the wind.” The current state of racism in America reminds us that we still have a long way to go. At this time, it is more important than ever to have the courage to imagine a better tomorrow, to seek with reckless optimism the reality that could be while also acknowledging the bitter realism of the reality that is. These two realities have always been present in the minds of every immigrant in this country. When I think of my identity as an Asian American and a POC in America, my heart swells with pride at the audacity of those who came before me, and those who will come after, who continue to press onward in the face of incredible odds. Those who, despite the odds, continue to write love letters to a tomorrow that remains tantalizingly out of reach.

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Jordan Lei

Jordan Lei

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Neuro x Machine Learning x Art. PhD Student in Neuroscience @ NYU. Penn M&T 2020. www.jordanlei.com