Too Great a Price

Claire S. Chow
Placeholder Image for

From the July/August 1994 issue


WHEN I WAS 15 YEARS OLD, MY FRIEND CAROL TALKED ME into going to a dance at our high school. Of course, we had promised each other we would stick together through the evening, and, of course, she wound up leaving me high and dry. I called my mother in tears and asked her to pick me up early, a very uncool thing to do, which only increased my discomfort and pain. On the ride home, I sat silent and sniffling, while my mother tried to reassure me. She told me that we (meaning Asians) mature later and, besides, in the larger scheme of things, a high school dance on a Friday night wasn’t very important. She reminded me that I was a talented and hardworking student and that I had a bright future to look forward to. Boys and dating were less important and would happen in their own good time.

I didn’t respond, but believed in my heart that nothing could be further from the truth. At that moment, I gladly would have traded all my good grades for one soulful look from a blonde- or brown-haired boy who knew how to suggest his desirability by the way he leaned against a wall. I hated being Chinese. I hated being passed over for dates or teams or clubs. I hated having to console myself with the thought that the guys who ignored me probably would not even get into a good college or that the girls who deliberately excluded me could end up high-school dropouts. I shuddered at the possibility of having to settle for some terminally uncool Chinese boy bound for Cal Tech. But because my mother was offering advice from her heart, because she was my mother, and because I was now stuck in the car with her, I hoped against hope that she was right.

My parents came to the United States in their early twenties to pursue their academic careers. I don’t know much about my father’s life in China, except that his mother spent most of her time playing mah-jongg, that he had had a beloved pet goat who died after eating oleander leaves, and that his brother, not quite a year younger, was a better student, which was a source of embarrassment all my father’s life. My mother’s story is more familiar to me, as is everything else about her. She controlled the tempo and pace of our family, while my father seemed like a peripheral character, working all day and then retiring to his bedroom shortly after dinner every evening. My mother grew up in China during the upheavals and dislocations of the ’30 and ’40s, which meant repeatedly missing school and several times hiding in caves to escape bombing attacks. In some ways, it is still unclear to me which was more painful to her, having her adolescence disrupted by the Japanese invasion or never fully engaging the attention of my very famous grandfather, a civil engineer who gained wide renown for his efforts to help modernize China and who spent what little free time he had with his sons.

My parents met as graduate students in this country and always planned to return to China. But when the Communists took over the mainland, they were not allowed to go home. They married after a whirlwind courtship and soon started a family. I was born three months after their first wedding anniversary. My parents were not prepared to live in the United States, let alone raise two daughters here. Since their older brothers and sisters had already returned to China, my parents were, in effect, cut off from the wisdom and authority of the culture they had grown up in.

My mother did the best she could under the circumstances. Not knowing what to do with a baby or what it meant to be a parent in this country, she simply looked around and copied her neighbors. If they put their infants in buggies and took them for a walk every day because “fresh air is good for babies,” then she followed suit. When the pediatrician told her to feed me every four hours (on-demand feeding was not then in vogue), that is what she did. And then, when a neighbor told her to disregard that advice and give her starving baby some applesauce, she did that.

MY PARENTS GREW VERY comfortable here and eventually reached a point where they would not consider returning to China under any circumstances (although from time to time my mother threatened to go back when she felt unappreciated or unheard by us). They owned their own home and were able to provide well for their children. My younger sister, Barbara, and I were sent to nursery school, built snowmen in the front yard, earned badges in Girl Scouts and trimmed the Christmas tree with ornaments, garlands and icicles that still shimmer in my dreams of childhood holidays. As we grew up, we became astute observers of our friends’ habits and lifestyles. If headbands were in, we asked for headbands. I remember saving four precious quarters to buy one of the first Barbie dolls and then pleading with my mother to buy or make tiny clothes for her, something all my friends had in abundance. At some point, Barbara discovered that other moms had warm cookies and milk ready for their kids after school, so she told my mother to start baking. We never said it out loud, but my sister and I truly believed that if only we could do something about the color of our hair and our distinctive facial characteristics, no one would even know we were Chinese; in effect, we would no longer be Chinese we would have it made.

I was bilingual until the age of three, when I started spending significant amounts of time with white children in nursery school and on the playground. I switched to speaking English exclusively, and my mother made no attempt to stop me. For a while, she spoke to me in Chinese, and I answered in English, but that gradually eroded to the point where most of our conversations were in English, with a few Chinese phrases thrown in.

In embracing the culture of their neighbors, friends and coworkers, my parents let go of much of their own heritage. We did not celebrate Chinese holidays or customs, or even learn about them. One day at dinner, Barbara sat in her chair for the entire meal, refusing to touch the Lion’s Head soup. She wanted hamburgers, preferably cheeseburgers, none of this “gross Nappa cabbage stuff.” So my mother started adding ground beef and Velveeta cheese to her shopping list, having learned from a neighbor that you can freeze quantities of patties between sheets of waxed paper. “Very convenient,” the neighbor pointed out, which must have been true, because my mother began cooking and serving two separate meals each night, and sometimes three as I started to take advantage of the open-kitchen policy. At some point, I tasted a tuna-noodle casserole at a friend’s house and tried to get my mother to duplicate it, but the closest we ever got was mixing together tuna, egg noodles, frozen peas and mayonnaise. Meanwhile, she continued to cook elaborate Chinese dishes for my father, which both my sister and I refused to touch.

But good grades, Brownie badges and cheeseburgers were no comfort when classmates taunted me with the Purina dog food jingle, “Chow, Chow, Chow!” while pulling their eyelids back at the corners to simulate my appearance. Or when my seventh grade Civics teacher, whom I realized even then was well-intentioned, asked me to come to the front of the class. He had a yellow sheet of paper in his hand. “See, class? I want to show you that her skin isn’t really yellow at all. It’s more like … an ivory color,” he explained, as he laid my arm on the paper and demonstrated his point to his students. To make matters worse, my academic gifts that year became a source of personal humiliation when a good-looking boy wrote in my yearbook, “Thanks for letting me sit next to you all year so that I could copy your answers.” At the time, there was no “Chinese Pride” movement, nor did my mother believe it

would have been any use to talk about my feelings during this painful and difficult time. So, when my grades started to slip a little, she did the only thing she could think of she admonished me to study harder and arranged for individual tutoring.

While she did not draw the line at operating a bicultural kitchen or even being told by her children what to serve, my mother was still our conduit for cultural values, especially the paramount importance of education. We were told, in no uncertain terms, that a good education is not just something parents give to their child, it is the only acceptable avenue for a son or daughter to repay their parents and bring honor to the family. I once asked my mother if, like my white friends, I could get paid for good grades. The look on her face spoke volumes: I might as well have asked whether I could get an allowance for sleeping at night, or eating dinner, or breathing air. Years later, I made the grave mistake of commenting that if my then-6-month-old daughter, Rebecca, would be happy flipping hamburgers at McDonalds, it would be okay with me. My mother was appalled by the suggestion. Rebecca is now 10, and my mother still has not forgotten that remark.

My mother also made it clear that she had a right, even a duty, to help me live out her vision for my life. I reminded her of her beloved sister, Mao Y Mei, a gentle woman, a poet and lover of English literature who could have had an even more illustrious career had she not been caught in the maelstrom of the Cultural Revolution. My mother also had opportunities, which politics of the times had not allowed her to pursue. To this day, she still treasures letters from an English teacher who believed that she should go to London to study Shakespeare. Not only did embarking on a career studying literature mean living out the dreams of a previous generation, but accepting without question the authority of a parent was another strong family legacy. When my illustrious grandfather discovered that one of his daughters had become involved with a foreign scholar studying in China, he instructed her to end the relationship and marry someone more appropriate. Against the wishes of her heart, she complied.

And so did I. Knowing that it would make my mother happy, I accepted an offer from the University of Chicago’s well-regarded Master’s Degree program in English Literature instead of pursuing the career in the mental health field that I envisioned for myself. I wrote home about the splendors of the Regenstein Library and what a privilege it was to study with the great James Joyce scholar, Richard Ellman, but I also stayed up late at night talking with dorm neighbors who were studying in the School of Social Work. And while I never dated any Asian men (which was okay, because my mother never really had her heart set on a Chinese son-in-law), I also didn’t date any other minorities, which I knew would have displeased her.

It was not until 13 years later that I was finally sure enough of myself to risk my mother’s disappointment about my choice of careers to enroll in a training program for marriage, family and child counseling. Although I was married and had just had my second child, it was with great trepidation that I called to tell her about my decision. I pictured her sitting there in the kitchen at the ancient Formica table, trying to balance encouraging words with a deep sense of disappointment and failure. I was not going to inherit my aunt’s academic legacy; and I was not going to live out my mother’s dreams for me.

Not only that, but I was entering a profession that Asians generally regard with suspicion. My parents had passed down to me a cultural imperative that strongly discouraged exposing personal or family matters to public scrutiny. (In that regard, the very writing of this article makes me uneasy.) For my mother, it was almost a point of pride that even her close white friends didn’t really know a lot about her. Later, I myself would sit in group therapy (which I took advantage of only because my health plan covered 50 free sessions), sagely commenting week after week on the behavior of others while saying nothing about the painful end of a long-term relationship. When I finally did venture to tell the group my concerns about my very sick cat and they moved rather quickly to another topic, I used this as a good justification for continuing to play the role of the observer.

Even when I became a licensed therapist, I entered the profession in much the same way that my family had tried to blend into the neighborhoods of my childhood. When one of my early clients, after a long and successful therapy, told me that she had initially had real doubts about working with a Chinese therapist, I remained silent. It was too disturbing to consider the possibility that a Chinese therapist might not be as effective as a white therapist in working with white clients, especially since most of my clients are white. I never asked subsequent clients whether this was also a concern for them because I didn’t want to deal with the consequences if they said yes. And when my psychiatrist brother-in-law suggested I consider working with Asian families because he believed it would be “a good niche,” I felt almost demeaned by the remark. “I’m a grief therapist with very specialized training,” I told myself. “What does being Chinese have to do with that?”

Unsure of myself, and surrounded by white colleagues who, for the most part, treated me as if there was nothing different about me, I did not see myself as consciously denying my ethnicity (as I had as a child), but neither did I make any effort to embrace it.

I RECENTLY SAT FOR MY WRITTEN exam for licensure as a marriage and family counselor. Looking around the room of 100 or more would-be therapists, it suddenly hit me: I was the only Asian in the entire room. This small epiphany brought to mind a trip to China I took more than a decade ago, during which I watched my blonde-haired Caucasian husband try to deal with the discomfort of being the instantaneous center of attention every time we so much as set foot outside the hotel.

On our first night in Beijing, my grandfather arranged for us to be driven by private car from our hotel to his apartment (at that time, there were approximately 200 cars in the capitol city, and he had access to three of them). We were shocked and saddened by the standard of living endured by my relatives (unpainted walls, bare bulbs hanging from the ceiling, dining rooms doubling as bedrooms), but the warmth of the arms outstretched to greet us more than 30 aunts, uncles and cousins still burns brightly in my memory. The next day, Aunt Mao Y Mei’s husband, a gregarious and kindly man, arranged for us to see my grandmother’s lovingly tended grave. Leaving Beijing, our tour took us to Hangchow, and to the famous bridge linking northern and southern China that my grandfather had built. The bus actually detoured from its prescribed route so that we could see the landmark built by my grandfather, a man our bus driver described as a “national treasure.”

I had grown up virtually without relatives and, with my intense desire to assimilate, that was quite all right with me. I did not particularly care to spend time with Chinese people, and certainly not with relatives who reminded me of the embarrassing stigma of my ethnicity. But all these feelings dissolved when I walked into that apartment in Beijing. I realized at that moment that family is not just a collection of accidental alliances, but a living body, a place to be welcomed simply for being who I was: the daughter of my mother, granddaughter of my grandfather, and niece of my aunts and uncles. We had never seen each other before and, in some cases, would never meet again, but in that moment, we shared a sense of connection and loyalty that is unlike anything I have ever experienced. It was the first time I ever felt valued because my last name was Chow, not in spite of it.

I experienced a new joy walking down the crowded streets of Beijing. With the exception of my Western dress, I looked pretty much like everyone else same black hair, same high cheekbones and merited no particular attention. I was finally “one of us” instead of “one of them.”

TODAY, IN MY EVERYDAY WORLD, I no longer have the luxury of anonymity. Whether or not clients and colleagues care about the fact that I am Chinese, I am finding that I can no longer function as a therapist who disowns my cultural legacy. When I look in the mirror, I see a Chinese person. I may be able to speak English without any trace of an accent, help my husband bake an apple pie, or lament the astronomical ERAs of the pitching staff of our local baseball team, but that does not prevent clients from wondering if someone with a last name like “Chow” can really help them.

The doors to my ethnic roots have been closed for too long, and I am determined to open them. I recently attended a workshop in which the presenter, in illustrating how to apply a specialized therapy model, used a case in which the client was black. I got up and did something I would never have considered even a few years ago. With a pounding heart, I called the entire room’s attention to the fact that the issue of the client’s race and the fact she had spent most of her life in a poor, segregated neighborhood had not even been addressed. I found myself judging a therapy approach not on its applicability to some generic therapy client, but thinking about its cultural assumptions and its relevance to my own experience as an Asian American. Despite the commotion I stirred up, I left the workshop feeling a new sense of calm, as if it was finally okay for me to say what I needed to say and ask myself questions I needed to ask.

I will no longer pay the price of success with the currency of ethnic self-denial. I realize that, if I try to define myself as separate from my racial heritage, I might as well say to those long-ago classmates who teased me about my last name, “You were right. There is something shameful and second-rate about being Chinese.” And that, as any self-respecting therapist will tell you, is simply no way to live.

Claire S. Chow, M.F.C.C., is a therapist specializing in grief issues.