When I began my year abroad, I expected to experience culture shock, a rapid growth of independence and a newfound love for a language. What I least expected to encounter, however, was the uncomfortable task of addressing my identity in the context of a completely new culture.
It’s not surprising to be the child of immigrant parents in California, especially since immigrants make up 27 percent of its population, according to 2011 data from the Public Policy Institute of California. As a first-generation child of Chinese immigrant parents, many of the kids I grew up with had similar “coming to America” stories that included herculean amounts of hard work, sacrifice and motivation so that they could have a chance at a better life.
Growing up, it was just as common to come from an immigrant family as it was to come from a 100 percent all-American one. In addition, the yearly culture festivals at my schools celebrated the diversity of our community and encouraged a cultural exchange among families of different backgrounds.
So when I moved more than 5,000 miles to France, I had to navigate the strange journey of living in a country that wasn’t built off the same immigrant foundation as the United States. Even though I felt like another American girl studying abroad, the behaviors, mannerisms and treatment I received were a bit different than expected.
At first, I wasn’t accustomed with how frequently my background would come up in my day-to-day activities. My identity shifted from being something ordinary that I shared with a lot of my peers, to something I had to address constantly because it was considered a novelty. From being asked about where I was “really” from, to having racist comments shouted at me on the street, I became resentful of the fact that I couldn’t blend in as easily in France as I could in the United States.
I couldn’t cope with this new phenomenon and felt increasingly uneasy as the weeks passed. I felt pressure to pick between being American or being Chinese, even though there was no earthly way I could have made that decision. Despite the fact that I am in no way, shape or form ashamed of my heritage, it was becoming increasingly difficult to be proud of my background so far away from home.
As time went on, I realized I needed to find a way of resolving this internal conflict for my own benefit and personal growth. I returned to those moments in my childhood that I felt most comfortable with my heritage and tried to recreate them while living abroad. I discovered a prominent Chinese presence in the 13th arrondissement of Paris, where I started frequenting Chinese restaurants, grocery stores and clothing shops. I even started speaking Chinese as often as I could, despite not being fluent and speaking with a heavy American accent.
I also found it helpful to share my experiences with my parents back home, where I discovered the parallels between my experience moving to France and their experiences moving to America. I realized that the language barrier, the cultural adaptation and the homesickness I was struggling with were all things that my parents once dealt with when they moved to the states. Despite physically being the farthest away from home that I have ever been, I have never felt more close to my parents than now.
Something clicked inside me, and suddenly I didn’t feel quite as uncomfortable anymore. Despite my original uneasiness about being “different” in France, I slowly developed a fierce love and protective attitude toward Chinese culture that I had never had before. The struggles I was experiencing in Paris were helping me better understand how hard it was for my parents to emigrate and appreciate the sacrifices they made for me. I don’t feel the need to pick between two cultures anymore because the experiences from this year have given me a stronger connection with my parents, my identity and my heritage, something that I will always cherish years from now in the future.