Who Is My Chinese Husband?

Starry night sky
Under the indigo unknown of night, my Chinese husband and I had a surprising conversation, about just who we are.

There’s something about the indigo unknown of a dark winter night. Because, for John and I, it turned a compliment into a conversation bordering on metaphysics.

We were driving home on Thursday evening, when the veil of clouds had turned the sky above into a huge, nebulous tunnel dyed in india ink. And I just happened to turn to John, over a broadcast of Hanukkah songs, to say what I often say to him. “You’re outstanding.”

“But why am I outstanding?” he asked. Which is not unusual. He’s asked me many times before, to elucidate every aspect of what makes him so outstanding. And I always oblige with a parade of compliments, that range from the physical (“Handsome”) to the more abstract (“Talented”). But I’d just told him why the other day, marching out the very same compliments. So I didn’t understand why he needed to hear all over again.

John looked down at the floor. “Sorry, I have trouble remembering.” And then as we both looked into the earthly cosmos stretched out before us, a more nebulous admission arose. “I really don’t have a clear idea of who I am.”

It felt like our conversation suddenly veered off course, onto a highway we didn’t even realize was there. “You don’t?” This was the guy who once declared himself a “five-four” youth, who loved telling everyone his name meant “fine steed,” and who had a strong vision for his current graduate work, and what he hoped to do in the future. How could he not know who he was?

Before I knew it, we plunged into the depths of our past, and cultures, searching for those reasons why. “So when you think of yourself, what do you think of?” I pressed him. The answer? His family.

For John, his identity was his family — from his living relatives to the ancestors pictured in the foyer of his family home, who he worshiped every year during Chinese New Year and the Tomb-Sweeping Festival. He was never socialized to think about who he was, as an individual — the way I always had, as a child. We thought about the Confucian hierarchy, where elders and ancestors held importance over all, overshadowing the idea of individual identity. We wondered about Zen Buddhism, which started in China and preached the idea of letting go of ego.

And while it’s hard to say with certainty what influenced John’s upbringing when it comes to knowing the self, I do know one thing — he’s beginning to understand, and, someday, will find a way out of the indigo unknown of just who he is.

Have you ever struggled with understanding who you are?

6 Replies to “Who Is My Chinese Husband?”

  1. He knows who he is, but just like you, we all still like to hear them again.

    It’s nice to hear about someone who’s willing to coddle to our irrationalities once in awhile.

  2. As a Chinese-Canadian, I’ve often wondered the same thing.
    When I’m in Canada, strangers initially think i’m “that Asian guy” with whatever stereotypes they had in mind. The minute I open my mouth, they know this is a straight up Canadian guy they’re talking to. And that’ll go on UNTIL they ever see me talking in Chinese to a Chinese friend -> they’ll always do a double-take and figure I’m not quite as Canadian as they thought. Some will comment: “Whoa dude, you know how to speak Chinese or was it Japanese?” And then some will ask me about the specifics of Chinese culture, like “So I heard there’s two Chinese languages, like mandarin and cantonese?” and “So do you like eat rice every day?” and “where are you really from” etc.

    In China, strangers initially think I’m straight up Chinese. UNTIL I open my mouth, and something is amiss. Eye contact excessive. Too assertive. Conversation too straightforward. The dialect is slightly off. All are curious and some begin to get very suspicious and ask just where am I from etc.

    Although I have learned to behave as a Chinese Chinese should behave, so now I’m able to fool your average Wang where i’m from into believing I’m really just “tu haizi” without a trace of “yang qi”

    literally ‘dirty kid’ (colloq: good ol’ yellow/local guy) without ‘Ocean smell’ (colloq:hint of foreignness)

  3. “For John, his identity was his family — from his living relatives to the ancestors pictured in the foyer of his family home, who he worshiped every year during Chinese New Year and the Tomb-Sweeping Festival. He was never socialized to think about who he was, as an individual — the way I always had, as a child.”

    Although many families in China still strongly uphold traditional Chinese values, some do not. My one grandfather, CCP anti-Japanese vet, grew up seeing the horrors of warlord-era and Japanese-controlled China. His idea of a new China included equality for women(no chinese footbinding, ofc) no emperors, no imperialism, no landlord/servantry, no religious ceremonies etc. Other grandfather was a univ prof, and had very similar views. So for better or worse, people in my family have never taken traditional chinese culture seriously, particularly my mom’s side.

    My mom’s side of family is wild with personality! I love them so. At family gatherings, the women shriek with laughter and sometimes they may even cry over a disagreement, especially when grandma joins sides(but they always mean well) The guys chuckle and roar over the good times and chatter away at the bad times. We all dare to agree/disagree, even with the eldest. Nothing is left unshared, there are no secrets on mom’s side. In the end, they head out and pretend to be quiet little chinese people 🙂 However my dad’s side is very introverted and only small talk is made at such gatherings. 🙁

    So after finding that I didn’t have a girlfriend, my aunt and uncle have seriously informed me that they understand “how it is like in the West” and that “In the West, you must be brave chase the girls! Yes.. there is no need to be shy! It does not matter if she is white! Seriously! But ah only chase the ones worth chasing, you can’t “suibian” chase.. ” (gee thanks uncle)

    (hey Jo, maybe i should make about all this instead of spamming so much haha)

    1. @Bedlam, thanks for the comment. I’m sure he does love hearing what I love about him. 😉

      @Chris, wow, I think you’ve captured a question that many Asians grapple with — identity. While I’ll never know what it’s like to be an Asian guy here in the West, I do know what it’s like to have your foot in two different cultures, and even that can get confusing for me at times! 😉

      You have a really interesting family — especially your mom’s side. I love people with personality! And how funny that the world sees them as just “quiet little chinese people” when they’re anything but. That’s the thing about generalizations…you miss the lovely nuances of humanity.

      (P.S.: you’re not spamming, and you can comment here anytime… 🙂 )

  4. I think many Chinese people don’t know who they are because they have lost much of their cultural identity. During the cultural revolution, much was lost and today, traditional culture is replaced with materialism which often leaves those empty with any kind of cohesive personal identity. Sometimes I think there should be a new Chinese religion which provides for a new narrative which the Chinese people can readily identify with, incorporate into their lives and relevant is to today’s times.

    1. @melektaus, thanks for the comment! You make an excellent point, how so much has been lost over the years. The thing is, China already has its own religious/thought traditions that the people can draw upon and identify with — such as Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism. In Taiwan, people have incorporated these traditions into their daily lives, and still have a connection to their past, yet have created a place that is modern, vibrant and filled with humanity. I should know, because I spent more than 2 months in Taipei, and to this day, still consider it the friendliest and most humane big city in the whole world. So Taiwan is definitely doing something right.

      Then again, Taiwan has its own identity issue, but that’s another topic for another day. 😉

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