Elementary School – New Jersey
My dad’s pale blue Honda Civic slowly pulls to a stop behind a long line of cars in front of my school. It is 2001, and I am in second grade, attending school in a small town in North Jersey.
“到了！ 午饭带了吗？(We’re here! Do you have your lunch?) ” my dad asks in Chinese. My parents are originally from Shanghai, China, and I grew up speaking Chinese at home with my family.
“Speak in English when we’re near the school! I don’t want other people to hear us speaking Chinese,” I quickly respond in English.
My dad laughs. “We’re in the car, who’s listening?”
I roll my eyes at him in an exasperated way only a second-grader can, bid my goodbye (in English) and quickly clamber out of the car.
Middle School – New Jersey
The bell rings, and everyone in the classroom scrambles to get to the cafeteria as fast as possible. It’s lunchtime in middle school, and we only have 45 minutes to eat before getting to our afternoon classes. I grab my lunch box from my locker, and find my way to our usual table in the cafeteria, where my friends are already sitting.
My mom had packed me leftovers from last night – mapo tofu and rice, nice! I eagerly dig into my lunch thermos; I’m starved.
“Ugh, what is that brown mush?” my friend sitting next to me exclaims as she peers into my lunch thermos.
I feel my ears turn warm from embarrassment. “It’s Chinese food, and it tastes great,” I snap back rather defensively at her.
She cocks an eyebrow at me and shrugs, returning to her bagel sandwich and chocolate milk.
High School – Shanghai
It’s summer in high school, and I’m in China to visit my extended family. We’re at a big family dinner, with many family friends whom I’ve never met before. The uncles are joking and laughing and competing to see who can have the loudest conversation in the room.
Suddenly, a family friend I don’t recognize thrusts a pad of paper and a pen into my hand. “Write down the addresses of these restaurants this uncle is speaking about!” she exclaims to me in Chinese.
I dumbly hold the pen in my hand and stare at the blank page. “I don’t know how to write,” I confess lamely.
A look of confusion and then derision crosses her face in a matter of seconds. “Oh,” is all she says.
I hold the pen and paper out to her and she snatches it back and quickly walks away. I can see what she’s thinking on her face— “she doesn’t know how to write, how embarrassing! An illiterate!”
I want to shout after her, “I’m American! I read and write in English!”
College – Massachusetts
I’m a first year in college, and we are required to take two years of foreign language classes. I choose Chinese. They give us two placement tests – one written and one oral. I flunk the written test with flying colors; I can only write my own name at the top of the page – three characters, 哈美琳. I nervously step into the professor’s office for my oral exam.
“哈（Ha), is that really your surname? How unique!” the professor exclaims in Chinese as she glances at the top page of my written test.
“Yes,” I respond in Chinese, and launch into a speech about my parents and their journey to the U.S. The professor smiles as she listens to me speak, and doesn’t even bother looking at the rest of my written exam. They put me into the advanced beginners class, for heritage speakers.
There are 12 people in my class. They are all Chinese-American or Taiwanese-American, like me. Like me, they all speak some dialect of Chinese at home with their parents. Like me, they don’t know how to read or write.
My parents call me later that evening. “What improvement!” my mother exclaims over the phone in Chinese. “You could barely write your own name a few months ago, now you’ve written an essay! Your handwriting still needs some work though.”
I laugh at her last comment, but glow in her praise.
Graduate School, Washington D.C.
I’ve graduated from college, and I’ve surprised myself in completing a dual degree in Political Science and Chinese. I’ve taken eleven courses in Chinese language and culture in my four years at college. I can now read short stories, write complicated essays, and even read some classical Chinese. I’ve read the works of Confucius, Mencius, and Laozi. I’ve watched and studied Chinese films. I’ve learned about Chinese history and politics, past, present, and future.
I’m in graduate school now, at the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. “There’s a fellowship that will let me study intensive Mandarin for a year in China,” I explain to my parents over the phone. “I want to go to Beijing.”
They’re pleasantly surprised. “I think it will be good for you,” they tell me slowly.
I apply to the competitive National Security Education Program David L. Boren Fellowship, and to my shock, they grant me the fellowship for China; one year of intensive Mandarin and complete cultural immersion at a university and in a city of my choosing, fully funded.
I’ve traveled to China dozens of times in my youth with my parents, to visit family. This is my first solo trip to China for such an extended period, to a city I have not visited since I was a child. I’m nervous.
Present Day, Beijing
I sit at lunch with a group of Chinese students from Beijing Foreign Studies University, where I am spending my year studying. They chatter excitedly in Mandarin about school life, classes, dating, and boast about their hometowns in China. They ask me about what it is like, growing up in America.
Some questions are simple- what food do I eat? What is college like? When did I learn to drive? What are my friends like?
Some are more complicated- do I face prejudice? What is it like to be a minority? What is it like growing up Chinese-American?
I smile as I look at their expectant faces. They look like me; same hair color, same eye color, and the same shade of skin. We’re so different and yet the same. I sit at the same table, feeling like a bridge across two worlds separated by the vast Pacific Ocean, the beautiful mix of two cultures, two histories, two identities, and two languages.
So I tell them my story, my America, starting from that day in second grade when my dad dropped me off at school.