ByAlex Gao

May 31, 2021

Part 1: The Bridge

My mother grew up in a city split by water. Built on the banks of the Yellow River, Lanzhou, her hometown, is divided in two by churning sediment and rushing currents winding through the horizon as far as the eye can see. As one might expect from a locale with this kind of geography, there’s a lot of bridges there. They’re placed every few blocks, trusses of steel and cement spanning across the river. Hundreds of residents cross these bridges every day, cars and buses and foot paths taking them from one bank of the city to another.

However, a mere century, the landscape of Lanzhou looked very different.

Back then, there weren’t any bridges, at least, not permanent ones. For centuries, if people wanted to cross the river, they’d have to do so on pontoon bridges. Built using shallow boats and wooden planks suspended on floatation devices, they weren’t exactly the most sturdy of structures. Flooding and ice would damage these bridges and leave them impassable to pedestrians; come wintertime, they would get destroyed. In spite of all this though, these bridges were still needed. They were a way of joining together two sides when nothing else was able to do so. And so, every spring, the city’s residents would come together and rebuild once more.

Part 2: The River

In many ways, my identity as a Chinese-American felt like one of these pontoon bridges: a narrow line of connection straddling two shores without ever truly finding ground on either side.

On one hand, you had my American upbringing. I’ve lived my whole life in the United States, where ideals of equality and acceptance are preached by teachers and injected into our minds from as early of an age as kindergarten. We were taught in school to treat one another with kindness, to appreciate diversity, to be proud of America’s “mixing-pot” environment. Yet neither that, nor the fact of being in a town where there was a fairly large population of Asian-Americans really stopped my classmates from making me the target of jokes and harassment. It didn’t matter that I was in a place where being Asian wasn’t really that rare of an occurrence. I was still laughed at, still microaggressed, still excluded from others on the basis of nothing except the fact that I was different. Most of the direct insults came when I was in elementary school; they were fairly easy to ignore once I realized the people that were saying these things didn’t really know any better. I figured as we matured and grew up, this behavior would go away.

Except, it never actually disappeared. It just… changed.

Nobody called me “pencil eyes” or “dog eater” anymore, but they didn’t need to. Actions always spoke louder than words, and the kinds of things my peers did could fill a whole arena with sound. One instance that I remember particularly well happened this March. Following the rise of the #StopAsianHate movement, a lot of my classmates took to social media, sharing to Instagram cute little “activism” posts that expressed condolences to the Asian community and called for an end to discrimination. The same girls that refused to sit next to me in class last year because they thought I had “China virus” suddenly seemed like the number one supporter of Asian-American rights. It felt weird, seeing this immediate turnaround and knowing that it was only because the subject at hand was a “trendy” topic at that time. I knew that the second this stopped being front-page news material, my peers would go back to behaving the way they used to.

And then, on the other side of all this, you had my Chinese heritage.

Despite living in the United States, my parents did all they could do to ensure I was as connected to my culture as possible. We spoke Mandarin at home, enrolled in Chinese school, called our relatives on the weekends. All these things in theory could make me more connected with my roots, but in actuality, few ever did effectively. Sure, I could speak Mandarin, but my sentences were littered with stilted grammar and English replacements for Chinese words that I didn’t know. Whenever we visited my grandparents, they’d have to tell me what was on shop signs and restaurant menus because they knew I couldn’t read it. And my understanding of Chinese history was limited to dinnertime stories and whatever I could glean from my AP World textbook.

Part 3: The Shore

Even so, when I’m asked about my experiences as an Asian-American, neither of these instances are at the forefront of my thoughts. That’s not to say that these occurrences aren’t a part of who I am: they’re just not a part that I choose to focus on. When I think about life as an AAPI, my mind doesn’t turn towards the taunts of my classmates or my struggles to understand Chinese. I think about summers spent at my cousin’s house, where my aunt would teach us how to make mooncakes for the Mid-autumn holiday. I think about connecting with other Asian-American students and creating a space where we could speak up about issues facing us and making change in our community. I think about wanting to learn more about who I am.

I think about these moments and the other ones that made me feel like I was a part of something bigger than just one identity.

At the end of the day, I’m not Asian-American because I was bullied or alienated. I’m Asian-American because I’m a part of two communities, two cultures, a bridge crossing one shore to another. Right now, this bridge may be a bit flimsy. It may come undone or weaken under external pressure. Even so, I want to continue working on it. I want to keep rebuilding, to keep expanding, to keep learning and growing so that, one day, this bridge of mine will be strong enough to withstand any storm.

4 thoughts on “Bridges”
  1. The issue of “identity” is not just an individual problem that bothers the author of this article. In the United States, it is actually a general social problem that plagues many immigrants and their descendants. As the author said, she often felt like a floating bridge, unable to find her own place. At the same time, she didn’t know how to deal with the “hostile treatment” from others and felt isolated from this. If the kinds of negative experiences reflected in the writing aren’t solved, it will cause a series of social problems and fierce social contradictions. Even so, the author gives positive thinking about this problem in the article. She makes a strong assertion: choose not to indulge in the negative pessimism brought about by the “identity” problem, but instead to discover the cultural diversity and richness that “identity” brings to oneself. Continue to learn and grow, to change the status quo and solve problems through my own efforts. This is a very remarkable attitude! This article also encourages everyone to reflect on problems with diversity in school and elsewhere, and to reflect on these issues. After allI, why does this happen? Everyone lives under the same sky, has the same education, speaks the same language. Why should somebe treated unfairly just because of the difference in appearance or skin color? If the whole of society starts to think and reflect on this, then we can solve this problem. This article is worth recommending, everyone should read!

  2. Wow, what a powerful and touching article! This was very well written, and I’m sure with your persistence and hardworking that bridge will become strong enough to withstand any pressure.

  3. the essay is carefully crafted, with a relatable sense of reflection. The feelings are there and the message is evident. Beautiful!

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