Learning My ABCs: Fresh off the Boat

你好(Ní hǎo)! (That means “hello,” if you didn’t already know.) Welcome back to Learning My ABCs!


Okay, so I figured that if I am going to start a column discussing the glories and drawbacks of being Chinese American, I should probably establish some credibility first. In other words, this post is going to be ALL. ABOUT. ME. 


Let’s begin with the facts:
1.I was born in Shanghai, China in June 1999.
2.I lived there for the first three years of my life and even attended preschool there!
3. My mother, my grandparents and my uncle raised me in the early years of my life before I immigrated to America and met my dad for the very first time ever in my life.
4. We settled in a small apartment on the fifth floor of a tall building in downtown San Francisco.
5. Me and my mom wandered around, exploring the city everyday for about two years before my mom finally got a permanent job.

Preschool in Shanghai, China.
Preschool in Shanghai, China.
This is the day me and my mom left China. My grandparents and my uncle came with us to the airport to send us off.
This is the day me and my mom left China. My grandparents and my uncle came with us to the airport to send us off.
My mom and me in the airport (left); Just me in the airport (right).
My mom and me in the airport (left); Just me in the airport (right).
My mom and I in our apartment.
My mom and I in our apartment.
My mom and I spending the day in exploring Fisherman's Wharf.
My mom and I spending the day in exploring Fisherman’s Wharf.
Me in Fisherman's Wharf!
Me in Fisherman’s Wharf!

My experience:
My earliest memory was set while living in my grandparents’ home in Shanghai, China. It was Lunar New Year’s Eve and I was no more than two-years-old.

I can still remember the sky, the twinkling of the stars, the serenity of the moment—with the aroma of the breeze and freshness of the trees, and the ecstatic atmosphere that was bright, buoyant, and buzzing with laughter, hope and explosives. Literally. Yep, that’s right. My first memory is of fireworks: the colors, the patterns, and most distinctly, the gosh-awful gun-like noise that came as a price to such beautiful sparkles in the sky. BOOM!


Right then and there, at the ripe age of two, I learned something about myself: I HATE loud noises. And that, everybody, was my first memorable Lunar New Year experience in China, and apparently my last one too because soon after that day, I moved to America.

A three-year-old’s impression of America:
The apartment was too small. The streets were dirty. The weather was horribly gray and cold, and why is it so windy?!

Still, there was this fast, upbeat, urban spirit to San Francisco that made my new setting feel like home. Coming from one of the biggest cities in China to another large urban area, nothing really changed for me, other than the fact that I was now in a different country. To me, the only matter was to explore!

To my mom though, this was one of the hardest times of her life. Living in a new city, raising a stubborn little toddler (me), and trying to find a job, she was definitely struggling, but I was having the best time of my life!!! Everyday was like a new adventure! From riding the cable car everyday to Fisherman’s Wharf to trying In-N-Out for the first time (when burgers were only a dollar) to watching stuffed animals speak a foreign language on television—I was living the life!


Then preschool happened and I was no longer a toddler. I was a big girl now, and that was scary. My only companion, my only friend, my very own 母亲 (Mǔqīn mother), was leaving me to fend for myself in a foreign world where I couldn’t understand the words coming out of people’s mouths, let alone communicate! Needless to say, I had a hard time adjusting.

Preschool with friends
Preschool with friends

I remember this one time in preschool when I tried to speak in English to the kid sitting next to me. I couldn’t help but laugh at his confused expression as I flicked my tongue in my mouth and made random sounds at him.


Everyone stared at me, including the teachers who were trying to start the lesson. Thinking back now, it was probably really embarrassing. So embarrassing, in fact, that a teacher took pity on me and offered to teach me English privately. And so she did. Ever since then, I started to become more conscious of my behavior and my articulation. And let me tell you, life becomes hard when you care about fitting in!


Struggles of Being FOB (a Fresh off the Boat):
In preschool, a friend invited me to a birthday party in Daly City, but since my family didn’t have a car yet, or even a clue as to where Daly City was, I couldn’t attend my good friend’s birthday party. He probably still hates me because I missed it.

In first grade, I was just a submissive kid trying to trying to make friends and fit in. When everyone else continued to jump rope after the recess monitor had called freeze, I followed along with them, yet somehow, I was the only kid who got called out. The teacher then pulled me aside and bent over so that her face was at my level and she said (and this is something I distinctly remember), “Dooo youuu speeaak Ennglishh?”


And to that I say…


In second grade, I noticed that the food that I brought to school, which was my mom’s fried rice with sweet and sour pork chops and bok choy, was different from everyone else’s Lunchables, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and Fruit Roll-Ups.

Then suddenly in third grade, the way I looked suddenly mattered to me. My bright, flamboyant Skechers shoes were no longer cool, my backpack from China with a cute Chinese cartoon character was judged by my classmates, and the clothes I wore were scrutinized. All I wanted was to dress like everyone else, so I told my mom that I wanted to pick out my own clothes from now on.

In fourth grade, the internet started to pick up and YouTube, Myspace, Skype, and internet games became popular. I remember sitting in front of my family’s old desktop one day after school and furiously replaying the song “Take a Bow” by Rihanna on YouTube so that I could learn the words and be able to sing along with my friends the next day. “You look so dumb right now!”

In fifth grade, after years of being deprived of the joy of Halloween by my parents because they didn’t understand the holiday, I went trick-or-treating for the first time ever with my friend.

In sixth grade, I gave up my old basketball sneakers to join the Vans hype and I started to wear jeans instead of my signature flashy floral leggings and basketball shorts.

In seventh grade, I joined the Converse hype like everyone else.

In eighth grade, I got TOMS like everyone else.

Then high school came and I was exposed to an entirely new environment. Since all of my friends were separated into different schools or different classes, I had to learn to function as an independent person capable of making my own decisions. Transitioning from a middle school where popularity, friends, and conformity mattered most, to a high school where its students are stereotypically smart and studious, I became a whole new person. New school, new me, I guess. Or maybe I just grew up and learned that caring about what other people thought of me was not worth the additional stress. Or maybe my direction of conformity changed from wanting to be popular and cool (which was all that mattered to me in middle school) to wanting to be high-achieving and talented like everyone else in my high school. Regardless, my outlook on life and my goals changed and I found that I had little to no time to care about how I looked or dressed or how many likes I got on Instagram.

From visiting friends’ houses to do numerous school projects to meeting new people—people like me—in my new classes and clubs, I realized that my experience as an ABC is actually quite common. There are plenty of kids just like me who grew up culturally deprived, struggling to catch up to the social expectations of a new place, and hiding their ethnic identity amongst their peers in school. I was not alone.

So now, I’m here on the internet, no longer afraid of sharing my identity and proudly claiming that I am an “American Born Chinese,” hoping that there will be people like me reading this who will be able to relate to my struggles and realize that being different, being Chinese or Vietnamese or Burmese or whatever you are, is nothing to be ashamed about. Being different is cool.