Finding yourself

Being Chinese in America

Do you ever look at some people with envy, and wonder why they seem to have all the luck? And curse your own fate? I did, growing up, every day.

You see, growing up, I wished I was white.

I grew up in the United States in the 1970s. My parents didn’t make too much money, but like many Chinese parents, they sacrificed much for their children. They spent nothing on themselves in order to save up for a house in a good school district for my brother and me.

That meant that we were the poor kids at a school which was nearly all-white.

My English was horrible, so I rarely opened my mouth. All my teachers were white, and none spoke Chinese, so although I spoke Chinese perfectly, they didn’t know it. All they saw was a kid who could not speak English, which to them meant a kid who could not speak, period. And so I was shunted off to the “special needs” classes with the Down Syndrome kids.

At the time, the world saw China as monolithic, poor and backward. This image refracted onto me as well. I was the strange, silent Chinese girl with the cheap clothes and Coke-bottle glasses. The racist epithets shouted by the other kids still ring in my ears. “Chink, go home to China!” and “Hey slant-eyes! Ching ching ling ling!”

Later as my English improved, I was sent back to the mainstream classes. But the social part of life remained excruciating. My parents, worried about polluting us with immoral American culture, didn’t allow TV in the house. So even after I could comprehend English as it was spoken, I still never understood what the other kids were talking about. Hardest was when the other kids were joking around. I could never keep up. On the rare occasions that I came up with the right thing to say, it was always 60 seconds too late.

All those years, more than anything, I ached to be white. It wasn’t about the skin color, of course. It was about what being white signified to me. I thought that, if only I were white, I could be pretty, and rich, or at least normal, and then maybe the other kids would like me.

If there was Weibo then, I would have written羡慕嫉妒恨every single day on the Weibo of everyone in my entire school (English note: “envy jealousy hate” is a trendy half –joking comment made on friends’ good-news tweets on the Chinese social-networking site SINA Weibo).

I thought about all this as I read this week’s Harvard Business Review blog post by Chinese-American venture capitalist Tony Tjan on the subject of luck. Tony interviews hundreds of successful entrepreneurs and concludes that lucky people are luckier because they have the right “lucky attitude.”

This lucky attitude has three traits:

1. Humility. Arrogance is the downfall of luck. You need enough self-confidence to command the respect of others, but that must be balanced by the knowledge that there is much you simply don’t know. Humility gives people the capacity for the next lucky trait.

2. Intellectual curiosity. Curious people devour reading, listen to suggestions, and explore new ideas at a much higher rate than others. Ultimately they become luckier because they’re more willing to meet new people, ask new questions, and go to new places. I’ve called this trait T-Shape Thinking and blogged about it here.

3. Optimism. Optimism is the energy source for positive change. Optimistic people have more seemingly  “surprise” encounters with good fortune. They’re also more likely to act on what they find through their intellectually curious pursuits because they always believe in the potential for better. Thus optimism becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy for good things to come.

In retrospect, I see that that growing up an outsider conferred upon me some unique advantages. Feeling stupid, poor, and ugly didn’t leave me much room to be arrogant. Feeling lonely, I read everything, learning voraciously about worlds far beyond my own. Feeling powerless, it seemed that there was nowhere to go up, and perhaps tomorrow would be better.

As an outsider, I also was in a unique position to observe how people relate to one another, and how society really ticks.

In high school, my father helped me take up black-and-white photography. He gave me a used Canon A-1, and encouraged me as I documented the interactions of the people around me, and then went to my school darkroom to develop my negatives and print up my photos by hand. Back then, everything about my hobby was expensive – the film, the paper, the pungent chemicals I used in the darkroom – so I took on an after-school job as a shopgirl to cover the cost of my supplies. Before the advent of digital photography, each click of the shutter cost money, so I deliberately considered all aspects of each image before I snapped it.

Photography gave me a wonderful creative outlet, and a boost to my self-confidence as my photos began to win local and national competitions.

It’s been many years since I started college and put aside that beloved A-1. I now use the mom-friendly pocket-sized aim-and-shoot cameras that everyone has. But the remnants of my photography experience still reside inside of me, since it was as an artist that I first discovered that I could be somebody, somebody the world would take seriously.

America can be unkind to outsiders, but the fact is that if I’d struggled less, I wouldn’t have had the formative experiences that led me later to a soaring career, and love, and a family of my own.

Growing up, I experienced Chineseness mostly as an absence of whiteness and the easy life that I thought that entailed. Since then, I’ve come to revel in Chinese language and culture, and I feel a warm and wonderful connection to Chinese people worldwide. Nothing now gives me greater joy than seeing my 2 ½ year old daughter starting to form perfect sentences in Chinese.

Looking back, I guess you could say that growing up different and Chinese was the luckiest thing that ever could have happened to me.

We can’t choose the circumstances into which we were born, but I suspect that we each have more power over our lives than we imagine. The people who know this best are those who seem to have all the luck in the world.

So, the next time you look at the rich kids and wish you had their lives, think again. It may just be that you were born into precisely the right time, place, and circumstances that you needed in order to set yourself up with the lucky attitude to establish yourself as a contender.

I welcome your comments, in Chinese or English, on the Chinese version of this blog post, which is here.