The Survivor

AUGUST 13, 2013


Photo: Diana Urquhart


Growing up, my father always said with pride, “You’re an ABC baby.” American born Chinese.

To him, me being American meant I would have opportunities that he never did; the world would be my oyster. I would never know what it’s like to walk to school barefoot in the snow (at least unwillingly), and I would not live in fear.

My father had a comfortable childhood. My grandmother came from an affluent background and sent her four children to a private Christian school in Hong Kong. Then the government took away everything, and that’s where my knowledge of my father’s life story becomes spotted. I don’t know what happened between then and his immigration to America, or much about his youth once he set foot on American soil. I do know that my father stayed with his second eldest brother until he could get his bearings, and then went to Chico State for college.

He worked two jobs to put himself through school, busing tables and squeezing in mischief between cleaning silverware and studying accounting. He met my mother through a mutual friend, and they fell in love. Whenever my father recounts the experience of the three-hour drive to see my mother on the weekends after he graduated, he wears a boyish grin. “The drive there was always so exciting and so miserable going back.”

My father is a survivor. As is my mother, who lived alone in Shanghai a few years unsure of her future after a modest childhood of dirt roads, conformity, and a love of running.

My grandmother had immigrated to San Francisco and worked in a Chinatown sweatshop until she saved enough money to send for my grandfather and uncle. My mother, being the eldest at 17, stayed behind. Her only options were to pass an academic test to matriculate into University or become a farmer. There was no in-between. I can’t even imagine my possibilities being limited to options A or B, determined by a standardized test that would reduce my life to one of manual labor if it deemed me unfit for academia. She passed. My mother matriculated into Shanghai University and then transferred to Chico State, where she met my father and fell in love.

I’m a survivor too, but in my own right.

I struggle with my culture because I don’t know how to fully define that part of myself. The Oxford English Dictionary defines culture as “the ideas, customs, and social behaviors of a particular people or society.” I’m an ABC baby. American, born and raised in San Francisco with the ideologies of speaking my mind, seizing opportunities, and boldly making things happen for myself. I’m a self-made woman. I can’t say that I identify as being Chinese. To be honest, I don’t even really know what that means. Yet, people ask me, “Where are you from?” San Francisco. “No, what are you?” American. “No, where are you from? What are you? Chinese, Korean, Thai?” Oh, I’m Chinese. But am I? Yes and no. It’s a word in my mouth. I say it nonchalantly, but often find that it leaves a guilty aftertaste. Shouldn’t I identify? This is a personal struggle that I’ve been often contemplating lately. My parents are Chinese. I’m American born Chinese. I’m American. There’s a disconnect.

I’m not ready to navigate the disconnect between my parents’ world and mine so I’m steering clear as captain of my own ship. However, sometimes I catch myself looking over my shoulder at the uncharted territory of my heritage and a sadness wells up. Because there’s a responsibility I feel as my parents’ daughter to know and understand their roots, my roots. But right now, I close my eyes to the issue and journey on.

I define a survivor as many things. For myself, it’s the freedom to forge my own path and create my own person. It’s the clarity to recognize the confusion and unease of identity, but also the beauty and unrestricted possibilities in its fluidity. There’s comfort in knowing that I can explore my parents’ world whenever I’m ready. There’s no rush. It’s not going anywhere. There’s also comfort in knowing that I thoroughly embrace what my father essentially wanted for me. I have opportunities he will never have; the world is my oyster, and I’m a survivor.




  • Charissa 4 years ago

    I really appreciated the authenticity of your post. Your family’s past seems to be full of many hidden survivors. I hope one day you do explore your family’s history more.
    I find that many people have a disconnect with the culture of their heritage and the culture they currently dwell. Thanks for letting others know they are not alone in the search for themselves and how to proceed without completely neglecting their past.
    Charissa Kellond

    • Michelle 4 years ago

      Charissa, thank you for such a sweet response! I know a day will come when I am ready to ask questions, uncover stories, and explore. It’s not today, but one day. Thank you for sharing your thoughts with me. It genuinely warms my heart!