I was already eight, but I still had no words. One winter in second grade, nai nai and gong gong visited us. As they stepped through the door to leave, my father gave me a quick glance, raising his eyebrows and nudging his head toward my Chinese grandparents. But there was nothing for me to do; I had no words for goodbye. I edged forward to hug them, trying to overcome the thick, muggy awkwardness hanging in the air. As my arms went around nai nai’s fuzzy, wool sweater, she looked down and said, in broken English, “Marco, why don’t you speak Chinese?” We took turns shaking our heads. My short brown hair made slow, long waves of denial, as my eyes drooped to the floor; her dyed, black hair shook in small, rigid motions as her eyebrows arched together. She turned to my father and rattled off a series of comments in rapid Chinese, like a woodpecker drilling into a tree. Though the words meant nothing, the tone was clear: “Why doesn’t your son speak Chinese? Make him!” I could only run to my room and shut out the tears. Through the darkness, I could hear nai nai sighing, “Aiya,” and I felt the shame set into my stomach; I had no words to say sorry. When I was six years old, I was an Italian boy. For the first five years of my life, every word I spoke with my mother was in Italian. She would rock me to sleep with Italian nursery rhymes and feed me pasta, polenta, and prosciutto. I spent every Saturday afternoon inside a big, white room with a red couch and soft, fluffy pillows. There my Italian teacher would imprint my brain with verb conjugations and let me snack on rich, chocolate-y Italian biscuits. We flew to Italy to see nonna and nonno every summer, and I loved visiting them near the bright blue of the Mediterranean. We would walk around the yellow stucco houses in the cool mornings, dive into the refreshing, salty sea in the afternoon, and lick sweet, creamy gelato from the local ice cream shop at night. For two weeks a year, I had the words to speak with my grandparents; I could greet them, thank them, apologize, and at the end of it all, say goodbye. But I was not simply an Italian boy. I would look at my Italian friends, Tabo and Antonio, and see mops of light brown hair curling above their wide, hazel eyes on tanned, olive-skinned faces; I would look in the mirror and see my own dark, straight hair hanging over elongated eyes and much paler skin. And they noticed the difference, too; I remember riding in the car with Tabo, and him telling me, “Your eyes are so much smaller than mine.”
Only years later would I understand why his mother scolded him for that comment. My first memory of interacting with Chinese culture, however, does not include my grandparents. Over the summer before kindergarten, I was sitting on my parents’ bed and my father was reading to me from a book of Chinese mythology. The first line described the Earth as “a round egg,” which made me burst out with laughter. To my young mind, imagining a flattened egg hurtling through space was absolutely hilarious. I rolled through my parents’ covers, tangled them into a mess, and smacked into the wooden floor, laughing all the while. Once I had recovered, I climbed back up and my father began from the beginning; once again, the absurdity sent me to the floor.
That’s all China was to me: a round egg. After nai nai and gong gong had left, I asked my father why he never taught me Chinese; I’ve asked repeatedly throughout the years, wondering why my father never stressed the importance of Chinese culture, while my mother thought it was essential I be raised Italian. The answer, at first, was simple: he hated Chinese lessons, and didn’t want me to suffer the long, gruelling hours of study. But there is more: As an immigrant, his views of “Chinese” culture are mixed; my father doesn’t believe there is any “unified” China, because of centuries of internal conflict. He believes Chinese culture is not superior or special, and is overly glorified in the west. And perhaps he is rebelling against my grandparents’ wishes. No matter his motivations, I ended up as the product of mixed messages: nai nai, telling me it was essential I learn Chinese, my father, telling me it didn’t matter, and my mother, telling me I was Italian.
Throughout elementary school, the absurdity of China, the round egg, stuck with me. I continued to listen to my mother, acting like the Italian son she wanted. Every year, our teachers would ask us to share a little about ourselves, and I would always be proud to say, “I’m Italian.” How, though, could I call myself Italian, when I was forced to see my dark hair and small eyes each morning as I brushed my teeth? Of course, I wasn’t Chinese, either, and I didn’t know what it meant to be “Chinese” other than an ancient myth about round eggs. What could I call myself? I had no words. Even today, I have no words. I have no words for my skin, which has been called yellow, white, and orange. I have no words for my “halfie” eyes, which are slanted a little less than a Chinese person’s and a little more than a white person’s. I have no succinct phrase for my identity: “a second-generation ChineseItalian born in America, who is ashamed of not speaking Chinese but does speak fluent Italian, who goes to a school surrounded by Chinese people who think he’s white, but has spent his whole life being called Chinese by white people.” I have no words for this story, even though I’ve told it before; is there any language I can use to convey my confusion about being Italian, or the pain I feel around my Chinese grandparents? I’m telling this story again, in search of the words. You will not understand me, but I will try. * * * “Your eyes are so small.”
In middle school, I could no longer pretend to be Italian. Behind each step into the building’s freshly painted hallways, there seemed to be a trickle of racism. Not every day, and not shouted to my face; but with certainty, and subtlety, they would come. Beneath someone’s breath, or behind my back: “Go read your math textbook.” Every word was like a pebble, and eventually I felt a mountain weighing down on my shoulders; I was Chinese, or so my racist classmates believed, and an outcast. When I turned fourteen, I was accepted into Stuyvesant, a high school composed mostly of East-Asian students. I looked around the bustling hallways and up the broken escalators, and saw hundreds of Chinese students. Suddenly, the small eyes looking back at me from the mirror weren’t a sign of difference, but the norm. All around me were students with dark hair and small eyes, and I hoped among them I would find my place. On a warm, fall day during my freshman year, I was eating lunch with a group of Chinese and Koreans beneath the autumn foliage. Between a mouth of pastrami and a muffled laugh, one of them asked me, “Are you a halfie?” I nodded, surprised such a term existed — “halfie,” a word explicitly referring to being half-Asian, and half-white. “We could tell by your eyes, they’re not slanted enough to be Chinese. Do you speak mandarin?” And after I shook my head, “Oh, so you’re basically white.” Then they turned their backs on me and focused on more pressing matters: their sandwiches. My identity was turned on its head. Three years of microaggressions, and a lifetime of looking in the mirror, confirmed that I was not basically white. Yet my classmates clearly did not consider me to be Chinese; if they were Chinese, I was closer to Chinatown. If Stuyvesant was supposed to be my home, it felt like the lock had been permanently changed, except I wasn’t searching for acceptance, not a home. Maybe I was a soldier returning from war only to find that I could never settle, and that the war lived on in every corner — but I had not been traumatized. More accurately, perhaps I was standing behind a glass wall, always listening but never speaking. Except I had a voice, just not the words. In order to find the right ones, I told my Chinese peers about my middle school experience. I told them about the subtle jokes and stereotypes; I told them about the eighth grader who had called me a “little yellow freak” and sent my heart beating like a gazelle, three words that continue to haunt me. And the Chinese kids understood. Their eyebrows knit together furiously, and I could almost see them shaking with anger. They lay their sandwiches aside, looked into my halfie eyes, and said, “Wow, I know exactly how you felt.” At the same time, something else bubbled inside of me: guilt. I succeeded in communicating my raw emotion, but I hadn’t communicated all my emotions. I had put on a Chinese facade, and ignored that I was half-Italian.
No, my peers did not perceive me as Italian. But I was raised as an Italian, and my Italian heritage is a fundamental part of who I am, down to my name. I couldn’t forget that, but if I tried to explain, these Chinese students would laugh. There was no answer: I could tell my story as it was, and be ignored, or I could tell my story as it felt, and be an imposter. One story for my mother, another for my father, and another for my Chinese friends. Still, the stories I tell are not the right words; stories of racism leave out my happy, Italian childhood, while stories about Italy leave out the painful goodbyes to nai nai. And when I put them together, nobody understands; there is no language for my confusion, and my message is lost in translation. * * * On Thanksgiving day of my junior year, my family was gathered around a long table. We had just finished saying grace. As we were serving ourselves, nai nai stood up, her eyes red and puffy, and began pointing around the table with sharp, angry motions, her hands flying like shards of glass. My father picked up his knife, banging his fist against the wooden table and gesturing furiously toward nai nai, knife still in hand and his own face beginning to flush. Angry Chinese words followed, exploding like deadly projectiles. My Chinese grandparents left soon after, barely having touched their food. Later that night, I overheard my parents talking, and my father was explaining what had gotten him so worked up on a holiday dedicated to thankfulness. Nai nai had been angry for many reasons, but one had to do with my me and my sister: Why, nai nai had asked, are these two children, whom I love so much, unable to talk to me? My father had, and continued, to defend us with ferocity. My mother sat in silence. I had no words, and no reaction. My father, who had been immersed in Chinese culture, could tell me it wasn’t important to learn the language. But he spoke Chinese, while I had never even tried, and I felt uncomfortable taking his word for it; I was ashamed of myself. Of course, I wasn’t just a Chinese boy, and for the longest time had been an Italian one; even if I learned Chinese, I would rarely use it, making it difficult for me to comply with nai nai’s wishes. I certainly was not a “halfie” — those six letters degraded my heritage to a piece of slang. And I couldn’t stand passively by, like my mother; though we were both Italian, she was not invested in the situation, while I was very much involved. There was no example to follow, and no response I could find.
My name, Marco Wong, is itself almost an oxymoron: the most Italian and Chinese names possible, wedged together into one. I am not Chinese, like my father or my Stuyvesant classmates; nor am I Italian, like my mother and my friend Tabo; my identity is a long, winding sentence. I am a round egg, and I have too many words.
“My personal essay is about how I am half-Chinese and half-Italian, which makes me different both around East-Asian and white friends. It is a difficult position to be in at times, and makes me wonder who I should identify with. It also makes me realize that I am unique. I am the only Matteo Wong, and I don’t need to identify as strictly Chinese, Italian, or as a “halfie.” I can be white to my Chinese friends and Chinese to my white friends, but what should really matter is what my identity means for me.” –Matteo Wong, RBC Flaunt It Award finalist.