Embracing A Culture I Once Pushed Away: Raising Sons As A Chinese-American

Jenny Wu, fashion lawyer and creator of the popular fashion, beauty and style blog Good, Bad and Fab, shares her struggles growing up as a Chinese-American and how she’s embracing her native culture while raising two half-Chinese sons.


I was born in Shanghai and moved to California with my parents at the age of seven. Back then, the polarity between China and the U.S. was striking and palpable. China was just coming out of Maoist-era Communist ideologies and entering the infancy stage of capitalism, while the U.S. was already in the tail-end of Reaganomics.


Shedding my past, my roots, my language


When I got here, I couldn’t wait to shed my past and fit into this new world. I was placed in an ESL (English as a Second Language) class and hated every minute of it. Being in ESL felt like a glaring admission that I was somehow different from and inferior to the other kids. So I learned English at a voracious speed. I picked up the language in a few months so I could get out of ESL, all the while discarding my Chinese roots piece by piece.<


Closing the door on my heritage


In those first few years, I routinely ignored or evaded questions from friends about life in China. In school, I would cringe when opening my lunchbox, self-consciously dreading that the distinct aroma of Mom’s sausage fried rice wouldn’t blend in with my friends’ PB&Js. I avoided inviting my friends over, afraid my parents would speak to me in Mandarin, forcing another glaring reminder that I was indeed very different from them. I adamantly fought with my parents about attending Chinese school on the weekends and instead relished learning pop culture from MTV and the blonde, blue-eyed twins from Sweet Valley High, my favorite book series. 


My evolving identity as a Chinese-American


I fought against my birthright so hard that eventually my Chinese past faded into a soft murmur. But here’s the thing: Even though my Chinese identity was disappearing, I was never seen as fully American. One of the most common compliments I received was, “Wow, your English is so good. I can barely detect an accent.” The “Where are you from?” question came up all the time, even though I could recite every line from Clueless and lived in my Chuck Taylors. Even though I was rejecting my Eastern roots, my new home still saw me as a foreigner.

I struggled with embracing and understanding this vacillating duality for a long time. It wasn’t until I was in college, a place that fully celebrated diversity and originality, that I finally came to embrace my identity as a Chinese-American. I now cherish my cultural background and ethnic roots, as they are a deep part of who I am, who I was, and who I will be. And I can’t wait to pass it on to my two half-Chinese sons.


Teaching my sons to speak Mandarin


One of the best things to come out of the lockdown is the time we got to spend together as a family. Because we were stuck at home with each other for more than a year, our Chinese nanny almost haphazardly and rather inevitably taught both boys how to speak Mandarin. They absorbed the language quite organically and can now converse with each other and myself exclusively in Mandarin. Language is such a defining element and direct path to understanding and connecting to one’s culture. I hope to continue to foster my sons’ bilingualism by speaking in Mandarin to them whenever I can. 


Embracing culture through food and stories


I’m very close to my parents and they were a part of our quarantine pod, so we got to see them at least once a week. Both of them are avid storytellers. I’ve been encouraging them to share their personal stories with my boys so they can discover, on a very personal level, what it means to be Chinese. It’s through these stories that the layers and nuances of our cultural identity emerge, traits that can’t be taught in textbooks or combed through on Wikipedia.

Food is another way we incorporate not just my culture, but every culture, into our home life. Both my husband and I are avid foodies and enjoy trying new cuisines as much as we can. We’ve passed along our multicultural palate to our boys, as they eat and enjoy everything from enchiladas to sushi. In fact, my older son Desmond always refers to himself as “Chinese, Mexican and Japanese.” When we ask him where the Japanese comes from, he replies, “Because sushi is my favorite food!” I can’t think of a more organic and fun way to spark conversations about culture and diversity than through food. 


Traveling back to China


We took Desmond to Shanghai when he was about two years old. He got to meet my extended family and most importantly my 95-year-old grandparents who were so happy to meet their first-ever great-grandchild. My husband and I plan on taking the boys to China frequently, so they can grow up with a consistent exposure to it. We fully intend to travel the world with them. Meeting new people, seeing new places, and experiencing life from the perspective of others are great ways to cultivate a sense of acceptance and to celebrate diversity and identify similarities. 

Even though our world is getting smaller and more blended, the divisive politics and racial intolerance that exist can’t be ignored. I’m sure some day my boys will have to face hard choices and go through challenging experiences regarding racial identity. I want to make sure I’m building a strong foundation for them so that when that day comes, they will want to be a part of a conversation that can be conducted with confidence and pride in their multicultural heritage.


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