Spoke Wintersparv—probably a name as far from Chinese as anyone could imagine. But then, what is Chinese? What is it to be Chinese? Are you Chinese? Is Ai Weiwei Chinese? Am I? I very rarely present myself as one. In fact, the few times that I do, I am almost certainly cracking a questionable joke at my own expense. Now, analyze that (or actually, I would rather you did not)!
Chinese is just … too close to home, I guess. So—Asian? That is what I normally go with, partly to sort of distance myself from myself, partly because, well really, have you seen me lately (that is the past four decades)? It is not like I could get away with being anything BUT Asian. So, there. I am generically Asian. And genetically. Also, Chinese—but only if you threatened me to live the rest of my Szechuan ducking life without mooncakes. That was a joke, right? At my expense? Told you.
But jokes aside, how close to a Jackson Pollock painting is your identity if you were born in Vietnam, with Chinese parents from Vietnam and Cambodia, grew up in Sweden, and live in the U.S.? And that is not even counting how Pollocked you become when your parents have the exquisite taste to also be cousins. Pollocked indeed.
No really, jokes aside, this whole identity thing gets confusing. Swedes ask me where I am from. I get tired of saying that I am Chinese, born in Vietnam and raised in Sweden by cousins, and also, people never know what to make of that information. So, I say Sweden. Because it is simple. And, after all, I lived there between the ages of 2 and 18, and then between 20 and 39. Swedish is the language that I master to the fullest. The Swedish culture is the one that I know better than any other. Thus, “I am from Sweden” is an easy way out, and only half a convenient lie. At least, it is the easy way out until the next, inevitable, question is asked: “But where are you really from?” If I had a dime for every time I have been asked that question.
I am from Vietnam—really. Yet, I am not Vietnamese, but is somehow considered to be something that I only joke about (Chinese), and thus associated with a country (China) in which I have never set my foot. And in the country where I by far feel the most rooted (Sweden), people constantly ask me where I come from (Vietnam). You see how it gets confusing? And like that is not enough to make your head spin, I took everything to my name and moved to the U.S.—twice—where people gladly define me as Swedish.
So, is it really essential? Are we defined by where we were born? Does ethnicity have anything to do with where our thoughts and values were formed? Does our nationality equal our identity? I do not know. And I do not care. I think, being forced to answer these kinds of questions on a regular, sometimes even daily, basis for so many years, and having your answers repeatedly questioned, you are eventually worn down, and you give up. At least I did. But perhaps that was merely a way for me to escape a context in which I never really felt at home. Perhaps it was just a conveniency in my distancing myself from a culture that I never fully understood, and that never fully understood me.
Growing up, I always found it difficult to identify with the Asian culture—as I knew it. And I am not sure if I was ever a part of the Asian community before being forced out of it. When I see myself in pictures with friends or with my partner, I flinch, and for a split second, my brain wonders who the Asian guy is. And even after six years with our daughter, whenever I catch the reflection of the two of us in a mirror, I come to a stop, seeing what everyone else sees: some Asian dude holding my daughter, and I want to ask where he is REALLY from. No, it is not internalized Sinophobia rearing its ugly face. It is … reluctance.
Hi, my name is Spoke. I am reluctant. I am Asian. I am the reluctant Asian. And I would love to hear your thoughts on the subject. Do you feel at home in your Asianness? Do you feel like an alien at times, trying to find your voice? Are you sometimes struggling with that reluctance, wondering what to do with it? Share your #ReluctantAsian story on Twitter. I am @wintersparv. And reluctant.
Spoke Wintersparv likes words. Writing them, stretching them, translating them, lining them up to form tiny pieces of life. In song lyrics. In children’s books. A novel. An Arthur Miller play. Short stories. Published. Self-published. Unpublished. He is currently doing his PhD in Educational Research, exploring the ways teachers teach literature. And while work is in Sweden, home is in Oregon, where he lives with his husband and their daughter. He enjoys a good conversation about things that matter. Find him on Twitter (@wintersparv) and join the discussion!