By Yanshu Li
Claire Chan was telling a story in her living room. It was pleasant, in the warm light of early sunset. She was sitting on a sofa near the window. Behind the trendy black-frame glasses, her eyes sparkled. “Which color of stripe was on the bottom of the national flag of America?” Chan said, reciting one question from the naturalization exam her parents once took. “I remember when they were studying for. It was really funny,” She said. “Because kids would totally know, they grow up saying that.”
Now 22, Claire Chan was born in America. Her parents were married in Taiwan during 1980s. They came to the U.S. for better career opportunities. Her father applied for a P.H.D in the field of lasers. Her mother applied for a master degree in music education focusing on voice. “I think that it was probably not terribly difficult,” Chan said about whether it was hard for her parents to come to U.S. “Because both of them – or at least my dad – was pretty fluent in English, and so, since they were both coming for graduate school, there was a stated purpose for their reason staying in here.”
Chan spoke Mandarin for the first five years of her life. Her parents valued their culture, so they set up a rule. “You can’t speak English at home unless the next day was a school day,” Chan said. So, Sunday through Thursday, she spoke English at home, but Friday and Saturday were mandarin days. The way her parents tried to maintain her Mandarin was “pretty annoying” for her as a child. But now she reflects, “I very much appreciate that my parents wanted us to try to preserve our heritage,” she said. “It definitely gave me a very good foundation to build on later when I took Chinese classes in college.”
Although, this rule didn’t last long, her family moved to Taiwan in 1999 when she was a second grader. During this period, they visited America often as well, because Chan’s parents had to establish some kind of residence or work, in order to be candidates for the U.S. naturalization exam.
After primary school, Chan settled with her mother in South Carolina, which was homogenously populated. “There were not many Asian at all at my school,” Chan recalled. She remembered in middle school, someone sat in the back of school bus mocked: “Oh, you can sit next to the Chinese girl.” Her friend, a white American, stuck up for her: “No, she’s from Taiwan.” “I don’t know that helps,” Chan said, laughing, “It was sweet of her kind of help me out. Yeah! Get it right!”
Chan’s mother was insecure about her own English in the early years, so she had Chan call banks, ask for fixing up the house or send emails. “I think it’s pretty classic story for a lot second generation for Asian-American immigrants,” Chan said. “It was very frustrating for me because I always felt like I didn’t get that childhood that other children got, since their parents did all those things for them.”
But for Chan, her life path had already started to change. Years of American school life made English Chan’s main language. Awkwardness in a non-Asian situation disappeared. She became American. As Chan said, she’s culturally Asian but also very much American.
Growing up in South Carolina, Chan calls herself “a southerner.” In her eyes, people in South Carolina are nicer and more relaxed compared to diverse Bostonians. She finished her college studying Chinese. During last spring break, Chan took a sojourn in Taiwan, where she visited her grandparents. “I was really nervous because I was afraid there was the cultural communication barrier,” Chan said. “But it was really good. We ended up talking about politics, talking about just how life was going, and it was really good.” The culture that her mother persisted, started to show magic. It gave Chan a sense of belonging.
After 14 years of holding green cards, Chan’s parents joined the tide of naturalized citizens during the 2000s, which numbered 682,000 according to United States Department of Homeland Security. In her eyes, the naturalization exam was a fun thing. But immigration policy is like another world for her. She said, “It’s like someone I knew was undocumented, or writing an article about someone being documented, that’s the only time I come to know. I have no idea.”
For the last four years, she has not needed to handle things for her mother, since her mother is now comfortable functioning in English. When she looks back, she’s glad to have served her mother in that way, “since she works so hard to serve us!”
She talked about seeing herself as an American or a Taiwanese. “That’s really confusion,” She observed. Wearing a navy-blue shirt and black Levi jeans, with black hair over shoulders, Chan looks modern. Holding a mug she said, “Oh, I like eating rice!”