An immigrant's journey makes this writer a Chicagoan

Sometimes the journey from immigrant to American is a long one, with misunderstandings along the way. One Chicago writer says the journey can also include the kindness of strangers.

August 3, 2012

By Wen Huang

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(Photo provided by Wen Huang)
On the day he became a U.S. citizen, Wen's coworkers decorated his office and gave him apple pie and a bottle of coke.

 

I went through security at O’Hare International Airport not long ago, and I made the mistake of stuffing my laptop and my shoes into one bin. A TSA agent patiently explained the rules about separating items into individual bins.

I apologized profusely. All was fine. Then, one of her colleague who was  standing nearly felt obligated to add his two cents. “You know, in America, we don’t pile up things like that.”Knowing that arguing with a TSA agent could get me detained, I refrained, but couldn’t help telling him, “I’m an American too.” 

As a naturalized citizen who has lived in the US for more than twenty years, I feel hurt when people see me as a foreigner.

All summer, WBEZ and vocalo will be talking about race—out loud, and on the air, in frank conversations and stories, and in lively public events. We’re asking what it would sound like if people said what they really think and feel about race and ethnicity. What if they really talked about how it shapes them, their lives, and attitudes?  What would we hear?

I grew up in China and came to the United States with hope and anticipation in 1990—after the Chinese government’s brutal crackdown on the student movement in Beijing. 

My initial intent was to get a Master’s degree and return home.

But I found a job in Chicago in 1992 and decided to stay. I was excited to start a new life and a new identify in this free democratic country.

At the beginning, I yearned to be accepted like what I considered then to be an “authentic” American.

In my quest to be accepted, I trimmed my contact with family and friends in China and avoided  the company of other new Chinese immigrants. 

I shunned my favorite tofu and noodles and learned to like steaks and spaghetti.  To get myself into a real American holiday spirit, I attended midnight services at the Holy Name Cathedral for years, even though I’m not a Christian. 

Even so, some still treat me like a foreigner, looking skeptical when I say I write in English. 

Initially, I thought it was my accent.  So, I began listening to the radio obsessively, trying to imitate NPR announcers so I could speak like a “real” American. 

As I get older, I've come to accept the fact that I will never be able to lose my accent.  

And these days, I feel more secure about being an American.

My Chineseness is integral part of American identity.  At the same time, I believe that seeking acceptance also means making others aware of my Chinese American identity.

So, I have began to write newspaper articles and radio essays about Chinese cultures.  During Chinese New Year’s, I choose to celebrate with my friends and take them to Chinatown and introduce them to my favorite tofu and noodle dishes .

Each time I become upset about comments that imply that I’m a foreigner, I always think of a remark that I heard from a U.S. customs official in 1997.

While working for the NY Times in China , I was detained for my coverage of Tibet.  When I returned to Chicago , an African American customs agent examined and stamped my passport and said, “Welcome Home.”

Chicago is my home. In September, I will celebrate my twentieth year as a Chicagoan. 

Writer Wen Huang is the author of the new memoir, The Little Red Guard.