The Chinese in All of Us
A Mexican American Explores Multiculturalism
The other day, the phone rang; it was a woman who identified herself as the “talent coordinator” for the “Oprah Winfrey Show.” She said Oprah was planning a show on self-hating ethnics. “You know,” she confided, “Norwegians who don’t want to be Norwegian, Greeks who hate Greek food.” Anyway, she said breezily, wouldn’t I like to make an appearance?
About 10 years ago I wrote a thin book called Hunger of Memory. It was a book about my education, which is to say, a book about my Americanization. I wrote of losses and triumphs. And, in passing, I wrote about two issues particularly, affirmative action and bilingual education. I was a nay-sayer. I became, because of my book, a notorious figure among the Ethnic Left in America. Consider me the brown Uncle Tom. I am a traitor, a sell-out. The Spanish word is pocho. A pocho is someone who forgets his true home. (A shame.) A Richard Rodriguez. Last year, I was being interviewed by Bill Moyers. “Do you consider yourself American or Hispanic?” he asked.
“I think of myself as Chinese,” I answered.
A smart-aleck answer, but one that is true enough. I live in San Francisco, a city that has become, in my lifetime, predominantly Asian, predominantly Chinese. I am becoming like them. Do not ask me how, it is too early to tell. But it is inevitable, living side by side, that we should become like each other. So think of me as Chinese.
Oh, my critics say: Look at you Mr. Rod-ree-guess. You have lost your culture. They mean, I think, that I am not my father, which is true enough. I did not grow up in the state of Jalisco, in the western part of Mexico. I grew up here, in this country, amongst you. I am like you. My critics mean, when they speak of culture, something solid, something intact. You have lost your culture, they say, as though I lost it at the Greyhound bus station. You have lost your culture, as though culture is a coat I took off one warm afternoon and then forgot. I AM MY CULTURE. Culture is not something opposite us, it is rather something we breathe and sweat and live. My culture? Lucille Ball is my culture. (I love Lucy, after all.) And Michael Jackson. And Benjamin Franklin is my culture. And Elvis Presley and Walter Cronkite. Walt Disney is my culture. The New York Yankees.
My culture is you. You created me; if you don’t like it, if I make you uncomfortable now by being too much like you, too bad.
When I was a little boy in Sacramento, California, the son of Mexican immigrant parents, Spanishspeaking mainly, even then, in those years, America came at me. America was everywhere around me. America was in the pace of the traffic lights, the assertion of neon, the slouch of the crowd, the impatience of the fast food counter. America was everywhere. I recognized America best, in those years, standing outside the culture. I recognized its power, and from the first I knew that it threatened to swallow me up. America did not feel like something to choose or not choose. America felt inevitable.
Truman Capote said somewhere that he never met a true bisexual. He meant, I think, that finally people are one thing or the other.
Well, I must tell you that I have never met a truly bicultural person. Oh, I have met people who speak two languages, and all that. But finally, their allegiance belongs more to one side of the border than the other.
And yet, I believe in multiculturalism—my kind of multiculturalism. I think the adventure of living in a multi-racial, multi-ethnic America leaves one vulnerable to a variety of cultures, a variety of influences. Consider me, for example, Chinese. I am also Irish. About 10 years ago, I was going to school in England. One weekend, Aer Lingus, the Irish national airline, was offering a reduced fare to Dublin. I thought, “What a lark—it’d be fun to go off to Ireland for the weekend.” Strange thing, once I got off the plane, I suddenly felt myself at home....