A Lifetime of Storytelling and Finding My Chinese Self Through Yoga
By Christine Chen
Each year I vow to relearn the Mandarin I spoke in my childhood, but each day I find myself speaking and chanting more Sanskrit. In my 40s, and in my third career as a yoga teacher and health/lifestyle author, my rather bothered Taiwan-born parents have let go of their hopes of me being fluent again. But, I have not.
As the first American-born in my whole family tree, my “Chinese-ness” has been conflicting yet inspiring, ostracizing but elevating, and challenging while empowering.
I spent my entire life trying to figure out who I am, navigating my life with bi-cultural expectations of being a “good,” accommodating Chinese daughter in my family and a modern, assertive and attractive Western woman so I could make it in the world. It was hard, and I cried a lot. I got into fights with my parents, and I also got into fights with people who didn’t understand some of the nuances of me. I did have many triumphs, but with few minorities in my school and no relatives anywhere near, I didn’t have a whole lot of peer information to guide me.
When I was little, other kids made fun of my lunches of fried rice and tofu. “Eww gross,” they would say, pointing to my tin foil wrapping, before taking a bite out of their PB&J and prompting me to hide my lunch. When I was a teen, I had to make valid arguments to my parents to do normal American teen things, like going to school football games and Sadie Hawkins dances in which girls invited the boys. (“That’s not right,” my mother would say, before helping me figure out what to wear and letting me go with a scowl.) I just wanted to be a simple American. That was all.
In college, I attended U.C. Berkeley where the percentage of Asian students was huge, and it was a whole new world with a whole new set of questions. It wasn’t a matter of feeling isolated, different and trying to fit in with the mainstream. It became a matter of how I wasn’t Asian enough. Why didn’t I join an Asian sorority or go to the Asian mixers? Did I date Asian guys or what? I think I had so many more questions and even fewer answers about my own story that by the end of college I set upon a career of telling everyone else’s story. I became a broadcast journalist.
On TV, I gathered and shared details about everything under the sun, and I was honored several times for being a role model for other professional Asians or for my work as an outstanding journalist. At the time, there was a push for diversity and there weren’t many Asians on the news, so I rose quickly. And, I had more questions. Was I being hired because I earned it, or because they needed a colorful face? I wondered, but I also felt a like an underdog because Caucasian journalists met me with skepticism before even seeing my work. I could never show weakness; I was constantly proving and earning my credibility.
I used my journalism jobs to explore diversity every now and then, calling out racism in reporting, spotlighting stories from diverse communities, and volunteering my time with Asian non-profits as an emcee, host or board member to call more attention to diversity issues (and perhaps learn more about myself along the way). Still, I wasn’t sure I could explain who I was. My story was still… conflicting yet inspiring, ostracizing but elevating, and challenging while empowering.
By the time I hit age 39, my parents were desperate to get me married. I had not fulfilled my obligation as a “good” daughter by getting married to a Chinese doctor or having a baby. Though they never said so, I felt I was shaming my parents with my atypical American story.
I had deepened my spiritual yoga practice intently, and I decided there was only one thing to do. I needed to go back to my roots. I somehow knew I would never find a mate if I didn’t have clarity about who I was, so I made plans to accompany my parents on their annual trip to Taiwan. It would be my first trip to my ancestral country as an adult, and I would stay three weeks. They were thrilled.
I had already left the schedule-limiting world of broadcast journalism by that time and was running my own consulting business, which gave me more personal time and the flexibility to take better care of me. I prepared for what I thought would be an emotional and stressful trip (and it was) by “stocking up” with extra yoga classes and meditation sessions in the days leading up to departure.
There, in Taiwan and our side trip to Japan, I offered blessings at every ancient temple for peace, my family, and my own ability to accept my story. On my 40th birthday, I made a pilgrimage to my grandparents’ shrine in the mountains of Taiwan where my family had settled from Mainland China about 21 generations prior. I spent time with my relatives, young and old, communicating in half English and half Mandarin. I was stunned and spiritually released by what they told me; they were in awe of all I had done in America on behalf of the whole family. They were proud of their “American cousin.” I was feeling guilty about living a life that was so different than what was expected of me. I had anxiety about not yet marrying, but they told me I should wait, and whoever becomes my mate would be so very lucky.
After a lifetime of confusion, I felt something I hadn’t felt – ever. I felt peace and acceptance.
Two weeks after I returned from Taiwan, I met my husband, a smart and handsome “Nuyorican” gentleman whose parents had come to New York from Puerto Rico just a few years after my parents. We were engaged three months after saying, “Nice to meet you,” and sharing our stories with one another. Our wedding and our very different families together for a weekend? That’s another, quite funny story.
I have learned so much through my deep commitment to yoga, a practice of transformation and getting to know oneself intimately by aligning the mind, body and soul. No matter who you are or where you came from, life is always going to be conflicting yet inspiring, ostracizing but elevating, and challenging while empowering. And, in those complexities lies the richness of life with moments so big and sometimes so small they take our breath away. Even the unclear moments are important for our own personal stories. It’s such a continuing practice of relearning everything about yourself, over and over, without letting the mind run away with stories of how things are supposed to be.
Who am I? I’m exactly who I need to be. Leading Sanskrit chants in yoga class helps me continue to navigate my life authentically. Relearning my Mandarin is definitely still on the list, and that’s just fine with my parents.
Christine Chen is a yoga teacher and health and lifestyle writer whose first book (containing just part of her healing story) is called Happy-Go-Yoga (March 2015, Grand Central Life & Style/Hachette). She and her husband live in Manhattan, where she shares inspirational stories, woven into yoga instruction, several times a week to people of all shapes, sizes and colors.