By Brittany Meister | Photography by Colin Melick
Born and raised in the United States, East junior Eric Luong has never made it to his cultural home in Guangxi, China more than 7,000 miles away. Many people are surprised to hear that he has not yet traveled to China when asking him what it is like there. Luong, however, isn’t affected by the surprise of his fellow classmates and takes pride in being both Chinese and American.
“I act more American than Asian, but I always remember my cultural background,” Luong says. “It’s true. I’m ‘the white guy’ when I’m with friends.”
Growing up, Luong spoke Chinese at home, but as he grew-up surrounded by American culture and English-speaking friends, he adapted and gradually stopped speaking Chinese. When Luong speaks to his parents in Cantonese, which is a type of Chinese language, they either respond in Cantonese or English because he is better at understanding their Chinese than he is communicating it to them.
“I actually do [regret] not speaking Chinese,” Luong says. “I wish I learned more because I want to be fluent, so I am trying to learn Mandarin.”
Luong personally feels as though there is no difference between assimilated Asian Americans and Americans because he is very good at speaking English after growing up speaking the language with his teachers and friends. Luong is still frustrated nonetheless when people assume he does not speak English.
“They talk to me slow at first to make sure I understand,” Luong says. “But then I have to tell them that I do understand English.”
At the beginning of seventh grade at Liberty Junior School, Luong was quiet and shy, but he changed when he decided he wanted to be more enthusiastic and outgoing in order to make new friends. Luong expresses himself by having a loud and outspoken personality by cracking jokes and acting goofy around his peers. Now, Luong considers himself to be a friend to everyone.
“I suppose a lot of people [at school] look to me as ‘that one Asian who’s friends with everybody,’” Luong says. “I somehow fit in with every group at school, and I’m somehow friends with everybody.”
Luong’s relationship with other Asian Americans is important to him because they all share at least one thing in common—their culture. If Luong had once lived in China and moved to the United States, he says he would instantly interact with people who share the same heritage as him because it is easier to help one another. Luong says that generally his culture does not define someone as a person, but in his case, it does in a small way.
“I like how [my friends] look to me as the ‘coolest Asian ever’ in their opinion,” Luong says. “I believe they say that about me because they see me for who I am.”
Luong takes pride in his cultural background although he still considers himself to identify with American culture. Luong’s best friend of 14 years agrees that he acts more American than Chinese, even giving him the nickname, “the false Asian” as a joke. While many think this is an effect of not embracing their culture, Monroe High School sophomore Osric Sun-Nan Wong believes that Luong is in no way embarrassed by his cultural background.
“American Asians learn to just adapt to being different and putting up with typical jokes and stereotypes involving how we all look the same or our eyes,” Wong says. “I usually turn their jokes into my own jokes, and if anything, I embrace it.”
After traveling to Chinatown in Chicago in 2007, Luong got a taste for what his cultural home would be like. Despite the crowded and, in Luong’s opinion, unsanitary streets, he was fascinated by all the stores and trinkets and toys sold within them.
“I still would like to go to China and see what it is like over there,” Luong says. “When I go, I plan on taking notes and comparing the two together.”
Luong’s parents, Abay Luong, who arrived in the United States in 1979, and Mei Luong, who arrived in 1996, plan on taking Eric to China within the next two years. Eric will meet his cousins, aunt and uncle for the first time while he is there and visit his grandmother, who he has not seen since he was three years old.
“I’m really excited to be meeting them,” Eric says. “They always send postcards and pictures in the mail, and we always webchat on the holidays, but I’m really excited for the tour they’re going to be giving me of the country and seeing things like the Great Wall of China.”
Although Eric has not met a large portion of his family, it hasn’t bothered him growing up. By growing up in America, Eric sees himself being like everyone else with whom he interacts. Eric’s pride in being an American is that he is able to be American while having a different cultural background, and he is proud to share in that culture with the rest of his Chinese family.
“I see Eric being more American, sometimes Chinese, but mostly American because he grew up here,” Mei says. “Yet, he is connected to his culture because I would often tell Eric stories of my childhood, show him a lot of family pictures, and introduce him to new foods, which he then shares with his friends.”
Luong notes that many Americans, like his close friends, are very interested in his Chinese culture.
“My friends beg me to speak Chinese all the time,” Luong says. “I’m excited because they are interested in the language, but disappointed in myself because I don’t know that much. Even though my parents are still teaching me new things about my culture, i still feel American. I’m still learning new things about my own culture.”