By Coco Deng
I am unspeakably grateful for the privilege of a good education that you and Dad have given me. But now I’m so detached from Mandarin that I can’t even write this letter to you in our mother tongue.
I’ve always been somewhat more American than Chinese. While my peers toiled through pinyin worksheets and memorized Mandarin texts, I learned cursive and studied the bemusing irrationalities of the imperial measuring system. In order to hone our English, my teachers discouraged us from using Mandarin in school, and I spent more time each day speaking English then Mandarin. English felt natural to me. I liked speaking and writing English, since it was easier to scrawl down my birdwatching notes in letters rather than difficult, clunky characters. I had not yet begun to question where I belonged culturally, for I didn’t realize there was any choice to be made.
You take great pride in my fluent English. You brought me countless fascinating books and documentaries so that I would soak up English and fit in with my future classmates in America. At all those admissions interviews and school fairs we went to, admissions officers complimented me not for the hours I poured into my art and the books I so loved but for my TOEFL score and my PSATs, the indicators of my good English.
I always knew that I would end up in the US. Everyone knew that the best universities were there. Even in my earliest memories you held up the West as the ideal. I was two and we must have just come home from kindergarten, and as you unlocked our front door you told me that people had doors made of chocolate in America. I glanced at our apartment door in wonder. What a concept! A door you could eat!
When I was seven, you and I went to California for a summer program and I remember buying sweets at Target and admiring the seagulls at Santa Monica Pier. Believing that America was a great place was easy for me then. I’m sure you remember my America-obsessed phase after we returned; you even kept that hideous bald eagle I drew on the wall.
The couple of other summer programs in the US I went to after that were wonderful, as well, and I thank you for those experiences. It wasn’t until high school that I began to doubt my naive, idealized version of America.
My history class was studying the imperialism unit, and our class was having a discussion about relating imperialism and colonialism to today’s world. Given that we were tired sophomores, it probably wasn’t great, and I remember our teacher trying to prod us into deeper discussion. “We’ve talked about imperialism with the Spanish conquering South American land,” she said, “and I want you to think about other ways, aside from conquests, that imperialism functions. For example, can imperialism be cultural?”
Her question was my first introduction to the concept of cultural imperialism.
And with a bit of research a lot of things in my life began to click. Cultural imperialism refers to when a dominant culture imposes itself upon a nondominant culture. Not only is the US imperialist in this sense, but it is so much so that cultural imperialism is used mostly to address America’s status as a “cultural superpower”.
As I opened tab after tab, I became more and more excited. My culture isn’t less than any other, my language isn’t something to discard. It was cultural imperialism which made English a language of privilege and opportunity, and cultural imperialism which led you to paint America in rosy hues. Even now, with Americans themselves lamenting the fascism and systemic racism in their nation, you dismissed their cries as an indicator of free speech. You’d say, like you always do: “In China, the government would never let people talk about this. The media always makes the US look bad, but look at us! At least they can talk about it in America.”
This past summer was my first summer alone, away from home. Since I had so much free time, I was on social media a lot. As I scrolled through my Instagram feed and beheld the outrage and frustration of Americans over George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, their overfunded police system, Trump’s idiocy and white supremacy, anti-maskers putting others at risk, the class differences revealed by COVID, and so, so many systemic issues, I remembered how you framed America as a utopia and I began to question the worldviews you gave me.
You know how I ranted about how much I loved my AP Seminar teacher’s teaching? Out of all I learned from him what stuck most clearly was that I should always question who a narrative benefits.
Cultural imperialism idealizes the dominant culture. The dominant culture creates a narrative that makes themself a hero, encouraging you to feel admiration and respect for their power.
I wish you could have watched the movie 13th with me this summer so that you could see my eyes widen listening to how the US government used everything from segregated water fountains to incarceration and the war on drugs to marginalize and harm Blacks. I wish you were there when I watched the PBS series Asian Americans so that I could ask you why I never knew that Asians were crucial in the activism of the 1969 Third World Liberation Front protests in Berkeley, or that there was such a thing as yellowface.
You tailored my worldviews for me to wear. You taught me to be skeptical of institutions, to doubt authority, and you taught me that America was a place where education was fair, where food was good, where I should strive to get into a good college.
Perhaps you painted America in rainbows so that I would feel safe there. I hope you realize that I’m a little more mature than that.
You paid for my elite education, Mom! I’ll let you know that you got your money’s worth because your daughter is a critical thinker who doesn’t believe in the American Dream. You can’t raise me on a diet of skepticism and Orwell’s 1984, telling me to be cautious around American police so they don’t shoot me, and then think I won’t put the pieces together.
But thank you for buying me all those books. You told me that when you were growing up in rural inland Hubei, your greatest wish was to see the ocean because you had never travelled before. Thank you for deciding that your daughter should grow up a cosmopolitan young woman with the best of everything.
I know raising kids in China is messed up. You left out nothing in telling me how families routinely pour tens of thousands of US dollars into cram school. You framed the education system as a stressful, propaganda-filled machine that would sap me of all critical thinking if I did not escape from it.
But American schools are not exempt from revisionist textbooks and busy work simply because they’re in The Land of the Free. I beg you to stop telling my younger cousins to learn English so they can study in America like their big sister.
You tell them that in America, they can eat all the sweets and ice cream they want! I know they’re still little but they’re big enough to understand that there’s two sides to every decision. Hearing you persuade them like this frustrates me because this narrative of America as a land of happiness and opportunity benefits the same straw-haired politicians who now condemn immigrants for stealing American jobs.
My cultural detachment is an issue of privilege; percentage-wise relatively few Chinese students are as lucky as I am to have parents funding this kind of education. I should be grateful that you even gave me the option of an alternative education to China’s public school system, but gratitude will not erase the cultural detachment I now feel as a result of my upbringing.
Coco Deng is a current college student.