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My heritage: My liberation and my limitation

By Jean Kwok, Special to CNN
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Author once worked in sweatshop
  • Jean Kwok remembers her father showing her book that recorded her family's heritage
  • Her family came with little from China to New York and had to start over
  • Adjustment was hard, but she learned English, went to Harvard, married, had children
  • Her ethnic identity was liberating (hers to celebrate) and a burden (she felt different)

Editors' note: America's 300 million-plus people are declaring their identity in the 2010 census. This piece is part of a special series on in which people describe how they see their own identity. Jean Kwok is a writer whose work has been published in Story magazine, Prairie Schooner and the NuyorAsian Anthology. Her novel, "Girl in Translation," (Riverhead Books) was released this month.

Voorschoten, Netherlands (CNN) -- My father pulled out an old cigar box, held closed by several long rubber bands. I was 8 years old and knew that this box had come with us from Hong Kong and therefore must be very important, because we had been able to bring so little with us.

His callused fingers untangled the rubber bands and opened the lid. He brought out a thick black notebook.

"What is that, Pa?" I asked.

Instead of answering, he placed the book in my hands. I was surprised by the weight of it, and when I looked inside, I saw line after line of Chinese characters, all handwritten. I recognized our surname.

"Is this our family?"

"These are your bloodlines," he said. "Four-thousand years that went into making you. We copy this book, generation after generation, so that we won't forget."

"Forget what?"

"We mustn't forget that this is what is important. And not this." With a sweeping gesture of his arm, he indicated our apartment: the stained walls, the hole in the ceiling, the broken glass in the windowpanes.

We had just moved from Hong Kong to New York a few years earlier. We'd lost everything in the move and needed to start all over. My family had started working in a clothing factory in Chinatown and my father brought me there every day after school. I had gone from being the best student in my class in Hong Kong to being the worst in New York, because I didn't speak any English. We lived in an apartment without central heating, through the bitter winters.

Many years later, when I was studying at Harvard, I would think back to that afternoon with my father and realize how that awareness of my heritage had been both a liberation and a burden.

A liberation because I learned to be proud of my identity, to know that my background and ethnicity were mine to celebrate, freeing me from the poverty-stricken circumstances of my life then. And yet also a burden, when I became increasingly assimilated into American life, understanding that such activities as dating non-Chinese boys were not exactly conducive to preserving 4,000 years of pure Chinese bloodlines.

Now, I sit at my computer in an attic in Holland, typing out this essay on identity for I'm honored by this request, although I don't have any easy answers.

Look at my life. My Dutch husband and two half-Chinese, half-Dutch sons are at a party across the street. My first novel will be coming out in May, in which I explore these issues of identity through the story of an immigrant Chinese girl and her mother, who not only survive difficult circumstances, but triumph over them.

All I can say is that I believe we are who we were born as, but nothing defines us as much as the choices we make.

As a Chinese-American, I know which box to check on the census form for myself, and the act of choosing that box is both a limitation and a cause for celebration.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Jean Kwok.