Cait Ennis On Understanding Her Chinese Heritage

Last month’s post about Rho’s experience as an Asian American struck a chord with Cait Ennis. Born in Philadelphia to a Chinese mother and a White American father, Cait struggled to find herself within these two identities.

“I feel like I do not know my culture fully, and people ask me sometimes what I am, and I know the answer to that question, and I don’t know the answer,” Cait begins. Growing up, Cait felt an inner divide between her Chinese and American heritage. “The quest for my self-identity has been challenging because of this.”

two people partying
Cait’s parents

Cait’s Childhood as a Chinese American

In Philadelphia, Cait was immersed within an Asian community in that city. She learned Mandarin in school and connected with other Asian American children. However, when Cait moved to North Carolina at the age of 12, she lost this community and access to language education. This disconnect possibly added to the identity crisis that began for her in middle school.

“That culture shock of being in the South was hard. I would try to be whiter and prop up that side of myself so I would not feel as ‘Othered’ [within my new community]. I also did not feel like I fit into the Asian mold, but I also did not quite fit into the white girl mode. It was hard to make peace with that. I was in middle school, which is a crazy time for anyone. We were all trying to find ourselves and fit in. I think I did lean into my white side because I didn’t have any Asian friends in the south. I started ignoring my Asian heritage to fit in. Since then, I have gone back made peace with my roots. I am proud to be an Asian American now, I see value in that, and I love my heritage. But there was a while where I did not feel that way.”

two chinese american kids smiling

Family Roots

Part of Cait’s identity confusion came from her family background, as well. With a fully white American father and fully Chinese mother, her family tree brought together two separate worlds, and often, two separate sets of expectations. Cait explains how her Polish-Italian grandmother’s advice would at times conflict with the values of her Chinese grandma. “My white grandma would ask me about boyfriends and sports, and my Chinese grandma would ask me about my grade. Trying to be good enough for both was challenging.” Retrospectively, Cait does not believe that the expectations place on her by either side of her family were inherently at odds with each other, but she did believe that to be the case as she was growing up. “I struggled to think I was capable of doing both and of fitting into both boxes. Once I let that go, I was able to just be myself. Sometimes, I wish I did hold onto my Asian culture more and continued learning about the language and culture. That move from Philly to Charlotte created a lot of physical space between me and the Asian American community.

“My mother’s side of the family are all in China, and I do not get to see them often. I often wonder my mother wishes I did speak Mandarin and knew more about the traditions. But, my mother moved here without speaking the language or knowing a single person; it is interesting to see what she stepped into and what she left behind.”

two chinese american kids holding a dog

A Disconnect

Part of what her mother left behind was, perhaps, the hopes of having children that understood and identified with a Chinese background in the same way that Cait’s mother does.

Cait often cites the loss of her Philadelphia community as the beginning of the end for her Asian identity. Despite having a mother that was born and raised in China, spoke the language, and knew all the customs, the community she once had seemed vital to her understanding of her roots. Without that connection, it was challenging for Cait to continue playing both roles. “I doubt my mom holds me responsible for the lost connection to my roots, but I think it is something that happens when you have children in a foreign country— [there is a loss of heritage].”

a chinese american girl with her father and mother
Cait in China with her family

Reconnecting

While Cait often laments what she does not know about Chinese culture, she does have some connection to her roots. In her adult life, she has made a renewed effort to learn and to connect with that part of herself. One way she continues to connect to her Chinese family is through a shared emphasis on education, evidenced by her current enrollment in an occupational therapy doctorate program.

“I was held to a high standard with school work. [On my mom’s side], my granddad was a professor, my grandma worked in the administration office on a university campus, and my mother has a master’s in engineering. The Chinese side of my family values education and that has shaped me.”

a girl with her two grandparents
Cait’s American grandparents

Cait’s mother’s sacrifices, as well, are a large inspiration for Cait. “She came here with little money and spoke no English, and she did it to give her family a better life. Because even though her parents had good jobs, China was still a very hostile place to live. My mom wanted to get out, and she did it, she learned a new language and immersed herself in American culture. It has inspired me to make myself more open to other cultures and to not be afraid about taking such risks.”

Chinese Food 

Food, as well, is a big part of Cait’s connection to her heritage. “Food is a big part of any culture, and I feel like culture does not fully exist without understanding the region’s cuisine. There is some weird-smelling, weird-looking Chinese food, but I have learned to always try it and always be open to it.”

On top of this explorative nature that Cait has developed through eating her mother’s Chinese cooking, she also loves the very act of eating. For Cait, the act of sharing food is akin to creating a connection between people, it is a sign of love and care. It is also how Cait shows her love for others, which she believes comes from her Chinese heritage. “If you go to eat at a Chinese household, they will feed you endlessly. That is how they show that you are welcomed and that they like your company. It is almost forceful, honestly, but I love that. It’s comforting for me.”

Growing up, Cait has fond memories of her mother cooking for her and her friends. “When I first moved to Charlotte, my mom would always have some weird Asian food ready to eat for us as kids—and a lot of my friends ended up liking it! To this day, I have friends from high school that text me and tell me how much they miss my mom’s cooking. It was my mom’s way of showing thanks to my friends. While they were over, she would also try to instill educational values and work ethic into them, as well. I would be embarrassed to bring people over, at times, because of these lectures. I had to warn people.”

a spread of Chinese food

Mother Dearest

These values all circle back to Cait’s mom, and this may be why Cait desires to connect more deeply to her mother’s culture as an adult. While Cait was born and raised in the United States, the values and life perspective that she leans upon can be traced back to her mother, and therefore to China. Despite jokingly calling her mother a ‘Tiger Mom’ from time to time, it is evident that it was her mother’s parenting and strong values that Cait appreciates the most. “She taught me to work for what I want, to be sure of what I want, and to not let people tell me what I can’t do. Often, she would say to me, ‘If I moved to the US with little money and no English, you can do anything!’.”

A Chinese American girl in Shanghai
Cait in Shanghai

Cait is still on the journey of understanding her role within these two identities of Chinese and American, but she feels happy with the progress she has made. “I now feel more secure in where I stand within my culture, what I define success as, and what I value. But it was difficult to shift through the two world views that I was given and discover what I see as valuable. I was pulled in two ways by both my parents and within myself. It was a journey of self-acceptance, and while this is always unfinished, I think it took me a longer time than most to begin that journey because I felt so inwardly conflicted.

“If I had to answer, ‘What am I?’, however, I would say I am American. I am this melting pot of values and cultures, and I now know that I do not have to choose between these things to know who I am. And I am more American than Asian at this point because of the people I have surrounded myself with and how I grew up in school. I had that full American experience, but I do embrace my Chinese side now, and I am thankful for it.”

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