Contemplating My Dowry

A writer grapples with the pressures of her heritage as a half-Chinese woman.

More From Lenny Letter No. 17
5 articles
Donna Edwards Is One Of Us
Judith Bernstein, Trailblazer in Erotic Art
The Real California Girls
Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

In the few times my grandfather visited from Seattle, he initiated the same game: he tousled my hair and crouched down to the floor to meet my scrutinizing toddler gaze, a dollar bill grasped in one hand and a five in the other. "Which one do you want?" he asked sternly, eyes betraying mirth behind foggy round glasses. "You can only have one." Each time, I would shift back and forth in my onesie, study the options intently, and then snatch my prize; he'd roar with laughter as I waddled off, one Lincoln closer to my millions.

More From Lenny Letter No. 17
5 articles
Donna Edwards Is One Of Us
Judith Bernstein, Trailblazer in Erotic Art
The Real California Girls
DIY Pop Tarts

It's the only memory I have of my gung-gung, as I called him in his native Cantonese, who died when I was six. (It was also the capitalist high point of my life, if my bereft bank account is any indication.) Given how my mother describes him, I'm confident my grandfather would've been mystified by how his bloodline winnowed to me, his only grandchild. He was a taciturn electrician, a macho sort with few indulgences outside smoky pai gow parlors who prided his Chinese heritage as the axiom of his identity (to the point that he fought ardently against my mother's marriage to a lanky, blond Norwegian dude). I was an acerbic Manic Panic teenager who rejected my mom's urgings of the Asian Holy Trinity (math, piano, ballet), rewarding her efforts with a fathomless inability to calculate a tip, a stint in an objectively terrible punk band, and inkjet photos of Dave Grohl Scotch-taped to her nice white walls. Mine was only a flippant understanding of our ancestral culture, one derived from carbo-loaded day trips to San Francisco's Chinatown and that time Big Bird almost fell off the Great Wall

Mine was only a flippant understanding of our ancestral culture, one derived from carbo-loaded day trips to San Francisco's Chinatown and that time Big Bird almost fell off the Great Wall.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

Such a blithely assimilated upbringing made the events of four years ago even more jarring, when my po-po (grandmother) died and the terms of both grandparents' wills were disclosed. I had long moved cross-country to chase a career in music journalism. One afternoon, as I barreled down Houston Street, iPhone squalling its battery death in my ear, my mother told me I had been named a beneficiary of their modest estates. It was a generous gesture, and more than welcome; despite recently landing a dream recurring assignment at The New York Times, I was ending months with more roommates than dollars. But then I learned my grandfather had added a caveat: I was not to receive the money until I turned 35, when, by his firmly traditional logic, I would have a husband to control it for me.

I blinked at my phone. "So I basically have a dowry?" I asked. 

My mother repeated the details. I went onward to a trip-hop concert at Mercury Lounge, which served as a fine soundtrack for frowning into my shoes. I could understand this was my grandfather's protective gesture, common to another generation I shouldn't begrudge, but it still stung. Here I was at 27, carving my own fraught path in journalism, an acolyte of the Women's Media Center and other feminist groups, being told that my much-prized autonomy was a ruse; I had secretly carried a tag of subservience from birth. Wouldn't accepting this gift, an insubstantial sum not commensurate with the energy and years it took them to save, make me complicit in my own inequality? 

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

More than anything, my grandfather's logic smarted because it was the last calibration of a long-forming lens; it bound together all the little, pointillistic frustrations that had started to form over the past years, since I had started feeling alienated from my race. It's no secret that in China, women have been historically valued less than men, from their manipulated birth ratios on through the appalling niche custom of ghost marriages. And in America, there's still a powerfully ingrained assumption that we exotic little lotus flowers will be demure drones, subservient and industrious — the "model minority," as coined by the sociologist William Petersen (it's an insidious stereotype that initially lauded Japanese-Americans in an attempt to extinguish the civil-rights movement). But before that phone call, I'd never fully confronted how these realities affected me.

Most Popular

Being Asian in this country, I'd come to suspect, means having a nagging sense of expulsion — and for those of more Americanized upbringings, like myself and many friends, it arrives latently and stings with duplicity. For me, it began in college, when packs of flushed frat bros crowed "Twinkie!" as they stumbled past — a term I soon learned meant "yellow on the outside, white on the inside." It's a pejorative for which snapping back "Eat me" accomplishes nothing constructive. By my mid-20s, guys approaching me with stultifying icebreakers about my appearance were mundane. (Shout-out to the gent with the violently red soul patch at Beauty Bar who led with "You look like a kind-of-hot geisha.") Strangers in New York often launched a dreaded interrogation — "No, where are you really from?" — and trend-sniffing colleagues in my newsrooms asked with saucer eyes if, oh, don't I ever want to see more people who look like me on TV? 

Being Asian in this country, I'd come to suspect, means having a nagging sense of expulsion — and for those of more Americanized upbringings, like myself and many friends, it arrives latently and stings with duplicity.

My grandfather's directive pulled these indignities, which I had previously let simmer, through both apathy and stubbornness to the surface. It all became one confusing mass. Hand-wringing ensued for months after, about whether accepting such a kind gesture came at a higher cost to principle. (It's actually still theoretical in a way, as I'm 31 — so I still won't receive it for four years.) 

Ultimately, I'm glad it happened, because his real gift has been a fracturing of assumption; his actions forced me to ponder autonomy as fortune instead of birthright, and I'm glad to have the blind spot revealed. It's helped me react to strangers' little racial abrasions in a way I didn't before, with a new patience that evades the frustration of giving anyone an explanation for my existence. I still feel like a leper whenever strangers crane their faces into mine to ask, "What are you?" But suddenly, it feels a bit hypocritical to be disdainful of racial ignorance; after all, I didn't know the biases that lingered in my own family.

I may never fully reconcile with my grandfather's logic, and that's OK. Despite his expectations, he left me some of his life's work because he wanted me to succeed, in the conventional construct he could envision. He might appreciate the strides I've made to this point, where I can pay my East Village rent through bylines, a life inconceivable just a few years ago. Still, I continue to grapple with whether his money is truly meant for me; right now, I plan to pass it along to an empowering organization, like the Asian American Journalists Association, when I ultimately receive it. I don't know if he'd understand, but I hope he would be proud.

Stacey Anderson is the pop listings critic for The New York Times. Her work has appeared in Rolling Stone, The Guardian, Newsweek, Pitchfork, BuzzFeed, Spin, and The Village Voice.

More from Lenny Letter: