Born and Raised
I was born in 1997, the year of the ox (this is included for no other reason than my recent interest in zodiac charts), and named Christina Marie Tao. Tao is my dad's last name, and he is half-Chinese. I changed my last name at the age of 6, because I identified as a member of my mom's family (the McCanns) more than I did as a Tao.
I think that hurt my dad and my pop-pop--the whole Tao family, really--in a big way. They sent letters, checks, and messages addressed to "Christina Tao" for years after my name was legally changed. I would frequently get the question, "So do you not like us anymore since you changed your name?" I didn't entirely know how to answer that. I would repeat the reasoning that my mom and I had talked through: "I changed my last name to McCann, because I live with the McCanns. My mom, my grandparents, and my uncle who live in my house are all McCanns. So I am a McCann."
I didn't want to say that a large part of the reason was identity crisis. I didn't understand that at 5-years-old. I would go to kindergarten as Christina Tao. That was the name on the attendance. That was the name on my report cards. That was the name on my name tag at the circle table and then again when I moved to the rectangle table halfway through the school year. I had tried to cross off "Tao" and write "McCann" over it in pencil, but the name tag was laminated, so "Tao" was always more legible.
My classmates were confused by my last name. They knew my mom. They knew that she did not look like a Tao. And to them, neither did I. I was a white girl with dirty blonde hair and a fake last name. "Are you...adopted? What is a 'Tao'?" they would ask me. "No... I don't know. It's just my dad's last name." I never claimed it as my own.
It became a source of contention in Mrs. Friend's kindergarten class. "Where does 'Tao' come from?"
"You're not Chinese! Wait. Squint your eyes.... Oh nooooow I see it!"
My nickname at school became "Christina Towel." I would hear daily remarks about my last name, and how it was incongruous with who I was. I was a towel, and I should "just wait until we wipe the floor with you, Christina Towel." I hated it. I would scream at my peers to stop, but I never went as far as to tell an adult other than my teacher--who was just able to make it stop until recess.
My elementary school art teacher even told me once that I couldn't be Chinese. We were working on dragon masks for Lunar New Year at the time.
I heard so much that I couldn't be a Tao that I eventually had no desire to be one. I was happy being a McCann. It made me feel closer to my mom. It made me feel like I belonged. It told my peers that I belonged. It told everyone that I was white.
noun. 1. Also called white sound. a steady, unvarying, unobtrusive sound, as an electronically produced drone or the sound of rain, used to mask or obliterate unwanted sounds (Dictionary.com).
The unwanted sound, in my case, was my Chinese identity, and my whiteness masked it. I would use McCann as a safety blanket. It was my hat, and I was Holden Caulfield of Catcher in the Rye. I stopped claiming that I was Chinese. I was "just a quarter Chinese" or I was only Chinese when we celebrated birthdays and holidays while eating lo mein and ba bao fan. I was ashamed, because I was told that I wasn’t Asian. I was on the receiving end of teachers’, substitutes', and camp counselors' confused stares after they read my name during roll call. Tao made me an anomaly, and I desperately wanted to fit in.
Any time I mentioned throughout the remainder of my grade school education that I was part Chinese, I was met with disbelief. It was a good response if it was just, "You are? I can't tell." The meaner responses came from my Asian and half-Asian friends who would usually just say, "No you're not," or "That doesn't count." I assumed that they knew best, and in an effort to not make waves, I stopped self-identifying as part Asian... even on forms that instructed the me to "Check all that apply."
In 2011, I read The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan in my 9th grade English class. If you haven't read it, I highly recommend it. It follows four Chinese American families (specifically the women, yay!) and their relationships with one another. When I read the book, it rocked my world. My great mom-mom, Lilyan Tao, née Leung, had passed away that summer at 100-years-old. She was the last member of my family to speak Chinese, and I only have one surviving family member--her daughter Peggy (my great aunt)--who was born in China.
Reading The Joy Luck Club solidified for me that I simply couldn't identify as Asian. Great Mom-mom had died, and with her, so had the recipes, the language, and the culture. I hate to admit that I learned more about her at her celebration of life than I did while she was alive.
Lilyan Tao graduated from nursing school in Canada in 1935. She moved back to China, met Frank, got married, had my aunt Peggy, got pregnant with my Pop-pop (Freeman), and moved with her family to New York City where my Pop-pop was born and raised. She did a lot more with her life that I will never know. She died before I cared enough to ask her.
Her husband, Frank, never knew about me. He was sick when my mom was pregnant, and they decided not to tell him. The Taos are very conservative, and my mom and dad got pregnant at 18-years-old out of wedlock. Frank died when I was a toddler, and he never knew about me.
That never impacted how Great Mom-mom treated me. I got a gift every birthday, Christmas, and Lunar New Year. She made my favorite dessert, ba bao fan, and always let me have seconds. She showed me her winter melon in the garden and told me how she was planning to make soup. Come to think of it, the winter melon conversation is the last clear memory I have of her. My heart aches when I think of my cousins and half-siblings who will never know her at all. I had her for 14 years of my life, and I definitely took that relationship for granted.
Crazy Talented Asians
In the summer of 2018, I embraced my Asian identity more than ever. La-Ti-Do invited me to perform in the first AAPI cabaret in DC called On Our Own, We’re Fierce Too at The Keegan Theatre. I didn’t realize until I was onstage with an immensely talented group of Asians how much it meant to be embraced by that community. I never truly felt embraced by my dad’s family or my Asian friends growing up, and here were my peers in theatre telling me that I was allowed and encouraged to embrace a part of my identity that I had suppressed for so long. This opportunity led to two auditions and a role in a movie-musical called The Girl Who Left Home about a Filipino-American woman who has to save her family's restaurant while balancing role in a Broadway show.
Through these experiences, I gained an extended family of artists and creatives many of whom still encourage me to embrace my Asian awesomeness--shout out to Alex Palting of The Hustling Creative, LLC who encouraged me to publish something about being #unapolageticallyasian.
The thing is, I am not unapologetically Asian. I’m still weary of identifying as a Chinese-American, because I know that I benefit from all sorts of privileges, because I am white. I don’t submit to shows that call for mixed actors, because I don’t feel right applying for roles meant for people who live with all the things that come with looking mixed-race. But the summer of 2018 led me to a self-acceptance that I didn’t know I needed, and for that I am so grateful.
The Tao. The Path.
If you've taken a world history or world religions class, you probably have an idea of what The Tao is. If not, here is a brief overview from the Tao Te Ching:
The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao;
The name that can be named is not the eternal name.
The Nameless is the origin of Heaven and Earth;
The Named is the mother of all things.
There was something undifferentiated and yet complete,
Which existed before Heaven and Earth.
Soundless and formless it depends on nothing and does not change.
It operates everywhere and is free from danger.
It may be considered the mother of the universe.
I do not know its name; I call it Tao.
All things in the world come from being.
And being comes from non-being. (form comes from formlessness)?
Essentially, the Tao is "the way" or the "the path" and it is not concrete. I think that's what my relationship with being a Tao is--not concrete. It is a journey. I don't yet know where this path is leading, but I am learning so much from it.
Here's where I talk about my Chinese zodiac. I was born in April 1997, during the year of the fire ox. 1997 is associated with yin (as in yin and yang). Yin is the passive, feminine side of things associated with night (it's the dark side of the symbol).
Maybe this is me reading way too much into things, but I think my Chinese zodiac describes my relationship with being Chinese. I'm passive about it, and in other parts of my identity, I am active and progressive. With this, however, I am slow and introspective. I think a lot at night too. It's the reason I don't sleep. This is my own personal dark side. In fact, this blog post was written in the night time (or early morning, depending on how you look at it), and it took me a year and a half to finish. I don't really know where I am going with it now, so I'm going to stop writing here. To be continued...
Note from the author: An earlier version of this blog post stated, "Frank died just before I was born," when in fact he died when I was about 3-years-old. Thank you to my mom for fact-checking.
An earlier version of this blog post stated, "...[Lilyan] moved with her family to Chinatown in New York City where my Pop-pop was born and raised." My Pop-pop's family did live in Manhattan, but it not in the Chinatown neighborhood. Thank you to my mom-mom for fact-checking.