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Home | Episode #78
Clash of a Threatened Identity
June 6, 2021 | Student Producer:

Lily Yates
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Clash of a Threatened Identity
Student Riley Lim gets a reminder to embrace his Chinese heritage in hard times. (6 minutes)

More Human intro plays.


So I want to begin my story to have you all imagine the cutest, most happy-go-lucky Chinese grandma you can think of. She's about 5'5", has dark brown hair, and is wearing this super cute vest she bought from Macy's for 60% off. Now she's wobbling up to the front door and screaming your name and saying, "[speaking in Cantonese]". Now in Cantonese, this means, "Hey Riley, sweetheart, can you please exchange the fruit on the goddess of mercy's shrine, please?" Now, who is this goddess of mercy and what does she have to do with fruit? Well, I'm going to explain to you my weekly chore. So in my house, we have these two beautiful, dark velvet red shrines with beautiful flower engravements that hold two really important religious figures in the Chinese culture. One of them is Guan Yin (観音), the goddess of mercy, the Buddhist goddess of mercy.


Now in these shrines, there are these gorgeous porcelain figures wearing a silk robe and a beautiful headdress, and she's just purely elegant and she represents peace, kindness, and safety, not only for my family, but for all those I meet. Now the second god is Dabogong (大伯公), god of the soil. Now for our, he's this Confucianist, long bearded individual who represents foundation and stability for my family. Now this could be encouraging us to be resilient during the hard work week or also just stay united as a family, and it's a really great thing to have. Now my responsibility is to exchange the fruit that we put onto these shrines in order to express my gratitude for all the magic that these two shrines have brought into my life. Now I take out the old ones, put in the new, bow three times, kiss my grandma on the cheek, and then go upstairs and do my own thing. Now as beautiful and majestic as this sounds, for a long time, I only really viewed it as a chore.


In fact, I really felt disconnected from a lot of this Chinese heritage and did not really think much of it. My grandma has been living with us for over 13 years and she's been really the only individual that has been able to maintain the Chinese culture and tradition in our family. Now, growing up in the Bay Area in Fremont, California, I only grew up with other Chinese friends and went to school with only Chinese people. So because I was just surrounded by my culture and heritage all the time, I never really felt the need to make an effort to connect with it. In fact, in high school, I wanted to connect with other interests and other parts of my identity that had nothing to do with my heritage. I loved European culture and history and I loved French, oh gosh, I loved French. And how elegant the language was in comparison to the harsh, crass sounds of Cantonese I spoke every day with my grandma.


Now while it was great exploring things of my own identity that had nothing to do with my ethnicity, it eventually led me to stray away from it and I almost shunned it. Later down in high school, I realized a lot of unsettling things I began saying like, "Oh, I'm not that Chinese compared to other Chinese people," or "I don't really care a lot about those rituals and customs that we always do." I built pride over being this really quirky American that wanted to be not like other Chinese people. And while this was cool for a moment, after, I felt really uncomfortable. And now my whole world changed, and for many others as well, during 2020 and 2021 in the COVID-19 pandemic. Not only are we facing this awful virus, but the Asian American community has faced a devastating rise of Asian hate crimes, not only to kids my age, but to our beloved elderly.


Now hearing stories of the 84 year old Thai man who was murdered in San Francisco and the thousands of other elderly that are being assaulted, it really took a toll on my mental health. All I could think about was my beautiful grandma, who is just the cutest, kindest person you'll ever meet, who wants to just bring apples home and goes out to the grocery store to bring home food. And I was terrified for her. This not only led me to feel like my identity was threatened, but was a real signal. During Chinese new year this year, I could barely focus on the amazing festivities and family because it was overshadowed by the racism, hatred that has played to this country and all over the world. I was scared and after dinner, all I could do was go into my bed, stare at the ceiling, and cry.


I was scared, alone, and again, fearful of what this means for me and my family and also my Chinese community. I tried going on TikTok and YouTube to distract myself from this mental scramble, but none of it worked. And eventually my brain went straight to those shrines that I talked about earlier. Two trivial things I viewed as a chore now became the only two things that brought me peace. At 2:30 AM, I got out of my bed, went downstairs, and for the first time ever, I prayed to them genuinely. I was in awe of how beautiful the dark maroon wood was and how divine each statue was created in order to represent such beautiful meanings. I prayed, exchanged the fruit as usual, and then I left and went back upstairs to go to bed peacefully and in tranquility. Perfectly enough, the next day, my grandma told me that these shrines have been in my family for over a hundred years.


Now, it was incredible to realize that I was doing something that has been carrying my family for generations. And it was so empowering and so invigorating. I realized that I have to put a lot of love to this Asian culture and heritage because it's really, really beautiful. I didn't, I never really felt connected because again, my identity never felt threatened and now it was the only thing that brought me peace. So to anyone out there who faces this internal strife or clash with your ethnic identity, please, please go and reach out to it because sometimes it's really the only thing that can bring you peace and make you happy. [Speaking in Cantonese], thank you so much for listening to my story.