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My So-Flawed Life
Kristina Wong | Photo: Courtesy Kristina Wong | April 3, 2015
A portrait of the artist as a Tiger Mother's worst nightmare.
Editor's Note: This is one of many stories about the Chinese-American city that San Francisco is publishing over the next month, all part of the April 2015 Chinese Issue. To peruse the rest of the issue's contents, and to read stories as they become available online, click here.
I often say that the boat that brought my grandparents to America was actually the Mayflower. To me, the Puritans’ witch trials, scarlet letters, and rampant paranoia seemed none too different from growing up Chinese-American in the Inner Sunset. There was not a social infraction minor enough that it couldn’t bring down the Wong family name. Messy hair, asking for spending money (even for the essentials, like scrunchies), or speaking in public about anything less impressive than academic achievement—any one of these could single-handedly, inexplicably, disgrace our family.
As a Chinese-American teenager, I was expected to be a perfectly behaved scholar, the exemplar of three generations of advancement in San Francisco. My parents, both working professionals who held respectable nine-to-five desk jobs, were not interested in any repeat of their immigrant parents’ blue-collar struggles. I was not to be seduced by the clandestine advances of Western trash culture. I was not to daydream about sex, worry about puberty, or set my sights on anything lower than the Ivy Leagues (or, at the very least, UC Berkeley). The objectives were simple: Do your homework, get straight As, marry a bilingual Chinese doctor.
The trouble is, San Francisco was full of the very temptations that I’d been taught to believe did not exist. And I wasn’t blind to them.
At age five, having seen the Condor’s indecorous sign in North Beach, I was convinced that all white women had red lightbulbs for nipples. When we went to family banquets in Chinatown, the drive home would sometimes take us down Polk Street, where sex workers stood alone on dimly lit sidewalks. I’d sometimes catch an actual solicitation, and my father would bark from the driver’s seat, “Aiyah! Prostitutes! Don’t look, Kristina!”
When we had a lesson on sexual reproduction in the seventh grade, I devoured the information like a starving peasant. My fellow Chinese-American 12-year-olds (of which there were many at Herbert Hoover Middle School) were as freaked out as I was, gagging, squealing, and screaming in disbelief. I was not the only one who’d thought that procreation consisted of two stomachs rubbing together, followed nine months later by a stork carrying a baby. The process of sexual intercourse seemed so unbelievable: Why would you want a penis to squirt living sperm inside of you? How has our global population managed to grow through such a horrifying process?
But I was a moth to a flame. In anticipation of the crimson wave that would mark my body’s dark passage to grownup-hood, I covertly collected menstrual products for years before my first period at 14. My collection was organized meticulously inside a nondescript box that was hidden inside another nondescript box under my bed, as if it held government secrets. Wings, overnight pads, no-applicator tampons, panty liners with baking powder—I was armed and ready to go. The way that women today stalk pictures of their ex on Facebook, I would open this box of pads each night and run my finger over the layers of virgin cotton. I was peering into the future, imagining a wilderness of puberty that I had no compass to navigate.
All of these thoughts and feelings were, of course, forbidden. Chinese people, I was taught from early on, don’t see therapists because we never get depressed. We never come out of the closet because there’s no such thing as being gay. We don’t go to jail because we never do anything illegal. And, most important, we don’t date before marriage (even when said marriage is to a bilingual Chinese doctor) because...well, just because. I was made to believe that I was conceived as all Chinese people are conceived— via immaculate conception. Likewise, that was how my children, also future doctors, would be brought into this world: with zero human-on-human contact.
My family’s extreme sensitivity to all the non-horror horrors of the world often made me wonder: How the hell have they lived their whole lives in this city and not collapsed in shock? Didn’t my family run from communism? Escape poverty? Work in backbreaking conditions for hours a day while raising children? Face overt racism for the last 70 years? Why are they so convinced that the whole world is scrutinizing their every boring breath behind closed doors?
What little I did know of my family’s history concerned neither bravery nor heroic survival, but merely our hardscrabble beginnings. My paternal grandfather came to San Francisco at age 19 on a boat, in 1938, and worked in laundries before opening his own laundry business in the Richmond district. He said that he learned basic English from his customers. My grandmother, whom he had wed in an arranged marriage before leaving China, followed 10 years later, also on a boat. She never learned English, except for random blurts like “Get a Chinese boyfriend!” and “Ice cream!” To my eternal shame, I was never able to have a coherent conversation with her in her Taishanese dialect, despite many torturous years of after-school Cantonese language class. Several subsequent attempts to learn Mandarin as an adult didn’t take either. All I have left today is a stray collection of Chinese characters, not enough to put together more than a few basic sentences. They hang on for dear life in my cerebral cortex, swimming in a vast pool of monolingual guilt.
Chinese people taught me that growing up was about structure, Costco on Saturdays, and living for retirement. San Francisco taught me that growing up would be filled with drugs, immodesty, and gratuitous sexuality. As a teenager, navigating the two filled me with anxiety. I wanted to express myself and explore my curiosities—but I didn’t want to be disowned.
In spite of being raised to become an unquestioning academic machine, I did many things that “typical Chinese kids” (whatever the hell that is) didn’t do. I bullied white kids at my middle school. I aggressively prank-called strange boys (bless the era before caller ID!). I wasn’t playing first violin in the school orchestra—I was playing Miss Adelaide, the sluttily dressed showgirl in Guys and Dolls. I was a regular Asian Anne Hathaway—if Anne Hathaway had had cystic acne, popped caffeine pills to study late into the night, and been pursued by no one except the occasional gangly white boy with a penchant for Asian women.
My first performances weren’t onstage, though, but at sleepovers. One night, a girl from my middle school suggested that we call the Night Exchange—a number that she’d found in the back of SF Weekly. Back then, before Internet porn or right-swiping for hookups, men and women age 18 and over (there was no actual age verification) could anonymously call this phone service and chat live with other “singles.” It was free for women to call, thus allowing any teenage girl to catfish the saddest, loneliest men in San Francisco.
That call ended up being the most explicit sex education that my friends and I ever received. We awkwardly passed the phone around, giggling, mostly horrified, as the men, between grunts, described their anatomy and we tried as hard as possible to keep up our sexy phone personas. A few years ago, I found a script that I’d written for one of these avatars: “I am a blonde cheerleader with size triple-D breasts. I want to ride you like a bucking bronco inside a camping tent under the moonlight until you moan in delight.” Eat your heart out, E.L. James.
Let me share the most devastating news that a Chinese-American kid in San Francisco can share publicly: I didn’t get into Lowell High School. To understand what a big deal this was to my family, just imagine the public high schools in San Francisco in the 1990s as the Kardashians—and imagine Lowell High School as Kim’s ass. It was the moneymaker. I was made to believe that if my test scores didn’t get me into the city’s premier public magnet school, I was destined for a life of destitution.
Not getting into Lowell—and instead going to Mercy High, an all-girls Catholic school—was a great source of shame and defeat. I was suddenly stupid, a failure. I cried for months, terrified that my life had been broken forever. And I hadn’t just humiliated my family—not getting into Lowell had also lowered me in the eyes of boys at my middle school: “Mercy?” they would jeer. “You will become a lesbian!” Or “Mercy? You will become pregnant!” (Never “Mercy? You will become a pregnant lesbian!”)
I wish I could say that this Lowell rejection bred the spirit of rebellion within me, but instead it created a chip on my shoulder that I carried throughout the rest of my teenage years. My inferiority complex found solace in retreating inward, and I continued my independent study of all the darkness that San Francisco had to offer. At 15, I’d take the 6-Parnassus to Haight Street, dressed in my version of grunge cool: a flannel shirt over a thermal shirt and a Fimo-bead necklace. I would peruse the binders at tattoo parlors, pretending to be in the market for some ink. Then, at home in the bathroom, I would draw on myself in ballpoint the tribal arm cuff or ankle dolphins that I planned to get on my 18th birthday. I was still too much of a good Chinese girl to go through with it, though.
Eventually, I grew to resent my parents’ standards. I became disenchanted with the idea that all my hard work would be redeemed in the future, when a good job and financial success would equate to adult happiness. I wanted to be a happy teenager like the ones I’d see traipsing around the city, who spent their weekends at raves and partied into the night. But the idea of disappointing my family crippled me.
I found solace performing in school plays, because acting meant that I didn’t have to be any of the people that the world wanted me to be. I finally grew into rebellion by the end of high school, often arguing with my folks and letting an inch of midriff show—a transgression basically akin to pole dancing. I was frequently called into the dean’s office for passive-aggressive performances that I gave at our high school assemblies. But I was also my school’s star student, who maintained a perfect GPA and had a cabinet of speech trophies to boot. So while the administrators gave me detention occasionally, they would also boast of my accomplishments to incoming freshmen.
Now I live in Los Angeles, where I have become every tiger mom’s worst nightmare: a performance artist, comedian, and writer. I have supported myself as a working artist in the fringiest corner of our economy for 10 years now. I have toured original one-woman theater shows around the world, addressing everything from the high rates of depression and suicide among Asian-American women to the West’s framing of Africa. I’ve given a commencement speech at my alma mater, UCLA. I’ve crashed the Miss Chinatown pageant as a cigar-smoking contestant. I’ve done stand-up dressed as a giant vagina. And my parents? They’ve been supportive of my work, though they joke that they need to wear paper bags over their heads at my shows.
My liberation has come after a different kind of pilgrimage from the one my grandparents made: a journey that has taken me from the land of repression to the land of oversharing. When I habitually tell strangers about all the things that I was taught to keep to myself, it’s like I’ve landed on my own Plymouth Rock.
Kristina Wong’s newest show, The Wong Street Journal, world-premieres at Z Below in the Mission, June 17–21. ￼￼￼￼￼￼
Originally published in the April issue of San Francisco