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An Updated Vocabulary:
FOBs, Twinkies, and the New Generation

My sister is looking for a good Chinese school for her kids—one with character memorization homework, Chinese yo-yo, the works.  All the stuff she and I used to hate, well, that’s what she wants.  She says that the hipster Chicago language schools are just not cutting it anymore.  The kids need more than Ni Hao Kai Lan and Chinese New Year to understand that this is a part of who they are.  Now is the time to teach them that being Chinese is important and relevant for reasons beyond having a wider selection of snack foods. 

In line with this effort, we have been trying to get my sister’s kids to use the proper familial titles in greeting their elders.  Some titles are easy: the maternal grandparents, Waigong and Waipuo, and paternal grandparents, Yieyie and Nainai.  After that, the waters get muddy.  There are distinctions for everything: paternal or maternal, blood relation or relation-by-marriage, elder or younger, married or unmarried.  We recently realized that Ernai, the title we had been using to address my father’s stepmother for the past twenty years, does not mean “second grandmother” as we thought, but rather, “concubine.”  The issue is not so much insult as inaccuracy.  Concubines and mistresses are a part of our family heritage; we are Chinese after all. 

Wai Gong, Wai Puo, and three of their children, Taiwan, c. 1954.  Not pictured is their oldest daughter, who remained in China with relatives during the evacuation to Taiwan.

My older sister, younger brother, and I were all born in the United States.  Our parents were part of a generation—children of the Kuomintang political party—born and raised in Taiwan, essentially in exile.  Both sets of grandparents had fled China during the civil war in the 1940s with the intention of going back home as soon as the turmoil had blown over.  They had no way of knowing that the Iron Curtain would shut the door on them for four decades and leave them with no way of communicating or returning to China.  By the time my mother’s parents returned in 1988, friends and family had moved away or died.  The land had changed and they had become strangers.  Taiwan was home to my parents, but China remained a steadfast presence looming in the background, the motherland they did not know.

My siblings and I had giants looming in the background too, as inescapable and overbearing as a crowd of ghostly ancestors.  Most of our understanding of being Chinese came from Taiwan, and most of our history was embedded in the mainland.  But we were children growing up among the ice cream trucks and tree-lined parks of suburban America.  China and Taiwan were easy to ignore. 

Left: Christmas in Albany, New York, 1983.  My parents, sister, and a family friend as Santa.

Right: Feeling Is Good.”  Me and my sister.  Virginia, c. 1990.

The Chinese immigrant population has a term for us: ABCs, or American-Born Chinese.  We are our own race, almost.  America was our home but it didn’t know what to do with us.  As children, we saw very little evidence of people like us in mainstream culture, and were left with no vocabulary for who we were or who we could be.  What we did know was that our perfect English and knowledge of all the right books and TV shows were not enough to buy us an equitable place in America.  We needed more, we needed to change, to identify and then eliminate as many of our isolating differences as we could.  Some were easy to spot, like clothing that featured “Engrish” phrases (my “FEELING IS GOOD” sweater) and the leftovers of stir-fried tofu gan or pork sung that our mother packed us for school lunch (when I begged for “something normal, like a sandwich,” she started packing the leftovers between slices of white bread).  But some differences were harder to spot, as there is nothing innately Chinese about math club and violin lessons.  Just to be safe, we avoided them all. 

“Fob” is an acronym for “fresh off the boat” and it came to represent everything that we found embarrassing—all the exaggerated stereotypical characteristics of Asian immigrants.  Like an obscenity, it could be used as almost any part of speech and modified to fit any situation.  It could be vicious.  Playwright David Henry Hwang put it this way in “FOB”, his play about the tensions between ABCs and recent immigrants: “What words can you think of that characterize the FOB?  Clumsy, ugly, greasy FOB.  Loud, stupid, four-eyed FOB.”[1]  In its worst form, fobbishness was bizarre and repulsive, appearing amidst the clanging of gongs like Long Duk Dong in Sixteen Candles.  At its best, it was harmless, but still alien.  We accused everybody of being fobs: our parents, each other, the Yellow Power Ranger.  We teased foreign-born friends whose upper arms bore vaccination scar “fob marks.”  It was self-preservation—more from one another than from the outside world.  Our white neighbors could be ignorant or even dismissive, but they rarely judged us with the degree of asperity with which we judged ourselves.

At the other end of the social spectrum is the twinkie—yellow on the outside and white on the inside.  Like “oreo” and “coconut,” “twinkie” is a (pejorative) term for non-whites who have completely assimilated into white American culture.  People could become twinkies as a result of their assertion of independence from parental rules and methods, or as a reaction against the dominant culture’s expectations (in our case, to become math nerds, china dolls, and kung-fu mystics), or simply because of the desire to fit in.  We rebelled against Chinese school and joined sports teams instead of orchestra.  For my elementary school’s Grandparents Day, I gave a presentation about baking cookies with grandma, never mind that my waipuo’s “baking” consisted of steaming scallion buns in the rice cooker.  My props were an apron, a metal bowl, and a rice paddle, because we didn’t own a wooden spoon. 

Looking back, it seems obvious that this was all wasted energy.  Our elders always said that one day we would regret it.  My parents saw it coming and tried to stem the tide, but what power did they have against the flood of American culture and children thirsty to swallow as much of it as they could? 

The term “fob” has lost some of its teeth in recent years.  Blogs springing up with names drawn from variations of the word (e.g., fobolicious, fobulous, fob snob) demonstrate pride in the particular experiences of Asians in Americans.  One popular blog-turned book by Teresa Wu and Serena Wu, called My Mom is a FOB, puts an affectionate spin on the term.  Teresa Wu writes: “Though F.O.B. was once a derogatory term, we’d like to think that we’ve seized ownership of it… it’s no longer a slur.  It’s defined by our pride in having held on steadfastly to our half-Asian, half-American culture.”[2]  Comedienne Margaret Cho, one of the first Korean-American celebrities to make a name for herself without succumbing to Asian typecasting, wrote about her own fob mom and twinkie dad in the foreword of the My Mom is a FOB.  Taiwanese-American chef Eddie Huang’s memoir is titled Fresh Off the Boat.  He describes a visit to Taiwan with his father as a revelation: “For the first, time, I saw him and Taiwan as part of me.  It wasn’t a country full of kids with salad bowl haircuts and TI-82s.  There were bosses in stretch Benzes, bad bitches selling betel nut, and master chefs making Dan-Dan Mian.  It was a country with characters, characters that I related to and found interesting.”[3] 

By the time I visited China as an adult, I had finally shed my dismissive attitude towards all things fob, and was just beginning to inquire into our family history.  I suppose I expected a homecoming or an awakening of ancestral memory.  But the people heard my accent, looked in my face, and asked if I was Korean.  “You can believe it or not,” says Lee, a Chinese-American character in John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, “I’m less foreign here than I was in China.” [4]  

We were tourists in Taiwan, c. 1994

My brother is living in Taiwan now.  He used to be the twinkiest of us all, having grown up with two older sisters jabbering away in English and parents too weary of the whining to force him to attend Chinese school.  Now he is making up for it with calligraphy lessons and full cultural immersion.  He interacts with our relatives as real conversation partners, which should not be remarkable but is.  Try as he might, though, he is still an out-and-out foreigner.  On the phone he tells me that friendships are hard to come by.  His sense of humor doesn’t translate.  I try to imagine this: my funny, original little brother, reduced to a humorless American-fob.  What depths of wit have we missed elsewhere?  The only Chinese jokes I can think of involve the language’s tones, dialects, and double entendre.  “Puns,” I tell him, “Try puns.”

We seem to be traveling an elliptical orbit back around towards China, as if after so many years of denial and rejection, it’s finally safe.  My grandparents never again felt quite comfortable there, but we still have family who call China home.  My mother’s oldest sister was left behind with relatives as a toddler when her parents fled to Taiwan in haste.  They expected to return for their firstborn in a matter of months.  She was middle-aged by the time she reunited with her family and met her five siblings for the first time.  My brother, sister, and I did not know that she existed until we had already grown accustomed to the titles for our other two maternal aunts.  Adding an eldest aunt complicated the rules, which dictates that aunts in excess of two be numbered in descending order.  But rules be damned, we are Americans (we do what we want!), and so we call her da-da ahyi, or “big big aunt.”  Da-da ahyi looks like my mother except fast-forwarded several years.  Her smile takes up half her face.  She speaks with a heavy Hunan accent that I can’t really understand but like hearing anyway. 

My mother and two older sisters.  Hunan, China, 2003.  This photograph documents the second time my mother (center) met her oldest sister (far right).

I began recording interviews with my parents a few years ago.  I marvel at the stories I did not know because I did not ask—stories about long-lost sisters, the Kuomintang, concubines, monks, bound feet, and fortune-tellers, things that seem fabulously exotic but are a part of my heritage.  I’m hoping to tell these stories to my nieces and nephew when they are old enough to care.  Maybe by that time, my sister will have found a good Chinese school that they will hate and try to quit, as we did, and then regret quitting, as we have.  It’s on us to give them a new vocabulary for what it’s like to be divided yet whole.  I hope it does not take them long to learn it.  In the meantime, we will do what we can to prepare them for when they are called upon to stand, bow, and acknowledge their elders.

Hunan, China, 2010.  My cousin once removed (and grandson of Da-da Ahyi) plays near the house where Wai Puo grew up.

[1] Hwang, David Henry. FOB. 1980. New York: Dramatists Play Service, Inc, 1983.  Print.

[2] Wu, Serena and Teresa Wu.  My Mom Is a FOB: Earnest Advice in Broken English from Your Asian-American Mom.  New York: Penguin Group, 2011.  Print.

[3] Huang, Eddie.  Fresh Off the Boat: A Memoir.  New York: Spiegal & Grau.  2013.  Print.  P. 53-54.

[4] Steinbeck, John.  East of Eden. 1952. New York: Penguin, 2002.  Print.  P. 162

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