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Call Me Marmalade

A Piece by Annelie Chang ~

If people were objects, I would be marmalade. This citrusy, gelatinous creation bearing bits of fruit peel and juice, that has since become a classic pairing to breakfast toast, can perfectly sum up my existence. I’ve had marmalade before and loved it, but I sometimes find myself staring at the marmalade-laden bread before me in confusion. Something about the stiff yet pliable consistency leads me to the ultimate question: is marmalade a jam or a jelly? Now, I never had to worry about whether I was literally jam or jelly, but I find myself relating to marmalade in the sense that my concerns can all be boiled down to one question: what am I?

This question especially plagued me during my ninth grade year of high school. Up until then, there were people who looked like me in every class. I always found it easier to become friends with Asians, because making friends starts with finding similarities, and sharing similar facial features often acts as a similarity to bond over. Besides, chances are they are sharing the same struggles with studies, parents, expectations, and identity. Consequently, the majority of my friends throughout those fourteen years of my life were all Asian – usually Chinese.

I had attended public schools for my elementary and middle school years, but when eighth grade rolled around, my parents decided to enroll me in private school. We had our sights set on Stone Bridge, an all-girls private school sporting a dominating percentage of white students.

Even before applying, I knew about the lack of diversity at Stone Bridge. I never thought of it as a big deal. What I didn’t know was how attending this school would bring me to question everything I knew about myself.

During the first few days of school, we had to perform self-introductions, during which teachers would ask us to share a fun fact about ourselves. Panicked, I often answered with, “I am bilingual. I speak English and Mandarin!” My response was always greeted by a chorus of oohs and ahhs, and requests to hear me speak a few lines of my native tongue. I never shied away from an opportunity to display my Mandarin skills. After all, I was confident in Chinese. My parents and aunties always complimented me on my authentic pronunciation and my understanding of our culture. I never struggled with carrying a conversation with my grandparents, who didn’t speak a word of English. Although I didn’t recognize many Chinese characters, I never really needed to read or write Chinese when navigating conversations or the streets of Nanjing whenever we visited. Seeing how culturally uniform my school was, I was initially proud to be among the few people in my grade who could speak two languages. I wore my uniqueness as a badge of honor. For once, I was different from my peers!

But soon, my differences no longer made me feel proud, I felt isolated. There were no other Asians in my entire grade, and the fact I was the only one made me feel like an outcast. I started paying attention to the popular girls, the ones who fit in and were friends with everyone. I especially noticed that there really wasn’t much that differentiated me from them. They liked sports, sleepovers, and shopping, all things that I liked as well! We all watched TikTok and Netflix, and shopped at the same stores. So why was it so hard for me to connect with them? I believe we could’ve been great friends-we were basically the same people! Basically, despite the fact that they were blonde and I was not.

As I sat in the cafeteria, watching them burst into laughter at some faraway, coveted lunch table, I would’ve given anything to know what was so funny. These girls were living the high school life I had expected: The life of popularity, friends, and glamor. Determined to pursue the vision I had for my high school career, I started looking for ways to change myself, all in hopes of being accepted into their clique. I couldn’t help but notice certain details about these Stone Bridge girls as I watched them through envious eyes. The shoes they wore, the jewelry they adorned, and the TV shows they talked about in the hallways all became ingrained in my head. We were already similar in interests, but similar wasn’t cutting it anymore. I wanted to be the same. I saw Alice Marie wearing a pair of white Nike sneakers, and two weeks later I showed up to school in the same pair. Needless to say, it was an obsession with drastic consequences, although I was blind to it at the time.

Insidiously, I started to lose the person I used to be as I became occupied with becoming the people I saw around me. Instead of watching the TV shows I wanted to watch, I turned to the series I heard Ciara talk about with her friends. When I saw a cute shirt at the mall, my only thought was whether it was something Lara would wear.

This era filled with self-doubt, envy, and a loss of identity lasted around two months. I saw an end to my crisis when my mom announced that our documents were approved and we would be boarding a flight to Shanghai in a few weeks’ time. My mom had been searching for jobs in China because we wanted to be closer to family, but the paperwork process was burdensome and COVID certainly did not help matters. We didn’t know when we were going to receive the greenlight, so the moment we received our documents, we decided to launch this new chapter of our lives as soon as possible.

When I told classmates I was moving to China, so many people asked: “You’re moving back to China?!” which really took me by surprise. I had never lived in China before, so I had no idea why my peers thought I was returning to a past home, when in reality I would be finding myself in a completely foreign environment.

No matter how much I tried to fit in, how many clothes I bought and TV shows I watched just to find a common language, I would never be seen the same as the other girls at this school, no matter how much I saw myself as one of them. I was a Chinese girl. I looked Chinese and I spoke Chinese, so therefore that was my entire identity. When they looked at me, they saw a piece of China, so to them, it was natural for me to be going to China.

After this revelation, I started thinking of the journey as a homecoming of sorts. I would be returning to the country whose language I spoke fluently and whose people looked exactly like me. My days of struggling to fit in were completely over!

When I started international school in Shanghai, it was indeed this way…but it also wasn’t. As I navigated through my first day of school, I was shocked. I’d never been around so many Asians! When lunch time rolled around, as I sat with some new classmates, I felt like a lonely puzzle piece that had finally found its designated home. My tablemates looked exactly like me! The only problem was, I could barely understand what they were talking about. They spoke rapid-fire Mandarin, filled with unfamiliar jargon and slang. I always thought my Mandarin was the best of the best, yet, I found myself desperately trying to grasp at threads of conversation. I realized I was not as Chinese as I thought I was. Perhaps my puzzle piece had a broken ridge.

I watched them talk about Douyin, at one point having to admit that I only had TikTok. When the conversation shifted to TV shows, I could only observe everyone rave about the new episode of their favorite C-drama series, while my expansive knowledge of western media became of no use. Although we weren’t able to understand each others’ pop culture references, I began to realize that friendship could stem from something much deeper than sharing a love for the same TV show, if my time at Stone Bridge had taught me anything.

From sitting at the same cafeteria table at lunch we evolved into eating and going to karaokes together. We started going shopping, having sleepovers, and texting each other about the silliest things. We found ourselves with enough inside jokes to fill up a whole book. I had finally found a friend group where I felt accepted! Sure, I might not be able to understand the occasional Mandarin text or discuss the latest trends on Chinese Tiktok, but my friends loved me for who I was and I felt safe in telling them all my worries and concerns. Truly, life was bliss.

One day, I was helping my friend write a research paper on the toxic effects of American social media. I was telling her about the functions of TikTok and its influence on teens, when I gave her the disclaimer that my subjective observations may not be the most representative of American teens, as a whole. To this, my friend responded: “Annelie, you’re literally half white.”

This took me by surprise because never, in my entire life, had I ever felt white enough. My friend goes on to say how I was “the whitest friend she has”, and therefore was an expert on TikTok Americana. But, I couldn’t help but feel perplexed at this situation. She thought of me as a microcosm of American culture. When she saw me, she saw America. This didn’t seem to be the case at Stone Bridge, though. At that school, they only saw China when they looked at me. They saw my black hair, heard my Mandarin tongue, and saw a Chinese girl. In Shanghai, they saw my American clothes, cringed at my accented Chinese, and saw a western girl.

This all brings back the question: so what am I? Am I an American that’s too Chinese for America, or a Chinese that’s too American for China? Much like how marmalade has too many gelatinous chunks to be a jelly and not enough fruit preserve to be a jam, I drift in some independent, gray area, not knowing who I am and not knowing what others see when they lay eyes on me.

I may never be able to answer such a quintessential question, and only recently did I realize that I’m fine not knowing what I am, as long as I know who I am. I came to this answer when I discovered a few things about myself: I no longer feel ashamed when struggling to order at a restaurant using Mandarin, because my accent isn’t a sign of gross incompetency, but rather a symbol of my life in America. When my friends talk about Douyin, I listen intently because I want to learn more about Chinese culture. Just because I’m unfamiliar with something doesn’t mean I’m an outsider. But rather, it means my horizons have been widened, and there’s so much more I can learn about the world. My friends appreciate me for who I am, so it’s silly for me to ever feel like I’m not enough. So, back to the question of who I am? I am someone that is loved, both by those around me and by myself, finally.

So to those of you who are also unsure whether you’re a jam or a jelly, who cares? Marmalade is delicious, no matter what it is.

Annelie Chang

A student currently living in Shanghai, China. Prior to moving to China, she lived in the United States, moving between Michigan, Massachusetts, and Maryland. In her free time, Annelie enjoys reading, writing, and playing volleyball.

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