Decolonizing Myself—Part I: Chasing Modernity and the American Dream

Recently, I have been having this feeling that history just keeps catching up to me no matter how hard I try to escape from it. I talked to my black and Asian friends about our unhealthy behavioral patterns—anxiety, anger and aggression, codependency, eating disorder, trauma bonding—all the things that we hate about ourselves and simultaneously make us who we are. I hear the strong desire to break free from these toxic patterns. To become a different version of ourselves. But there seems to be no way out. History keeps catching up to us.

Several years ago, my dad asked me to change my last name from Castillo to Castillo-Chang. At that time, I refused straightaway. Castillo is my grandmother’s family name and Chang was my grandfather’s. (Read my story about my family name here). On one hand, I thought keeping Castillo as my last name was an act of defiance of Chinese patriarchy that preaches to women that we were supposed to be subordinate to our fathers in youth, our husbands in adulthood, and our sons in old age. On the other hand, I thought that Castillo was a more Western sounding name—an evidence that I am not 100% Chinese and that I have some whiteness (however insignificant) in my blood.

Like many people of color, I share my dose of self hate. Self hatred is especially poignant as I grew up in Macau—a place that had been a Portuguese colony for over 500 years. Even though no one told me directly, I had learned at a young age that Portuguese and Chinese people were different and we were not to be mixed. Portuguese people went to Portuguese schools. They spoke Portuguese. They ate at fancy Portuguese restaurants that served steak, fries, and pastries. They drank coffee and wine. And they had well-paying government jobs. In contrast, Chinese people went to Chinese schools. We spoke Cantonese. We ate at hole-in-the-wall Chinese food stands that sold noodles and organ meat. We drank cheap Chinese tea. And we worked for small businesses that could afford to pay little. Then, there were the mixed blood. Those who looked slightly Western because they had prominent nose bridges, deep-set eyes, or wavy hair. Mixed children went to Portuguese or English schools. They spoke a mixture of Cantonese, English, and Portuguese. Even though they weren’t entirely Western, their linguistic ability often allowed them, at the minimum, low-level jobs in the government—the highest-paying employer in town. Racial hierarchy was clear—The Portuguese at the top, mixed people in the middle, and the Chinese at the bottom. And race very much organized people’s economic standings in the city.

One of my fondest childhood memories was going to this restaurant called Wah Lok Yuen with my mom. The literal translation of Wah Lok Yuen is “Chinese Happy Garden”. In Chinese Happy Garden, they served Portuguese food that catered to the Chinese tastebuds—potato soup with Portuguese sausages, egg custard pudding, fruit punches with maraschino cherries. Most of the customers were Chinese. The servers were Chinese, too. They wore uniforms of white dress shirts with maroon vests and black pants with crease. They also shared a peculiar attitude–they acted like they were too good to be serving us. Servers tilted their chins up while writing down our orders. They looked down at us while putting our food on the table. Despite the subpar service, we always went back, usually on the day when my mother’s pay check arrived, and we always ordered the same dish to share between the two of us—minchi—ground beef with rice with a sunny-side-up egg on top, seasoned with bay leaves, soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce, and white pepper. Every first week of the month, I looked forward to the day when we would go to the restaurant and share minchi together. But then, secretly, I also resented the fact that we couldn’t order anything more because we couldn’t afford it. I hated being poor, not because I wanted more food, but because I thought the servers would be nicer to us if only we had money to order more food.

When I became older, my family’s economic circumstance improved as my mother began to make more money working as a bookkeeper during the day and an aerobic instructor during evenings. One day when I was six, she bought new furniture for our 500-square-foot apartment. A dry wall was put up right next to her old full-sized bed to section off a room for me. I got my own loft bed with a reading area clung to the wall. At night when I was scared of the dark, my mother and I talked to each other while lying in our separate beds. I spent much time on the green and pink floral rug reading and organizing my books. I had few toys and no doll. My mom told me that she didn’t believe in dolls. Though I often wished I could own a Barbie.

When I was nine, she bought a second-hand piano as my birthday gift after I spent two years learning piano at the music store in the neighborhood. She said that I had to prove to her that I was serious about music before she would buy me a piano. The black upright piano was to be placed by the wall facing the front door—the only space that could fit it. When the piano arrived, it ended up blocking half of the much admired mural that portrayed a Dutch tulip field on the wall. At the end, I preferred the piano. Now I could play music while staring at the sky of Amsterdam. Also, not many people could afford a piano. I felt lucky. The piano was so close to the entrance that every time we entered the apartment, the door would hit the piano bench. I didn’t mind. In fact, the bench was useful when I wanted to sneak to watch after-school cartoon before my mother came home from work. I often put the bench by the door so when I heard my mother’s keys clinking outside, I could rush and sit on the bench and pretend that I was practicing piano.

When I moved up to 5th grade, my mother was able to afford me Hello Kitty stationery and backpack with cartoon characters on it. At that time, Macau was still an undeveloped place in the eyes of the world. Few international corporations and brands opened their stores in the city. My mother would take me to Hong Kong by ferry before the school year began. I could pick out my own backpack and buy a new pencil case and perhaps a few new clothing items. In Hong Kong—a much richer city—people wore nice clothes and they seemed to be always in a hurry. My mother told me that I had to walk faster in Hong Kong because people could get annoyed at us if we walked too slowly. I was fascinated by the subway system, which didn’t exist in Macau. It was modern and advanced. I wish I was from Hong Kong. I wanted to walk faster, be smarter, and wear nice clothes. I wanted to be modern.

In my elementary school where the majority of my classmates were working class, my nice stationery and backpack helped me win friends. I got good grades. And I was popular and happy. I had a group of close friends and a crush who seemed to like me back. Everything was perfect. But then, everything became different as I transferred to an English middle school. Changing school was my own idea as well as my mother and father’s. We all thought that I deserved to go to a more rigorous school, to be more academically challenged. Also, my father always had this idea that I would one day go to the United States to live with his older sister who was married to a Chinese American man in Florida, so putting me in an English school was a strategy that would eventually help prepare my move to the United States. My mother didn’t oppose the idea. She admired the United States. I remember I often heard her argue with my grandfather about global politics when we ate lunch at his house. Of course, I didn’t understand global politics then. All I knew was that grandpa deeply resented the Japanese and the American for reasons I didn’t understand. My mother, on the other hand, thought we should forget history and embrace progress and modernity created by the West—something that the Chinese should learn from the Japanese as she put it.

In my new school, I didn’t fit in. First of all, I didn’t have an English name. So one day, my mother went to the pastor at a church she occasionally attended and asked for help. He named me Esther. At school, lessons were given in English combined with Cantonese. I didn’t understand what the teachers said most of the time. Keeping up with school work was a struggle during the first two years. We had to read Oliver Twist, Little Women, Pride and Prejudice. Not only did I have a hard time understanding the English words, I also had a hard time understanding the logics of these stories. I couldn’t relate to the characters. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was my favorite, though. I felt bad for the Monster and angry at Victor for his selfishness and ignorance. My classmates at my new school were cool but they could care less about someone like me. I related to the Monster, navigating an unfamiliar world while feeling hurt and misunderstood all the time. I thought if I were to carve out space for myself in this new environment, I could only rely on my smarts—I had to perform better at school.

While I was catching up with school, I thought my last name protected me. Many of my classmates assumed that I had Portuguese blood in me—a mixed child, therefore automatically superior, even though I wasn’t pretty. I never denied being mixed with the Portuguese, even though it wasn’t the truth. Hiding behind a Western sounding name, seeking protection, and stealing privilege from it wasn’t new to me. Growing up, adults often complimented me on my tall nose bridge and the curls of my hair. They said, “Oh, what a pointy nose! And her hair is naturally curly. She looks like a guai mui (Western girl).” I always felt like an imposter—claiming a name that was not mine; having body parts that were foreign to me. When I was twelve, my family doctor asked my mother if she wanted to give me double eyelid surgery—a type of cosmetic surgery where the skin around the eye is reshaped to create a “double eyelid”. He said, “she would look like a true guai mui.” I remember secretly wanting the surgery. But my mom said no. She said that my eyes are the only feature that take after her.

During middle school, I studied hard to improve my English. I read every grammar book that was available to me. I listened to English songs sung by All-4-One and Backstreet Boys. I read English magazines that taught me that Spongebob was the most popular cartoon in America and that Americans liked to eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for breakfast. “If only I was American. Maybe I could also learn to like Spongebob, PB&J, and all things American,” I thought.

I always felt like an imposter—claiming a name that was not mine; having body parts that were foreign to me.

In the late 90s, in Macau and Hong Kong, the surging popularity of US boy bands who sang dreamy love songs reflected the common desire for escaping from the political reality of the impending Communist Chinese takeover of our cities. Fandom for Titanic and the young Leonardo DiCaprio projected our hopeless fantasy of imperial love affair with the West as colonized people. We all wanted a white savior who swears to never break our hearts and be there for us till the day we die. I grew up hoping to escape to the United States. I thought I would be saved that way. I envied my ABC (American born Chinese) family friends who spoke fluent English with American accent and acted like they didn’t have to shoulder the burden of colonialism—so cheerful and care-free—they didn’t have a single thing to worry about. Naively, I thought if I could speak English as well as ABCs, I could also forget what it feels like to be colonized—the persistent feeling of inferiority. I could live the American Dream.

During my high school years, I worked hard to overcome any barriers that would prevent me from going to the United States. By 11th grade, my English was among the best in my high school. I represented my school in English public speaking competitions. I made friends with classmates who had real plans of studying and moving to America. I worked as a piano teacher during weekends while my mother helped me finish my typing homework. After I graduated from high school, I continued to teach piano for a year. I worked six days a week. My mother and I saved up every penny we had to make my American Dream come true. At age 19, I hopped onto a plane with a one-way ticket to America. The night before the flight, I couldn’t stop crying. I went into my mother’s room and lied next to her on her bed in the middle of the night, sobbing like a baby. She was confused as to why I was so overwhelmed with feelings. In her mind, I was going to the United States to get a college degree. In my mind, that was the point of no return.

Published by pandamotherly

I am Dr. Esther HioTong Castillo. I am Panda Mom. I'm a biracial sociologist mama with a 4 year-old daughter. Four years ago, my complicated birth and the sea-change in my career and family had thrown me into the downward spiral of depression and anxiety. Now, I'm sharing my story and writing my way to health and wellness at the intersection of trauma, intergenerational trauma, family, and parenting.

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