My Struggle With Cultural Dysphoria

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Who am I?

Growing up multiracial, I asked myself this question a lot, and just when I thought I was starting to feel comfortable with my identity, I'm thrown another stone. 

Was Mulan Chinese?

I recently learned that Mulan is not Han, but Xianbei. According to Wikipedia, 

"The Xianbei were a Proto-Mongolic ancient nomadic people that once resided in the eastern Eurasian steppes in what is today Mongolia, Inner Mongolia, and Northeastern China" (source). 

The Mulan in the original legend may not be Han Chinese, but she may have still resided in China as Inner Mongolia is part of China. This would technically still make her Chinese, like how being born in America makes you American. However, in an argument over my post about dressing as Mulan for Halloween, someone claimed Mongolians are not Chinese. This offended me because they were in a way claiming I am not Chinese or at least that is how it felt. Maybe some Mongolians feel they aren't Chinese, but I'm sure others do, so such a blanket statement is insulting. At this point, I left the conversation. I didn't know this person and they did not know me, but the stone had been cast.

I recently discovered through a CircleDNA test (I was gifted the kit, but this is in no way a sponsored post) that I am mostly Mongolian, 38.24%. I share my ancestry DNA results below, along with detailed descriptions of each type: 👇 

If Han is the only true Chinese, then I am less than 2% so I refuse to believe only Han can be Chinese. My mom is from Taiwan, but her father (my grandpa) had fled China leaving behind his family. He married in Taiwan and started a new family. I have family in China that I have never met! Even though I did not grow up learning much about the culture my mom grew up with, what bits and pieces I had gathered over the years were Chinese in origin. 

I always considered myself half Chinese and half White. In America, I would never be allowed to call myself white. I was reminded I was different often when I was growing up due to my dark "almond" eyes and dark hair. I was even told I had yellow skin! (All of which were a result of racism). These new DNA results mixed with what this person had claimed, ripped me apart, so I decided to look into whether or not Xianbei were or were not Chinese.

According to Wikipedia

"After suffering several defeats by the end of the Three Kingdoms period, the Xianbei migrated south and settled in close proximity to Han society and submitted as vassals, being granted the titles of dukes" (source).

It sounds like the Xianbei took up Northern Han customs in exchange for land, safety, and entitlement, so it is only natural their cultures collided and combined, including the legend of Mulan. The Xianbei even used the Chinese language and language is culture, so they borrowed from each other. Because of this, I don't think it is fair to say China culturally appropriated Mulan. It's a folk tale, a story, and like all stories, they change over time as they are told. 

Japan and Korea took many Chinese folktales and made them their own too. Does that mean they culturally appropriated Chinese culture? For example, the nine-tailed fox, Huli jing, was originally a part of Chinese folklore, but Japan and Korea both have adopted the fox spirit as part of their culture: Kitsune and Kumiho. There is some evidence that Japan had its own fox spirit before China, but they copied a lot of the same characteristics of the Chinese fox spirit later on. As cultures mix and share their beliefs with one another, it's only natural for them to blend together, creating their own versions.

While cultural appropriation is real, I don't think that is what is happening here. This is just an example of cultures mixing due to their close proximity to each other. They shared their beliefs and stories and as a result, created new folktales.

It may be more correct to say Disney culturally appropriated Mulan as they totally changed her original tale, but to say China did, is a bit of a stretch.

My Cultural Dysphoria

I think Ayesha Sharma defines cultural dysphoria perfectly: 

"Cultural dysphoria, as I see it, is the dissonance between the social expectations for an individual’s broad cultural performance or identity and their desired embodiment of that culture, or uncertainty about where they fit into cultural categories" (source).

I felt cultural dysphoria growing up in America with little connection to my Chinese half, but as an adult, I began to make more effort into learning about my Chinese half. I majored in Asian Languages & Literature, took three years of Chinese, and even started celebrating the holidays with my family. Now, discovering that I have Mongolian ancestry, I feel the dysphoria once more. I know absolutely nothing about Mongolian culture.  

The stone this person threw cut deeply and I am still absorbing all of this new information. One thing I have realized though was that the Mulan debate was probably pointless. She most likely was not even a real person and even if she was, who's to say her name was even Mulan? But one thing's for sure, Disney's Mulan is fictional, and in their version, they made Mulan Han instead of Xianbei.

I think the reason why I took Mulan not being Chinese personally was because growing up as a Chinese American, Mulan was the first major Chinese character that everyone loved, and I clung to that. As a little kid, I got excited whenever I saw a Chinese character because it was someone who looked like me, someone I could maybe connect with. Little kids may have loved Rugrats and Dora the Explorer, but I loved the lesser-known Sagwa and Ni Hao Kai Lan. The issue is no one knew these shows like they knew Mulan. This is why representation and inclusion matter. All kids want is to feel they belong and it is very hard when society tells them they don't.

Disney's fictional Mulan is Han Chinese and she will forever be one of my favorite Disney characters as she was the first to make me feel seen. Whether or not the Mulan in the legend is Chinese? Well given what I read, it's debatable. She's probably not Han, but ethnicity and nationality are two different things, so even though she may be Xianbei, she may still also be Chinese if she lived in China. China has 56 ethnic groups, so there are definitely more than just Han.

So while my ancestors may be from Inner Mongolia, I do not believe that makes me any less Chinese, and being half Chinese does not make me any less American.

I personally feel more comfortable identifying as Chinese American because even though my nationality is American, I will never be able to escape the inevitable: "Where are you from?" To which I want to scream because I know America will never be a good enough answer despite being born in the United States and having a white father. 

I still feel distant from my Chinese culture, despite my best efforts to learn more. I have enrolled my daughter in a Chinese immersion preschool in hopes she will have more opportunities to learn not only the language but the culture. Her teachers even recognized me as Chinese descent and asked if I spoke mandarin to which I had to sadly say I'm not fluent. It's just another painful reminder of how stuck I am in between two worlds.

Maybe one day I will no longer feel like I'm buried under a pile of rocks, but right now the stones still feel heavy.