Coming of Age with Grace Lin’s “Year of the Dog”

“So, what are you?” 

Since childhood, I’ve had a go-to response: “I’m fifty-percent Taiwanese, twenty-five percent Mexican, and twenty-five percent German.” I was proud to present myself as a unique combination of races and ethnicities, to be “othered” from any and all groups; but this statistical proclamation showed that I only understood myself as a pie chart in which I was part of a whole. I wasn’t allowed full access into any of these identities. I grew tired trying to make others understand how I saw myself: not as one or the other.

In elementary school, I wondered where to put my single assigned pin on the “Where in the world are you from?” map. My teachers asked, “don’t you know where your family came from?” as if my hometown of Oakland, California weren’t a sufficient origin point. I didn’t know how to explain that I felt like I came from so many places yet none of them. I don’t believe that even each of my immigrant grandparents would’ve been able to easily answer this prompt with the answer of a pin; a better image for each of them would be a web of arrows on a globe, representing where they once lived, where they spent the majority of their lives, where their families lived, where they felt attached. 

Books by Grace Lin, a Taiwanese-American children’s author and illustrator, introduced to me by my Taiwanese American mother, were the gateway to my understanding of my ethnic identity and later my gender identity. Her “Year of the Dog” series helped me to see Taiwanese-American as a full way to exist as neither just Taiwanese (nor Chinese) nor American. This helped me to understand the multiplicities of my ethnic identity. As I’ve gotten older and other aspects of my identity have been shaped, this framework has also become integral to my understanding of my queerness, through my relationship to gender. 

In Lin’s Year of the Dog, when protagonist Pacy goes to “TAC camp,” the Taiwanese-American Convention and her peers discover she doesn’t know Chinese or Taiwanese, another girl describes her as a Twinkie, “yellow on the outside but white on the inside.” She cries to her mom, “To Americans, I’m too Chinese, and to Chinese people, I’m too American. So which one am I supposed to be?’” Her mom responds, “ ‘Neither and both. You don’t don’t have to be more one than the other, you’re Chinese American” (105). Pacy responds with frustration about whether in that case she’s Taiwanese American or Chinese American. Her mom does not give any answers, only stating that Pacy can “keep it from getting mixed up because she’s so smart.” This confusion isn’t cleared up when, trying to help Pacy describe her identity to her white classmates, her mom says to “tell them that you’re American,” demonstrating the mom’s own complex relationship with identity descriptors and to whom the identity is being described. 

This realization that Pacy could be both Taiwanese and American, “neither and both,” helped me understand that my own identity didn’t have to be split into a pie chart. At Chinese camp myself one summer, I remember relaying this story to my mom and, about Twinkies, she’d said, “A Twinkie isn’t just the cake or just the cream, it’s the parts put together that makes it a Twinkie.” I started to see my ethnic and racial identity as not spliced into different parts, but as its own thing that could be blended all together as my own experience. 

This realization that Pacy could be both Taiwanese and American, “neither and both,” helped me understand that my own identity didn’t have to be split into a pie chart.

The complex Chinese-American experience is a central theme in Year of the Dog. One of the other most relatable parts to me takes place in the opening chapter, during Chinese New Year. One of Pacy’s tasks is to fill the Chinese New Year candy tray so their “year will be full of sweet things.” After snacking on so much of it, though, there isn’t enough Chinese candy to fill it. Pacy fills the rest of the tray with American M&M’s instead, and after eating a handful of it together, her dad affirms, “We should have both Chinese and American candy for the new year. It’s like us- Chinese-American!” This metaphor of candy and identity was an affirmation for how I could see myself as Taiwanese-American, like Pacy, and then also as Taiwanese- Mexican- German American. With the Twinkie comparison, I was affirmed that I was Taiwanese American, like Pacy, and with the candy metaphor, I visualized an expanded version of this to encompass my Taiwanese-Mexican-German American ethnic identity. It made me excited to define this new identity for myself and to figure out, as though it were candy, what this new blend would taste like. 

In college, I was introduced to the concept of intersectionality, which helped me understand the nuances of my layered identities. Intersectionality, first coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989, is defined by Syracuse University as “the study of overlapping or intersecting social identities and related systems of oppression, domination, or discrimination.” Grace Lin’s books focus on how Chinese-American intersects ethnicity (Chinese) with nationality (American). With this, Lin’s books were one of my first introductions to intersectionality and how different aspects of my identity relate to each other in different ways. 

Although my understanding of my ethnicities is not necessarily intersectional, as it is just all under the same social category of “ethnicity,” the intersectionality that I came to understand through Grace Lin’s books showed me that the identities that people are often forced to choose between often become  an entirely new thing. One way I conceptualize this is with my last name: Wu-Cardona. It ties my parents’ Taiwanese and Mexican last names together to become one new thing in and of itself. 

The ability to look at my ethnicity as different parts that blend to create a new identity for myself has become integral to my understanding of other aspects of my identity, such as my gender. I identify as queer and non-binary, and when given the opportunity to write my pronouns, I use a hyphen to write “she-they.” Often when people write their pronouns, they present them with a slash, for example, “she/her.” In the same way that I see my hyphenated last name as having created the space for my multiracial self, I see the hyphen in my pronouns as the space I exist within. I live and present myself somewhere in the midst of “she” and “they.” 

Grace Lin’s books gave me the permission and acceptance that I did not have to choose between my identities, starting with Taiwanese American, like Grace Lin herself and her characters, then my broader multiethnic identity, and eventually my gender identity. If asked now, I still would place my “Where in the World Are You From” pin where I grew up in the Bay Area. However, a more interesting and accurate question would be “what makes up your identity?” The answer to that would still begin in Oakland, but would travel backwards and forwards through time to amalgamate all of the cultures and places and experiences as they have come together to define me, not as individual separate things, but as a complete and unified identity. 

Jenna Wu-Cardona (she-they) is a third-generation mixed and queer Taiwanese American from the Bay Area. They are a multidisciplinary student and artist who now works throughout Southern California. They love make art through dance and stained glass about identity, creative process, and inspiring and silly conversations they have with their friends.

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