First Sgt. Fu Pi is glad the Army celebrates Asian Pacific Heritage month in May. Not because it’s a time for him to show off his cultural traditions, but because he gets to learn about his Chinese heritage.
“It’s a shame to say, but I wish I had a lot of my Asian background,” said Pi, the 267th Quartermaster Company first sergeant, 240th QM Battalion, 49th QM Group.
He was once asked to speak to a class about his Asian background but turned it down because he said he doesn’t know much about it. In fact, he doesn’t know where in China he was born.
When he came to the United States at age 10, Pi wasn’t concerned about preserving his Chinese way of life.
“I just wanted to go places and see things,” Pi said.
He remembers being one of the quickest ones in his family to understand and speak English growing up in Costa Mesa, Calif. But as he was learning English, he was losing his Chinese.
“I still speak Chinese, but it’s very broken,” he said. “When I speak to my mom I throw English words in there.”
He can’t write Chinese anymore. And he’ll have to call his mother to find out when the Chinese New Year fell this year.
That’s not the case for Pvts. Feiyang Li and Qiang Guo, Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 23rd Quatermaster Brigade. For them, the Chinese New Year is the most important holiday.
“All of the family gathers together, just like Christmas for Americans,” Li said.
But in America, family doesn’t seem to be as important as it is for Chinese, Guo said.
“Family members barely see each other here,” Guo said. “In China, we always go and eat together all the time.”
In Li’s view, American parents give their children too much freedom. He grew up being told not to drink, smoke, get any tattoos or hang out with the wrong people.
“And I’m OK with that because my mother gave birth to me,” Li said.
Respecting elders is also an important Chinese value that Li and Guo said can hardly be found in American society.
“We always show respect to our elders. If they tell you to do something, you do it, and you never argue with an elder,” Li said.
Even their family members are addressed formally and never by their first name.
“Here you can hear someone say, ‘Uncle Bob,’ but that’s very impolite. In China, you only say, ‘Uncle,’” he said.
When Chinese fail to be polite and respectful, the entire community will avoid the person and refuse to speak to him.
“You can’t be a good person if you disrespect an elder,” Li said.
Pi grew up with these Chinese values too, but didn’t conform to them.
“I was calling adults by their first name soon after arriving in America,” Pi said. “It wasn’t a rebellion against the old (way of life), it was just being part of a new environment with different rules.”
Li said he recognizes that Americans don’t mean to be disrespectful toward elders, “they just have a more open mind.”
Li came to the United States when he was 13. He grew up in Chinatown, New York City. Guo arrived when he was 11 and made Long Branch, N.J., his new home in America.
They never met each other until they came to Fort Lee for advanced individual training.
Both have had a similar experience growing up in the Northeast region of the United States. It took Guo about three years to feel comfortable speaking English; for Li it was four years.
“I remember knowing what to say, but I would stutter and couldn’t say it in English,” Guo said.
For Li, learning English may have been a slower process because he grew up in a community where everyone spoke Chinese.
Pi, on the other hand, learned quickly to speak English, “but there’s a difference in the written word, and I always had trouble,” he said. “But I was also hanging out with the wrong crowd and doing the wrong things,” he said. He joined the Army, in part, to get out of his town and start a new life.
Li said he joined the Army because he was tired of working in a Chinese restaurant doing the same thing everyday and he wanted a new experience in life.
Guo joined the Army because he didn’t want to get stuck working in his family’s Chinese restaurant and he said he wanted to live more freely.
Li and Guo happen to both be from the city of Fuzhou, located on China’s southeastern coast. They said they have gotten used to American and Army food, but they still miss the Chinese cuisine from the Fujian Province. They don’t know anything about chop suey, lo mein or orange chicken.
“That’s not Chinese food,” Li said. “That’s Cantonese.”
Li and Guo said that most Chinese restaurants in United States represent food from the Canton Province, which is just one out of 32 provinces in China.
Pi said he likes to think that he’s hanging on to his Chinese heritage when he goes out to eat Chinese food and uses chop sticks, but not always.
“I like to use a spoon on my rice because it’s quicker,” Pi said. “It takes forever if you use chop sticks.”
That might be a clue as to how much Pi has assimilated into American culture, but he said that he will never forget that he’s Chinese and the fact that his parents brought him here to the United States.
“History will always be a reminder to me, and being raised in an Asian community, I will always take pride in that,” Pi said. “But I’m here in the Army, so I’ve got two lives.”
Pi became an American citizen in 1993, after serving in the Army for 15 years. Li and Guo are not U.S. citizens, and they aren’t sure when that might change.
But Guo said, “You can expect just as much from me as you could from any other Soldier. You could be a citizen and be lazy, but I’ll work hard even if I’m not a citizen.”
Li said that being born in this country doesn’t guarantee loyalty to the United States.
“We’ve proved our loyalty by joining the Army,” Li said.