Gung hay fat choy.
Those four simple, monosyllabic words — when translated from Chinese — literally mean, “Best wishes and congratulations. Have a prosperous and good year.”
It’s how Chinese people wish one another a happy new year on Chinese New Year, which came and went this past Monday.
They are four words, containing a grand total of 14 letters. They form a simple platitude, meant to bring about good cheer on a Chinese holiday.
For me, though, they mean so much more than that, mostly because in what is starting to seem like a very long time ago, I never would have guessed I’d ever be using those words — or any other Chinese words — in a newspaper column. Truth be told, there was a time in my life when I never thought I’d be using Chinese words in public at all.
That’s because, for the first half of my life, I didn’t want to speak Chinese.
I didn’t want to think Chinese.
I didn’t want to admit I was Chinese.
And — although I’m not exactly proud of this now — I didn’t want to be Chinese.
I suppose my self-loathing actually started in junior high school, that glorious time of life when your fellow teenagers — in a concerted effort to make sure nobody else notices their own insecurities and foibles — identify those who are slightly different from the norm, then alienate, ostracize and, in some cases, abuse them.
It’s a lot like “Lord of the Flies,” only with Salisbury steak for lunch and a mandated clothing change in front of your peers for gym class.
After six years of elementary education at a small, insular and nurturing private school, I was dumped into the junior high mix quite unaware of what awaited me.
For as quickly as I was identified by my fellow classmates as being “different,” you would have thought I walked through the front door of Troy Junior High School banging a gong and lighting off firecrackers — which, based on some of the comments I received those two years, wouldn’t have been entirely unexpected.
That first year especially was one of the worst years of my life. Some of my classmates flat out used racial slurs either in my presence or behind my back, while some chose a slightly more implicit form of racism, asking my such respectful questions as, “Do your parents speak English?” or “Do you eat rice for breakfast?”
While junior high school was a low point — I would actually cry myself to sleep at night on more than one occasion, hoping I would wake up white and indistinguishable from the majority of my classmates — it didn’t get much better in high school.
Of course, there was no hiding who or what I was — although it didn’t stop me from trying. I would try to use my first name only in phone conversations — hiding my very Chinese-sounding surname. I hoped that by only using my Anglo-sounding first name, people would never figure out what I was trying to hide.
Dear God, am I ashamed this happened.
There is, however, a happy ending in all of this. Eventually I went off to college — at The Ohio State University, one of the largest, most diverse campuses in the nation — and found a group of people who accepted me and respected me for who I was. They looked beyond who I was on the outside and saw me for what I had to offer them as a person. They befriended me for who I was — and what I was was incidental.
It’s incredible what a little bit of support and self-confidence can do for a person. I left that campus four years later a different person than when I had arrived. I was proud of who I was. I was proud of the sacrifices my immigrant grandparents and my parents had made so I could have a better life in the United States.
I was proud to be a Fong.
It’s a little ironic, now, that the same name I once was afraid to call myself is the same name I go by almost exclusively now. Only a small circle of family and friends call me “David” — to most of the rest of the world, I’m Fong — and that makes me awfully proud to say.
I wouldn’t have it any other way.
I am glad I moved back to Troy and have found a community willing to embrace me. I am grateful I found a wife who loves me, no matter what color my skin may be. I am proud to have two small children of Chinese descent.
I hope I can raise my children to always be proud of their ancestry. I hope I can give them the confidence they need to hold their heads high, even when they are staring into the face of racism and bigotry. I hope they will never have to go through what I did.
I’ll do every thing I can to give them the self-confidence they need to go through life.
Maybe I’ll make this my New Year’s resolution. My Chinese New Year’s resolution.
Gung hay fat choy, indeed.
Troy’s very own David Fong appears on Thursdays in the Troy Daily News. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org; follow him on Twitter @thefong