I had a very what people might call “typical” Chinese-American upbringing; I spoke Chinese with my parents at home, unwillingly sat through two hours of Chinese school every week, ate moon cakes during the mid-Autumn festival and received red envelopes filled with money during Chinese New Year.
I also had my phases of wishing I was a “real” American rather than a Chinese-American, but I got over it in high school. I visited China. I listened to Chinese music. In college, I took a step further and minored in Chinese. And after college, I moved to Beijing.
It’s funny because I’ve always thought that my progression from despising my culture to loving it has made me pretty “Chinese.” It’s only after I’ve moved to Beijing, however, that I’ve realized just how American I am. And the problem is, when you’re a foreigner in China who looks Chinese, you can get caught up in a weird sort of identity crisis.
When I first got to Beijing, I met a Caucasian American who’d been here for half a year. While talking about his experiences, he pointed out one observation of his: “The foreigners sort of stick together here,” he said. “When you’re on the subway with another foreigner, there’s typically a look of understanding that passes between the two of you. A way of saying ‘I get what you’re going through.’” These words stuck with me, but not in quite the same way that he meant. I started noticing that to another foreigner on the subway, I must just look like another Chinese person. I never get that look of understanding from another expat.
I once got into the elevator of my apartment building with three other girls: one Chinese and two American. Because the other three girls were going to floors below mine, I didn’t immediately push the elevator button to my floor. “Those two must be going to the same floor.” one of the American girls said to the other, in plain audible English. “Yeah.” the second American girl replied. When the Chinese girl got off, I pushed my floor’s button. “Nope, never mind.” The first girl said. They weren’t being rude, so I didn’t give any sort of indication that I knew exactly what they were saying, but it still made my blood boil a bit at the ignorance and automatic assumption of the two girls that just because I looked Chinese, I was Chinese.
At the same time, this type of thing happens in reverse as well. So often I find myself with non-Asian friends who speak and understand a highly proficient to fluent amount of Chinese. Yet when we go out to shop or eat, I am the one the street vendors and waiters address. They’ll advertise their product to us, and then always say the same line to me while gesturing to my companions: “Please tell your friends.”
And with this type of treatment comes an interesting sense of identity that in a way contradicts my earlier point: I feel the need to be as Chinese as possible. Specifically, I feel like there is some expectation that I follow that states that I should know perfect Mandarin. I can’t even count the number of times that I’ve given an order at a restaurant only to get something other than what I wanted. And I’m too ashamed at the fact that I, a perfectly Chinese-looking person, might have misspoke to tell the waiter that I ordered something different.
At work, I feel awkward asking coworkers to explain words and phrases to me in simpler Chinese. More often than not, I find myself nodding along when they speak to me, forcing myself to use context clues to understand any new vocabulary and sayings rather than simply asking for definitions.
I guess the interesting thing I’ve observed is that while America is such a melting pot, China is not. In America, though people might be classified by race and ethnicity, there are subcultures that combine different identities. In America, I am Chinese-American. In China, however, there are two dominant cultures: Chinese and not-Chinese. And unfortunately, I find myself caught in-between these two identities.