Recently a Kunming language school I have taught at in the past asked me to recommend a foreign English teacher. As it happened, an American friend of mine was looking for extra work. He’s in his mid-30s, speaks some Chinese, has years of experience, and even has a proper ESL teaching certificate. It seemed like a perfect match. There was just one problem.
My friend is Chinese-American.
When I mentioned this fact to the head of the school, she frowned and looked down. She then said that while she herself harbors no grudge against English teachers who look Chinese, such a teacher would be unacceptable to the parents of the children at the school. She then, in an futile attempt to be helpful, suggested I recommend a white friend for the job, even one ‘who doesn’t speak much English’.
When I broke the news to my friend, he took it better than I expected. ‘It’s nothing new,’ he said, adding that even when he lived in Shanghai he encountered similar discrimination.
I was reminded of this story this morning while reading this post in Foreign Policy magazine’s excellent Passport blog. The author, a Chinese-American like my friend, recounts the derision, discrimination, and just plain confusion he encountered as a so-called huaqiao in China.
At first, the difficulty of many Chinese to deal with foreigners of Chinese ancestry seems quite peculiar. Millions of people in China know of relatives who live outside of the country and are well aware of the ubiquity of Chinatowns in just about every major Western city. When I tell people in China that I come from San Francisco, they often immediately bring up the city’s famously large Chinese population.
Yet despite the great numbers of Chinese who have traveled and lived abroad- much less emigrated- the vast majority of people in this country inhabit a very Sino-centric universe. In the rural hinterland, where roughly three-fifths of the population resides, many people have never left their province, much less country. Many have never spoken to a foreigner in their life. For these Chinese, the only trappings of Western culture they are familiar with might be tin cans of Sprite and Coke.
We Americans are often accused, with some justification, of being unworldly. This trait stems from the vast size of the United States, the fact that one of our two neighbors is culturally similar Canada, and the convenience of being native speakers of the world’s de facto lingua franca. Yet most non-aboriginal Americans, Canadians, Australians, and New Zealanders can clearly trace their ancestry back to various ‘Old World’ countries. In my own case, being of mixed Italian/Norwegian blood carries as much significance to me as being born and raised in the United States.
As a result of our ‘new world’ mentality, we are able to differentiate ethnicity and nationality without much difficulty at all. In China, a vast, largely poor nation that has sustained several periods of complete isolation in its history, ethnicity and nationality are knotted together firmly in the national psyche.
Slowly, things are changing. Greater numbers of Chinese nationals are able to study and work overseas than ever before, while simultaneously greater numbers of foreigners are choosing to live in China. The net effect of these movements should greatly alleviate the notion that people, like my friend, of Chinese appearance are necessarily Chinese.