Chinese AmericanI 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.


  1. Hi Cynthia,

    Wow! I’ve been following Lost Laowai for a while, but I haven’t felt compelled to comment on any posts…until now. I can definitely relate to your experiences/feelings of “in-between-ness,” especially in Beijing. Although Filipino-American, I’ve often been mistaken for ethnic Chinese (by Filipinos, Chinese, and other folk), and in Beijing, I found tiring (although also a bit amusing!) to have to explain my lineage, and how it is that I speak “perfect” English but no Chinese at all.

    You’re lucky that you have at least some grasp of the language.It’s rather important in negotiating some kind of space for yourself, even if that goal of feeling at “home” isn’t quite attainable.

    Anyway, I hope that you’re enjoying your new life there. 🙂

    • Hi Charisma,

      It’s really interesting that you bring up this point (of being non-Chinese but still mistaken as Chinese). I’ve spent a lot of time wondering what it would be like to be of a different Asian descent and in China – would I still feel some sort of need to act Chinese, even though I never grew up in any sort of Chinese environment?

      I’m travelling around to other Asian countries later this month, and I’m looking forward to seeing what different perspectives I might have!

  2. Cynthia, in fairness, if you are ethnically Chinese then you look Chinese. You cant expect that Chinese will think youre not!

    If your foreign friends speak to the vendor in good Chinese, thus demonstrating their ability to communicate without crutches, i understand your confusion. But if they arrive speaking Englsh, then naturally the vendor will ask you to translate.

    If you mean they get patronized by the vendor, who refuses to listen to their Chinese as Chinese and builds a Chinese Wall around you and him or her, yes, thats really annoying and could happen.

    In China,but not elsewhere really. Chinese are China and the rest of the world. Sometimes.

    • ad sellers or placing orders in restaurant, there is some switch in brain of chinese which disable understanding of anything if it’s spoken by non-chinese, you speak to them in Chinese placing order and anyway they will ask your chinese wife what you wanna order, that’s just stupid, assuming that someone doesn’t speak Chinese and then not listening what he is ordering in fluent chinese

      ad asking coworkers for simpler chinese, that’s nothing related only to ABC, my taiwanese collague has occasionaly same problems with chinese coworkers and her pinyin is actually worse than pinyin of some westerner

      but whole point of article is quite simple, you look like local so local people expect you are one of them, what is so strange about this? if me white blonde guy will be in germany people will also talk to me by default in german although i am not german, so what is actually point of this article? she has chinese origins, she looks chinese so people in china expects to be chinese. i would actually expect for her to have more problems or confusions in US, although US nation is so diverse that nobody expect anyone anymore to be typical american unlike europe which is not so influenced by immigration and some countries are still quite homogenous that if you are not caucasian you are expected to be foreigner

      • Hi M (and T),

        Thanks for your comments! I do agree, and as you can see, my article agrees with your points as well: that because I look Chinese, the people in China will treat me as Chinese.

        The main point of this article is to describe a personal struggle with my identity. In China, there is a dichotomy of two groups: either “Chinese” or “not-Chinese.” Unfortunately, I find that I cannot fit in 100% with either of these groups. I’m not completely Chinese, because I grew up in America and speak English as my mother tongue, yet I’m not exactly “not-Chinese” either because I was born into a Chinese household, and thus learned Chinese history, culture, traditions, etc. and have a relatively good grasp on the Chinese language. The “crisis” that I struggle with is that I’m a part of both groups, yet at the same time I’m also not.

        I agree – there’s nothing I can really do about it, and I’m not looking for anyone to blame. This article is merely a summary of my observations.

      • so basically as I see your problem with identity is not in US because it’s so diverse that nobody expects from you to be foreigner, it’s not with Chinese in China who expect you to be Chinese which is totally understandable, your problem is that foreigners in China consider you because of your appearance as local/Chinese.

        well, dunno what to do about it, how to let them now that you are one of them and not just another ***** (put adjective depending on your experiences) Chinese. I can understand it can be offending (sometimes people think I am from Russia), but I think there is not much you can do, maybe do and wear something what typical chinese girls don’t wear, to separate from them by unhealthy way would be smoking, because at least by my experience still when I see smoking young asian woman in beijing it will be in 90% it will be korean/japanese/westerner, don’t have other idea how to distinguish yourself from other chinese if you want to be recognized as foreigner by fellow foreigners

    • Dear Cynthia. I was born in France lived till there I was eight years old. Did my time in the French Army and the US Army. I feel not only bilingual but also bicultural. You were born in the USA raised in Chinese Culture but you were in the US, I believe that being raised in a US culture all around you is different than being raised in your Countries Culture. This is a very interesting subject. Did you ever consider writing a book on your experiences?

  3. Uhh well I went to Finland and my family is 100% Finnish background although I was born in the States. Guess what? You are not unique. Exact same experience… I realized I was actually American even though I dreamed I was Finnish for my whole life. Time to wake up and realize who your friends are

    • I don’t think this has anything to do with “unique” experiences, but only experiences. Why the cynicism?

      The biggest different between the two though is that with Finnish language skills you could conveniently blend in to either group — with the Finland expats and the locals. Cynthia’s post (great post by the way Cynthia) illustrates something that while easily duplicated under the right circumstances with the right people in the right country, is unique for the typical expat stories we cover here on Lost Laowai.

  4. Yes, I think its a summary of feelings and observations and of course its a great post for Lost Laowai. I agree with M completely about this sitch,and Cynthia implies this switch too. It s strange. This is Chinese. An amazing white woman was ordering inthe excellent Bookworm in Chengdu with her Chinese friend, making very detailed orders for salad etc. She was amazing, because she had not only great Chinese but a physical Chinese personality, including the whole range of physical gestures and noises that a fifty year old Chinese woman from Chengdu makes. She was English,so..amazing! But the waiters bought her the wrong food twice! I ordered with my comparatively pedestrian level of Chinese and they got it right. Butthe waiters couldnt handle an English woman who ad the Chinese personality and language more Chinese than a Chinese woman. It was too much. I was angry to be honest. Why?! These were new graduate waiters and intellectuals working in thr posh hive of dissidency called The Bookworm.

    You dont know how right you are, Cyntha and M. This is a priori categorization,not a posteriori or empirical. It is projected from the mind and preexists external phenonema. Thats why it doesnt matter how good a Westerner is at Chinese if hes with a person that loos Chinese but cant speak it as well.

    • Okay, let me add my two cents to the discussion. I am an Indian spent 25 years in the US and have now been living in China. I think I can objectively compare the two cultures (American and Chinese) dare I say better than say a typical American or a Chinese… While I was living in the US..I got tired of explaining to typical Americans how I could speak English soooo well (I always sensed some degree of patronising in those remarks!!). I also noticed that Americans did not accept my (nearly) perfect English as well as my sense of humor!! – this is similar to the Chinese not accepting perfect Chinese spoken by the English lady… Another observation is that Americans would be more accepting of me if I confessed that I did not speak English well and that they should excuse me ( I hated to do this since.. as u guessed it I thought I spoke the bloody language blody well!!). Okay what is my point here? the point here is that there is a similarity between the two cultures in so far as their behaviour towards foreigners. I would like to go on and make a comment that it is strange that Americans behave the way they do towards foreigners vis-a-vis Chinese since Americans are exposed to (whether they like it or not!!) multiculturism for a longer time than the Chinese…so one brownie point for the Chinese..

      • Americans, accept a lot of things we love culture and new things. Some people just dont know how to react to difference most do. Americans are for the most part great people but there are butt holes.

      • It was your accent or style of speech that caused the issues. I’m “ethnically” different (parents were immigrants) as well but I’ve yet to meet a white American who has given me a weird attitude or look. It’s because I talk like a native American.

        BTW – I’ve had the same culture shock when I speak to people from my “native” group. They think I’m just like them and then I open my mouth and they go “crap”. (Note – I imagine the “crap” thought. They probably are thinking something entirely different.) You can almost see them thinking and failing at reconciling the fact that I’m the same ethnic group (my skin is not white) and that I can barely speak the language. I sort of get it. All their life, they were surrounded by people JUST LIKE THEM. They got conditioned by that homogeneity and now, they struggle because ethnicity and nationality and identity are not the same thing.

        I think every first generation (generation that grew up in a foreign country such as America with parents say from India) struggles with that sense of identity and culture and how to reconcile the different aspects of culture and identity within their worldview. There are somethings that I am distinctly American in. In others, I follow traditional ethnic culture lines. I’ve always considered it a blessing because I can see two worlds and choose where I wish to stand on any topic instead of following one way of thinking. Note, that means a lot of angst with my parents when I choose to go American on them.

  5. She had the murmurs the caring sounds the half utterances the gossipy elbow lean the massive wisdom all-comprehending smile of..

    an fifty year old Chinese woman. And yet the comedy of errors that followed her orders..

  6. Well Cynthia, I must say that having lived in China for a while, I often can tell Chinese-Americans from Mainland Chinese, especially in areas of Beijing where there are lots of foreigners and you expect it. It depends on the person though, there are some who are more indistinguishable from the locals.

    I sympathize with you on one point, it must be frustrating not to get complimented about your Chinese the whole time like I do, but rather to get people wondering why you don’t speak it better.

    Another thing is that sometimes not looking like a foreigner in China can be useful and avoid uncomfortable levels of attention. I myself am happy I am not very tall and blonde like some of my friends, who get much more attention than I do.

  7. My situation is almost exactly the same as yours but because of my environment, there aren’t nearly as many non-Asians who speak near-fluent Chinese. Instead I often find myself associating with ethnic Chinese people, allowing my Chinese to improve dramatically. The downside to that is that they often forget your American identity, and that there are things you won’t be able to understand. I used to just nod along a lot, but that… got tiring, and some of them have realized that they need to explain things to me like they would need to for the average “laowai”. But at the same time, I’ve learned that they find it “easier” to explain these things to me than non-Asians, and they often see me as “one of them”. As much as I try to emphasize the difference, and the importance of my American identity, it’s something that’s difficult for them to comprehend. They see Chinese Americans more as a Chinese person who can speak fluent English than someone who has grown up with both cultures, thus when I do things slightly “non-Chinese”, it can surprise them. This definitely also doesn’t help the fact that I’m generally surrounded by more “conservative” Chinese. I find that it’s the easier to talk to those who are more aware of the American culture BEYOND what is seen on mass media, and are just more open-minded. Anyways, I completely understand your frustrations, and frankly, kind of relieved to know that there are other Chinese Americans are going through the same frustrations as I do. 🙂

  8. Pingback: A Chinese-American's Identity Crisis in China ~ Lost Laowai China ... | Chinese American history |

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  10. Dear Cynthia,
    I think you are 100% chinese, you should get over the identity crisis and embrace your culture and be proud. You’re mother tongue is Chinese ( I’m sure that’s what your parents spoke to you), your parents are chinese, your ancestors are, you ethnically are, how you were raised is chinese, the food you ate growing up is chinese etc, the only thing that isn’t fully chinese, are your surroundings when you were growing up. There are HK chinese, Southern Chinese, Northern Chinese, malaysian chinese, african chinese etc. To me you are an American Chinese; a chinese person with strong american influence and knowledge.
    If a goat is born in a sheep shed, does it become a goat? No, but it may understand goats better, know to eat what they eat, play like them but it’s still not one of them.

    • I’m afaid being a certain person, say, CHinese or Jewish – is an ethnic matter. It’s in your genotype. There are non-permissables, like blue eyes, blond hair – and yes, both your parents are Chinese.

      Being American means NOTHING! The country was created by Puritans fleeing Charles the Second from England and disenfranchised peasants when ENgland became industrialised. IT is not a ehtnic description!! THe Germans in America are probably German. Two hundred years away they will still be German.

      THe American attidude and culture? What is it?

      Do tell..

      We can identify a CHinese just like we can identify Jews – by genes.

      You’re CHinese.

  11. Three things I want to say:

    1. To “T”: You are oversimplifying the matter. A person’s identity is not simply determined by their genes. Cythia’s genes say she is “Made in China”, but that isn’t nearly as important to her sense of identity as her social upbringing. Saying “You’re Chinese because it’s in your DNA – end of story” is ridiculous! I have German blood and I have English blood. But I am not a Brit – I am an American.

    To say that “Being American means nothing” makes no sense whatsoever. America is a nation and a culture unto itself, as is China. To be Chinese is not just to have black hair and Asian eyes and such… It is a cultural identity. Many Japanese could be mistaken for Chinese, but their attitudes, their life experiences, their culture would be completely different.

    Cynthia’s post is all about her struggle of feeling like she is caught between those two worlds: the American and Chinese cultural identity. Some advantages of both, but feeling like she truly belongs to neither. I found it to be a fascinating read. And that brings me to my second point…

    2. Negativity. There seems to be a lot of negativity in the comments here, directed toward Cynthia. I think this is unthinking, unnecessary, and irritating. If you don’t like Cynthia’s post, that’s fine. But there’s no need to put her down or to criticize. If it irks you that much, then how about you just go read something else?

    3. One other thing. I thought it was funny reading the comments here about certain Chinese whose brains shut down when they experience foreigners speaking to them in Mandarin, with waiters getting the orders wrong and such… I too have experienced this, and it is maddening!

    Here’s another example of that. It is so annoying when almost every time I speak to a Chinese in Mandarin – nearly without exception – they answer back in English. Hello, people! I’m trying to practice my Chinese here! I can’t ever get better at it if you won’t engage with me! I much prefer being around and speaking to the average Chinese in China who doesn’t know English than the ones who come to America and refuse to speak Mandarin (except to each other). It is much more comfortable to practice Mandarin with a Chinese who knows no English, and is forced to speak Mandarin to you. The problem with people like the waiter mentioned above is that they just refuse to really engage with foreigners.

    But the thing is, that phenomenon is by no means limited to China! My wife is Chinese and speaks great English. But I cannot count the number of times we have been in a restaurant or wherever and she has tried to order something, only to be greeted by that blank stare. You know the one I’m talking about! The one where the person looks at you with wide eyes and a stupid expression like a dumb cow. And then the waiter turns to me and wants me to “interpret” my wife’s perfect English! That is the most annoying thing ever, both to her and to me!

    So don’t pick only on the Chinese waiters who have closed their minds. There are people in all cultures who close their mind off to anything foreign. It’s an internal choice that they make. They may not even be aware that they’ve made it.

    My 2 cents.

  12. Dear Cynthia,
    While reading this, the entire time, I felt like I completely understood how you feel. I’m Polish-American, and like you, I grew up with customs during holidays and special occasions. I was also forced to go to Polish school, and also felt the need to be more “american”. lol And it was only when I got into high school that I wanted to be more Polish, and began flaunting to my friends about how I only belonged to one nationality. And looking back, I was a fool, because I’ve been to Poland, and each time, I felt as if I just didn’t belong. I look Polish, I speak it (not fluently), and I know the culture, but yet, I stick out like a sore thumb. And whenever I’m there, I feel as if I have an identity crises as well. But I realized, that I’m not Polish, and I’m not American…I’m both. I am a special case, Polish-American. And you are a special case too. You just happen to be Chinese-American. So, don’t feel too bad about it, because there are a lot of other people who also empathize with you. 🙂

  13. Hi Cynthia & Maja. It is ok to be American Chinese and American Polish and accept your uniqueness – you are special and try not to be any different. My family left China 250 years ago and we have “roots” in Germany (2 generations), Jamaica (4 generations), Malaysia (7 generations), Canada (3 generations) and of course China. To add “salt” to our “cultural dilemma/wound” we are Hakka (meaning “Guest” in China – where is our origin in China is unknown, thus called the guests and unlike all others who know their hometowns). I never went to Chinese classes; but despite being illiterate in Chinese I can speak several “survival” Chinese dialects and could survive in China and elsewhere where Chinese is spoken. I have traveled and worked in many countries/continents (now in Saudi Arabia), etc. Despite our long heritage outside of China most members of my family are ethnically pure Chinese (except for three inter-marriages in our 250 year history outside of China). Hey – I am special I feel. There is a term used among North American Chinese for local born Chinese – we are described as “chu sing” – chu to mean “bamboo” (not banana), to describe us as bamboo with nodes and the compartments between two nodes are “not through” to imply us as not conversant with both cultures – but like the bamboo we are resilient and strong!! This is true with other people are live outside of their ethnic motherland, no matter where they come from. Know our unique characteristics, love ourselves for who we are and be happy. I face many of the encounters you face. Some people (T and Gabriel) mentioned India to compare with China; there are nearly 1 million Chinese in India, and Indian food is heavily influenced by Indian Chinese (who are mostly Hakka). There is not one Indian restaurant in India without Hakka noodles and fried rice, and “chicken lollipop” started by Indian Chinese. In Hyderabad alone there are more than 100 Chinese restaurants, and most are owned by Indians because of the popularity of Chinese food in India.

  14. im planning on moving to Wuhan, China in the next few months teaching english. Im a black man and American. I tend to consistantly hear about the blatant disrespect colored people. I still want to go because its a opportunity of a lifetime. My girlfriend and my son also will go, she to teaches english. What should I expect?

    • Hey Bree. I think you’ll have a blast, but as with every foreigner here, you’re sure to rub up against long-held stereotypes and prejudices. I suggest checking out this old post (2007), which still routinely gets new comments (to be taken with a grain of salt) and experiences added to it.

  15. [ 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. ]

    because you are chinese. now i used to think we are different from them too, however i come to realize that despite our different experiences we are still chinese. that chinese are chinese no matter which city they grew up in, that even if an african american were to grew up raise by white parent, he would still be an african american. some might say obama isn’t fully black because of his mix and upbringing but i disagree, he is black because he is treated as such, and we are chinese because we are treated as such. yes it is as shallow as that, it how the world works.

    the problem for chinese is we need more chinese to live outside china in order to create the exposure and “internationalise” the chinese presence. else the image of chinese will be that of “only china”, that there are 50 million of us chinese who live and grew up outside china, with that being a mere 3%, it just not enough for the world to notice us.

    it is therefore important for chinese to ensure the gate of immigration is always open for chinese. never again should we allow something like the racist “chinese exclusion act” to exist again. that we need to ensure we are given the same opportunity in the world(not just china).

    we are chinese, but chinese do not mean we can only live in china. we have to ‘realize’ this.

    [ 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. ]

    this happens to everyone, it has nothing to do with not being chinese enough, chinese restaurant just do not have a “standard”, the same dish can be salty in one town and sweet in another. we just get used to asking, the fact is no one really know what’s cooking… lol

    • “So don’t pick only on the Chinese waiters who have closed their minds. There are people in all cultures who close their mind off to anything foreign. It’s an internal choice that they make. They may not even be aware that they’ve made it.”

      I don’t think they have closed minds, or that there’s anything racist about it, they’re just morons. That’s why they work at the convenience store/pizza hut etc. Presumably they fuck up orders all day long. The other day, I asked for a refill of my drink (yes, I’ll pay, whatever) and the guy just scribbled a note on my receipt and walked off. 10 seconds later I see him doing busy work, shuffling menus, etc. Where’s my drink, shit-for-brains? 10 minutes later I just grabbed one of the other underlings, showed them that I’d already been charged for the refill, and it still hadn’t come, and sent them back into the kitchen to get it.

      The original ‘drink’ was just completely ignored. Zero.

      These guys just space out, and if you speak fluent Chinese, you’ll hear the moronic shit they say on a daily basis. Remember, there are no tips in China (but it might be a step in the right direction!).

    • Please don’t put words into people’s mouth. If you wish to identify as Chinese, that is ultimately your choice, but you cannot therefore force the tag ‘Chinese’ on all ethnically-Chinese people who may have grown up in an environment that is completely different from that from China.
      The fact is that the Chinese government actively encourages the assimilation of the terms “Chinese” and “supporters of the Chinese government”. And the latter label is not welcome for many people.

  16. I’m a fellow Chinese-American but feel completely different about this. I actually enjoy the local treatment and it makes for full-immersion Mandarin practice. I would consider myself more reserved, so I like looking like the masses and keeping quiet so no one disturbs me. In fact, it pains me to walk down the street with my foreign friends and see how much they are harassed daily. I’m happy with my quiet existence here over being treated “foreign” and wouldn’t wish otherwise.

    • ” In fact, it pains me to walk down the street with my foreign friends and see how much they are harassed daily. I’m happy with my quiet existence here over being treated “foreign” and wouldn’t wish otherwise.”

      Thank you!! Your insight is fascinating here… you look Chinese, but you still have to go through the steps to pick up the language, and you are in an interesting position to notice the way different people are treated. Foreigners basically walk around with the ‘anxiety’ of being the center of attention (or being stared at, mocked, etc) but without the actual perks (bodyguards, adoring fans) of being a REAL celebrity. Most of us just want to be ignored, so we try to be as boring/quiet/bland as possible. Or we just go to some places in the city where you’re ‘expected’ to be (like a fucking Starbucks/BlueFrog), so people don’t lose their minds when they see you.

      I’ve always been secretly jealous of ABCs here in China (like the aforementioned Kaiser Kuo) for this one very simple reason.

    • I agree with you. I’m an ABC living in Shanghai and it’s just a really fascinating experience. Instead of feeling like I don’t fit into either world, I see it as having the best of both. I like being in this kind of grey space where, because I have an Asian face, I can easily blend in with the locals, but at the same time, I can also communicate and relate to other foreigners. I also feel that the locals, even knowing I’m not nationally Chinese, feel they can relate to me more because I do have some Chinese cultural background.

  17. “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.”

    Just a guess, but I bet your Chinese was fine and the waiter either doesn’t understand Mandarin well (quite possible) or they weren’t paying attention (perhaps more possible). Whenever people don’t understand my Chinese in a simple restaurant situation, I assume it is there fault. And have you ever noticed that locals always need to point at stuff on menus? Seems that ordering food is quite a complicated affair for locals. A combination of poor pronunciation, lack of concentration, deafness, and blindness I figure.

    Anyway, keep your head up. Be proud not to be a local.

    • “Seems that ordering food is quite a complicated affair for locals. A combination of poor pronunciation, lack of concentration, deafness, and blindness I figure. Anyway, keep your head up. Be proud not to be a local.”

      Or maybe, just maybe, China’s a developing country and people lack education. Once your 普通话 gets to the level that you can understand conversations going on all around you (you’re probably already there, from the sounds of it) your mind will be BLOWN at how between two locals, there is SO MUCH WASTED TIME and energy, just trying to communicate a basic idea. A lot of repetition, a lot of 那个那个那个那个那个, a lot of 对不对.. a lot of “是这样子。。。跟你讲..” which is the English equivalent of a Politician stalling for time. Scary stuff.

  18. Great post, Cynthia. While I don’t agree with all your opinions, I do enjoy reading them and find your perspective interesting. Thank you for giving me a different outlook. I think one thing that causes a lot of confusion is the difference between Nationality and Ethnicity. In many homogenous countries, your ethnicity is the same as your nationality. But that’s not necessarily the case in the US. You can be ethnically Chinese (born to Chinese parents) but your nationality is American. Interesting that for ethnic Caucasians, they don’t specify German, Polish, etc. In China, your ethnicity (Han Chinese is the majority, though there are a lot of minority ethnicities officially recognized in China) and your nationality is Chinese. I suppose the fact that most of the ethnic minorities in China also look Asian (except perhaps Uyghur?), it’s easy to see why people would assume that Asians in China are Chinese. I think a lot of the things you’ve experienced is due to Chinese people having the mindset assuming that all Americans are Caucasian, etc. Considering that many Chinese haven’t had the opportunity to travel outside of China or have limited exposure to Westerners, it’s hard to blame them. Keep up the good work!

  19. Actually in Japan I have similar situations as u met in China. I look like Japanese but actually Chinese. When I first came here, I couldn’t speak Japanese but English. Yep, it is too weird in Japan for a Chinese to speak English, I guess. I agree with what u said america is a melting pot, but china is not, neither is Japan. I am a foreigner here between Japanese and non-Japanese.

  20. Let’s just say, when you’re in America, since you’re an American by birthright, do you get the nod of understanding when you take the subway in NYC?

    or do you get the nod of kinship when you’re, let’s say, ordering foods at the local stores?

    or do you get the nod of “I know how you’re been through” from Caucasian American based on “Chinese Exclusion Act”, “Gary Amendments”?

    If so, you know that they don’t include you as “American” so to speak.

  21. Hey Cynthia,

    I felt as if this post could have written by myself because I can 100% relate to every word you wrote. I am, like you, an American-born Chinese person currently working in China. By looking Chinese and speaking fluently Chinese, people often treat me as such. This for sure has its good sides (cheaper prices during shopping or easier communication with the local people) but like yourself, I feel alienated from the group I culturally feel more related to, the foreigners club. I remember my first week in China, during which I was invited at a dinner organized by the Chamber of commerce. During the lunch, professionals from the US would come over to the visitors table and say hi to all the participants. They shook hands and talked to every participant, except me… Simply because I looked Chinese and not white, they assumed I was not part of the visitors group and just a local staff that got misplaced.
    It is also tiring to go to a party where a bunch of foreigners look weirdly at you because you look Chinese, and then raise their eye brows when they hear you are from the US.
    What I am trying to say here, and what one of the commentators (The Cool Guy) has pointed out so wonderfully, is that identity is so much more than your ethnicity and strongly linked to your cultural upbringing or simply to your own preferences. Even though this is a confusing journey, I am sure we are learning so much out of it that is benefiting us. In case you’d like to contact me, please do so! Safe travels!

  22. Pingback: Autograph | Alice Tsui - Official Blog

  23. I think deep in your mind you do not like to be related to Chinese. When you are regarded as one of them by Chinese in China, you felt uncomfortable because for whatever reasons you do not like to be a Chinese and prefer to be identified as an American. But You are not really an American even in America! Come on, if you do not like Chinese or do not like to be related to Chinese, then why do you go to China and try to make living in CHina?

    • You’re so ignorant! The writer is an American in America, because people of Chinese ethnicity can also be accepted as Americans, at least by the more open minded sections of the population and by the state.

      It’s not like China, where a white or a black person who are born and raised in China will still never be accepted as a Chinese by anyone.

  24. Pingback: Why Overseas Chinese Have Trouble Adjusting in Mainland China « The China Culture Corner

  25. ha ha, instead blaming it on China, blame yourself for not learning about your culture and learning Chinese!

    You just got brain washed by American culture to hate yourself…

  26. I think Cynthia and many others here have pointed out a reality in the general recognition of “Chinese-ness” in China – in other words the lack of sensible understanding in the Chinese general public of “华人” as an umbrella term that is inclusive of “中国人“.

    One scenario: How would someone of Chinese ancestry from Malaysia or Singapore (whom here for argument’s sake, is fluent in Chinese with more or less distinctive accents and vocabulary) feel about his/her being in China? Does he/she feel approving or awkward for being called a Zhongguoren? Or does he/she have to be aware that by not proclaiming him/herself to be a Zhongguoren (albeit the truth) might stir uneasiness for the local addressees concerned?

    “Chinese” in official definition includes all recognized 56 ethnicities – some of which “not East Asian” (Uyghurs, Khazakhs, etc), while in a local Chinese person’s everyday mindset might include all ethnic Hans (Americans/Canadians/Singaporeans of Guangdong/Fujian/Shandong descent etc), but not “visible” minorities (the hotels that refuse Uyghur guests for “security” reasons). The identity of being Chinese is challenged from within and out alike – a phenomenon too new for Chinese to yet deal with ease. (and to be honest, let us not hope that Chinese will ever treat ethnicity and citizenship as two separate entities.)

  27. Hi Cynthia!

    Just out of curiosity, how did you move to Beijing after college? Did you find a job there which allowed you to settle down? I’ve heard that it’s very difficult for American nationals to stay in China


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