In Which Being American Born Chinese Made all the Difference

On the same day Angela Xu posted her reflection on living in China, I stepped into the Shanghai Pudong Airport to begin my own life abroad. Even though Angela went to China as a teacher, and I as a student, we both returned to the States with very similar stories about our identity.

When you are an American Born Chinese woman living in China, you are Agamben’s werewolf, an entity belonging to nothing, subjected to everything, and protected by nothing.

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There were times I felt I had finally found a community which completely understood and welcomed me. I’d never lived somewhere where people wouldn’t get annoyed at me if I got excited while speaking Chinese. I don’t often take group selfies, but it was such a relief to be able to do so without someone tutting at our “Asianness”. However, lest I mistake this apparent camouflage for perfect acceptance, society daily reminded of my foreignness. I know my Mandarin isn’t perfect, but words like “长着中国脸,但不会将中国话“ really stung; despite my desire to belong, I wasn’t accepted.

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There were also times my identity felt like a wretched weakness. I’d heard stories about the working woman’s role in China, but I never thought I’d find myself, the newbie intern from America, in a one-on-one meeting with a senior executive, pretending I didn’t sense something off when he kept talking about his marital disagreements and how much he wanted to go to America.IMAG1623

The gender-age bias in China portrays young, single females as prettily dependent, but I never thought that sitting at the train station with my father would subject me to sidelong stares from strangers who clearly didn’t think we looked like family. I didn’t think that buying a new cell phone number with my father would imply that I must be a mistress, and therefore could be freely felt up by anyone in the store.

I’m stunned that girls in China endure this double standard every day. It no longer surprises me when I see young Chinese women dressing and behaving as innocently as they can, because I never imagined that getting into a taxi with a group of non-Chinese male friends shouted indecency. Looking back, I’m glad for my naivety, because otherwise I would’ve avoided cabs and traveling anywhere, what with the drivers sighing about “what a pity it was” that the prostitutes get younger each year. The scrutiny was inescapably constant. and no matter who I was with, someone would make judgments on my integrity and intelligence.

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But would I trade away my six months in China? Never. I learned resilience from their judgment, I learned tolerance from their ignorance. What I saw, heard, felt, understood – – that all strengthened my character and awareness of my self. As Angela says, everyone should live in China at least once.

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Is cross-cultural identity a topic that interests you? If so, check out: The Omega Society – an intellectual community founded by Chinese Internationals.

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