Six years ago, I never would have considered going to China to study abroad. Now, I’m sitting in an office in the hutongs of Beijing. Here’s the story of how I changed my mind about China.
“So what exactly is your ethnicity?”
This question…I never knew exactly how to answer it. I am technically half Chinese and half white, but I felt like a phony saying I was Chinese. I can’t speak the language, didn’t know any of the culture, and I didn’t like to eat my mom’s homemade Chinese food – I couldn’t even use chopsticks. So when the question inevitably came up, I’d always reply “I’m white” and the person asking would always make a puzzled face knowing I was not being fully truthful. How could I, when I didn’t feel Chinese? Every time this question was asked, I thought of how disconnected I was from my culture and I felt like a disappointment.
Stories an Ocean and a Generation Away
My mother grew up in East Malaysia in a traditional Malaysian-Chinese family in a predominantly Chinese neighborhood. Having no connection myself, she was my only lens to that world.
When I was young, she’d often tell me stories of her time there. Every Chinese New Year, there was a dragon dance in her neighborhood that she always dreaded, because the dragon would come into her house and terrify her with its big blinking eyes, a mouth that would constantly open and close, and its long snake-like body.
She also often told me about the trials my uncle went through to learn Mandarin (my family primarily speaks Cantonese). She would laugh so hard as she told me about my uncle going around their neighborhood fumbling his way through conversations in Mandarin with the elders sitting outside, and mispronouncing every word! This story confused me – at the time, I remember thinking “Doesn’t all Chinese sound the same?” Having overheard my mom speaking with my grandparents in Cantonese, I assumed that Chinese and Cantonese were one and the same.
Trying to understand her stories was frustrating. The cultural difference and my own ignorance were like a boulder blocking my path. Impenetrable, hard to overcome and the thought of trying to move it seemed tiring. I was in a suburban neighborhood in Arizona surrounded friends who weren’t Chinese. It was far more comfortable to remain in my ignorance than to try and bridge such a large cultural gap
Being Chinese in Arizona
Before I started pre-school, I spoke Cantonese with my mother at home and ate lots of Chinese food. However, after starting school, I began to reject these things. I didn’t want to bring my Chinese food to school; I wanted to bring a PB&J like every other student. I didn’t want to speak Chinese because I’d be made fun of. I constantly felt different from my peers, because I didn’t look like them.
Every day my mom would drive me to school while blasting her favorite CD: The Best Cantonese Songs of the 1980s. As soon as we would arrive at my elementary school, I’d ask her if she could turn it down because I didn’t want my classmates to hear it. I had already been asked, “do you do kung fu?” “Have you eaten dog or cat?” so I didn’t want to give them another reason to tease me. These stereotypes, which I fully believed in, made me be ashamed to be half Chinese.
A Friend to Guide the Way
When I was a freshman in high-school I became friends with a girl who was an American-born Chinese (ABC). She was quite attached to Chinese culture and even participated in traditional Chinese dancing! I quickly became best friends with her and we were constantly together at school.
One day she invited me to her house to hang out and work on homework together. As I sat down at her dining room table, her mom asked if I wanted soy milk. I replied enthusiastically “yes! I love soy milk.” When her mom handed me the soy milk, I immediately noticed that the soy milk was hot, and not at all what I expected. I mistakenly thought she meant Silk soy milk (cold, a bit sweet, and a bit thicker consistency). This was the first time I have ever had true 豆浆 (dou jiang). Her mom made us a simple Chinese lunch of stir-fried vegetables, some peanuts on the side, and a meat dish with a small bowl of rice. This was the first time since my childhood that I had eaten authentic Chinese food. It was intimidating at first but after I took a few bites, I realized it wasn’t too bad. These little things showed me there were so many assumptions I had been making about being Chinese. Without realizing it, I had been using Western stereotypes to try understanding Chinese culture.
One day after a long day of classes in high-school I came home to a letter on the kitchen countertop addressed to me. People to People International had invited me to attend a meeting of a potential trip I could take to either China or Australia. I instantly decided that I wanted to go to Australia because it felt like the safer choice. China was this unknown, intimidating place to me. I picked up my phone and called to RSVP my spot for the trip to Australia. After I hung up, my dad gave me a look. It was one of those parent looks that say you need to rethink your decision. After he gave me the look he took the itinerary for the China trip out of the envelope and said, “The China trip seems pretty fun, but if you want to go to Australia then go.” I started to feel uneasy about my decision, like choosing Australia was a cop-out because I didn’t want to my Chinese heritage. I wasn’t sure I was ready to confront my ignorance head-on (also, I’d have to learn how to use chopsticks, which seemed impossible). Despite all the reasons in my head of why I shouldn’t go, I picked up my phone again and asked to change my reservation for the China trip. As I hung up I felt butterflies in my stomach.
The next day at school during my lunch break, I told my friends about how I chose China over Australia. They were baffled. “Why would you choose China over Australia?? You’re crazy.” I began to feel uneasy about my decision (once again), but my ABC friend pulled me over and said, “I think you’ll really enjoy China.” After school that day she showed me pictures she took when she was in Shanghai, and it seemed really nice. For some reason, I had always pictured China as a country more rural than urban, but seeing pictures of Shanghai made me realize I was wrong. Her reassurance and the stories she told about why she thought that I made a good decision helped me feel more confident.
Crossing the Divide
I couldn’t sleep at all the night before my trip; I tossed and turned and by the time I finally shut my eyes my alarm was going off at 3 AM to get ready to leave for my flight.
My plane ride to Shanghai was 15 hours long. On the plane I heard Chinese everywhere, and my heart sank into my stomach. All I could think was “What did I just get myself into.” Feelings of inadequacy washed over me again as I heard so many conversations and I couldn’t understand any of it. All I knew how to say was “你好” (hi). As I was beginning to doubt my decision again, I remembered how my friend had told me that I made the right decision, and I began to feel a little more at ease. I decided that this time I should be more open-minded. As I listened, I started to realize beautiful the language was. It sounded so complex and even melodic. made me curious about what China would actually be like.
As I stepped out of the airplane and into the Shanghai airport I felt excited. For once in my life, I wanted to dive in. When I did, I found that my preconceptions of China were completely wrong. It was so modern and the people were kind and understanding. I traveled to different cities around China for two weeks and took something away from each city. Some places made me feel small, some left me in awe, but all of them made me proud that I was half Chinese. I felt like I had gained a missing piece of the puzzle by trying to reconnect with my culture.
While in Wuzhen, I encountered a group of Chinese high-school teachers who were celebrating the end of the 高考(GaoKao, national higher education entrance exam), and one teacher asked me which ethnicity I was. I told him I was half Chinese and half white. He seemed immediately puzzled by my statement and told me “You can say you’re Chinese, but you don’t look Chinese. So I don’t think you’re Chinese.”
At first, I felt like I was being rejected by a culture I had just become interested in, but then an overwhelming sense of determination came over me. I wanted to learn Chinese so that I wouldn’t have to go through that experience again, and use my language skills to explain my background.
Putting Determination into Motion
Returning to China five years from that first visit has been a surreal experience. I took Mandarin for two years but quickly learned that wasn’t enough when I came back to China. Knowing some Mandarin makes me feel closer to my culture, and I know more than I did six years ago, but I still have a long way to go.
Living in China is challenging, but it’s the best kind of challenge. Each day I learn how to say something new in Chinese or I learn something new about the culture. Even though living China is different from anything I have experienced, it somehow feels like home. This feeling has made me not only stop running from my culture, but it has even made me begin to embrace it.