Hi everyone! My name is Kim Chen (陈凯金). I am a 3rd year communication major at the University of California, Santa Barbara. I’m currently studying Chinese (汉语) at Peking University (北大). Because I am Chinese-American, my connection to China started from birth, but it has evolved quite a bit since then. After studying abroad in Hong Kong in the Fall of 2014 and now making my way to Beijing the following spring, I’ve come to realize that my ideas of being ‘Chinese’, ‘American’, and even being ‘Chinese-American’, have all shifted.
I was born and raised just outside of Los Angeles, California in a suburb called Arcadia. Arcadia has so many Asian American families that it has been nicknamed “Arcasia”. Streets lined with Asian restaurants and supermarkets. Shop signs complete with Chinese, Japanese, or Vietnamese characters. These are normal sights to me. Check out this YouTube video for a look into my life in Arcadia. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3n3HQ9uge0g)
Although I was aware that my city was home to many Asian Americans, the first time I heard the phrase “asian invasion” directed at my school’s softball and basketball team at away games, I was shocked. I felt alienated. My teammates and I grew up drinking Capri Sun and watching Hey Arnold!. We had Lunchables for lunch, and played homegrown American sports…but somehow our physical differences prevented us from being as ‘American’ as our Caucasian peers. I found myself making an effort to let go of my heritage in order to become “more American.” I would tell my grandparents not to dry clothes outside on the laundry line or not cook fish with the head on. Instead of packing dumplings and rice for lunch, I begged my grandparents to give me peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
However, when I moved from Arcadia to Santa Barbara I realized how much my Chinese heritage had influenced my life. I missed the home-cooked southern Chinese cuisine my grandma made so expertly. I missed speaking Chinese with my grandpa. I missed celebrating Chinese New Year. Because of all these things I was now starting to miss, I finally began to embrace my multicultural identity. I finally began to realize how important Chinese culture is to me.
I decided to study abroad in China to gain a deeper understanding of my heritage and grow closer to my family. Before this year, I had only met my family in China a few times in my life. Since arriving in Beijing, I’ve finally had the chance to spend a few weeks with my mom’s side of the family and I plan to visit them again in Xiamen next month.
Studying abroad has also given me the opportunity to interact and form relationships with people from different countries and cultures. I met one of my best friends, Shi En, while studying abroad in Hong Kong. She told me stories about life in Singapore. Whenever I would complain about how crowded it was in Hong Kong, she would tell me about the countless times she had to squeeze her way onto the train in Singapore. She got me through my first subway ride during rush hour and even tried to teach me some Singlish (Singaporean English). The smallest exchanges between us have taught me how important culture is in shaping a person’s worldview. The world is no longer black and white, and in some parts of the worlds, hanging your clothes outside to dry makes perfect sense.
Coming from a Chinese-American household, I thought I knew exactly what to expect from China. I later found that I was holding onto myths and misconceptions, and the majority of what I had heard about China was not accurate. Even while studying abroad in Hong Kong, I was constantly asked “Why would you want to study in Beijing?” Constant encounters with this kind of attitude towards Beijingers, I was under the impression that I would regret studying abroad in Beijing. I had been told that people from Beijing were rude and unwelcoming to foreigners. But, to my surprise, I absolutely love it here.
If I had believed my classmates in Hong Kong and decided not to come to Beijing, I never would have been able to understand the ins and outs of Chinese culture as much as I do now. I never would have met the man who let my friends and I sample free tea at his tea house or the man who let me share a taxi with him because I was going to be late for my train. Everyone has misconceptions of other cultures, including me. I shouldn’t of judged Beijing based on what I heard from others. I didn’t have any experience living in China so I valued the opinions of those who did. Based on those opinions, I held a negative view of China before I had the chance to experience China for myself. As it turned out, those opinions were not accurate representations of life here. I quickly realized that Americans, Hong Kongers, and even people from different provinces of China view Beijing differently because their opinions are based on their own unique experiences.
I hope that my unique experiences will not be the kind that dissuade someone from exploring a new place or culture. To achieve a deeper cultural understanding of China, people should share first-hand experiences honestly, but while remembering that they are ambassadors of that culture, and their words have power to create misconceptions, especially in an environment where misconceptions are already abundant. As an intern with Project Pengyou this semester, I hope to bridge the gap between China and the U.S. by making the real China more accessible to Pengyous back home. The little things I have learned and observed from my relationships with my international friends has helped change my perception of Asia as a whole. Now I don’t shy away at dumplings for lunch; in fact, I am proud to be called Asian.
I am American but I am also Chinese and I am learning to respect that. I’m sharing my story because living in China has change my view of the world and my life. I encourage y’all to share yours :).