This week we are dividing this post between two people. Why? Because it's too good to not share both. The experiences are unique and offer a different look into those who hold the identity of Asian-American.
Yes, I am Asian: Asian-American
by Stephanie Simpson
“Ay, you! What province you from, again?” “Are you sure you’re American?” “Your face looks Chinese…eh, maybe you could be from Xinjiang? But no, not American.”
These are the types of greetings I get every day in China from curious taxi drivers to cashiers to grandmas, all who want to tell me that I should know better about one thing or another. Being mixed in China is a challenge, but not one that should scare you away from experiencing this beautiful country for yourself.
I’m half white and half Asian-Pacific Islander. My mom is a native Pinay (Filipina) citizen and my father was in the US Air Force. As a military brat, it was normal for me to be around mixed race children in different parts of the world.
Living here in Lishui, Zhejiang Province, China, there are some Chinese people I’ve met who have been abroad, but not many. People are more familiar with non-Han Chinese (Han being the majority ethnic group) than other ethnicities. Since my features don’t look Han, Chinese people automatically assume I am one of the 55 Chinese minorities, pointing out my “big” eyes, curvy build and curly hair as different from the norm. I must always be prepared for someone to ask about what area of China I’m from and explain that yes, I am Asian: Asian-American.
There are many pros and cons to living in China as an Asian-American. For one, you don’t get the overwhelming amount of attention that your more “foreign-looking” (AKA white) colleagues do. You blend into the crowd more and, thankfully, people don’t try to take pictures of you all the time. Walking down the street doesn’t cause motorbike accidents or onlookers to gawk and jostle each other to try to get a look at you. Another plus: if you know some Chinese, you’re more likely to get a better deal when you (inevitably) bargain with vendors. You are also less likely to be taken advantage of by taxi drivers and tour guides. Furthermore, your every move isn’t subjected to be part of some random person’s WeChat story (the main social media platform) like your more obviously foreign friends.
On the other hand, when said foreign-looking colleagues are around, you’re often overlooked or even outright dismissed – and not just when walking down the street. For instance, at the last academic conference I went to, all the Chinese officials greeted the non-Asian teachers, but did not try to introduce themselves to or interact with the Asian-American teachers at all. I later heard that one of the Chinese citizens there said they were surprised our English was so good! Obviously, that is a little frustrating.
It’s a big responsibility to live and work in China as an Asian-American because you’re an ambassador – often the first of “your kind” that Chinese citizens interact with. Chinese citizens mostly think that Americans are “white” and “sometimes black” from the little exposure they get through Chinese media. The term “ABC” or “American-born Chinese” is used in China to describe Americans of Chinese descent revisiting their ancestors’ homeland, but that’s about it. The fact that there are other types of Asian-Americans doesn’t immediately occur to many Chinese people.
Part of my job as an educational and cultural ambassador in China is to slowly break down racial expectations and teach tolerance and knowledge of diversity, especially in younger students. I often have to work a little harder than my other counterparts to prove myself in the face of adversity. But trust me, for every ignorant person that you may meet in China, whether out on the street or in your workplace, there are about ten other people who are welcoming and super curious to understand more about you and show you their culture. Staying positive and making friends definitely helps to overcome any anxiety and bitterness that may start to creep up from negative interactions. Eventually, you may also find it kind of fun to blow people’s minds like I do when I reiterate that, “Yes, I am American, and there are over 18 million more like me who are also American.”
My experiences as a Korean-American in Quzhou, China.
by Joseph Kwon
Everyone thinks I'm Chinese, which isn't really surprising. I have an Asian face, I look quite similar to the people here, so the first thing they think when they see me is "he's Chinese". This has been a bit of a nuisance and yet also a bit of a blessing at the same time. All the rumors and stories you hear about people getting ripped off in taxis or in shops never happened to me because they think I'm Chinese. I generally blend in with everyone else and can quietly go about my day without too many people staring at me or hearing people say "waiguoren" (foreigner) everywhere I go. But, there have been times when I wish I didn't have this face. I've ordered food or asked for directions and have been met with very upset and perplexed responses.
I took a course in Mandarin before I came to China, so I had some background knowledge of the language prior to arriving. Naturally I wanted to improve and use the Mandarin I had learned, but when it came out wrong or when I didn't understand what people were saying, they would get really upset or annoyed with me. If it's a busy morning and I'm trying to get breakfast, I could get the attention of the entire storefront once my Mandarin starts failing. Things are then uncomfortable for a bit, but once they know I'm a foreigner they become very friendly. One time I was asking for directions and I said, "I don't understand what you're saying." Even though I really didn't understand what the person was saying, it felt as though she had responded, "I'm speaking Mandarin, what do you mean you don't understand what I'm saying??" And then she just walked away. I've also had one interesting experience where my Mandarin wasn't very good and I heard the store owner say to a customer about me, "Of course he's Chinese, he's probably just not from Quzhou (the local city I'm teaching in)." I felt compelled to tell her that I wasn't Chinese and afterward she gave me the most shocked look and asked me, "You're not Chinese??" as if to say, "How can this be??"
On another level, if I say that I'm American I may get a response of disbelief. They might straight up say, "No you're not" or they will say, "No, you must be Korean." This kind of reaction actually made me think more about myself and who I am. I don't share a long history with America and I only have somewhat of a shadow of what it's like to be Korean. Interacting with people in China has left me somewhere in the middle, not fully western and not eastern. So now I'll just say, "I come from America" or "I was born in America."
I tried to avoid mentioning that I was a foreigner, but it was apparent that sometimes it has to be explicitly said in order for some people to even consider that I'm not Chinese. Through the negative experiences I learned to just get over the fact that some people aren't going to understand, things are going to be uncomfortable sometimes, and it's better to just keep at it, move on, and look forward.
All in all, the people here in Quzhou and China in general are very warm and kind. I have found it to be quite safe and people are generally willing to help. There are just different expectations for different people, so the interactions I have can vary widely.