It’s a classic part of the Asian American experience — a cliché, really — to be considered un-American while in America. Since we’re not white, we must not be American, and therefore the color of our skin invites the question: “So where are you from?” or the comment: “Your English is very, very good!” And for better or worse, I don’t get bent out of shape over it anymore. For better or worse, I don’t expect the typical white folk to know any better.
However, to encounter the same question and comment in China from the local Chinese absolutely perplexes me. While I speak fluent Mandarin, it’s clear I’m not a native speaker. Thus every single time — not once or twice; I’m talking about a 100% phenomenon here — I talk to a stranger in China, I get asked the question, “Where are you from?” If I say America or refer to myself as American, the stranger looks at me like I’m lying through my teeth and I get asked again, “No, where are you really from?” In the event that I insist I’m American by virtue of being born and raised there, the stranger then asks me, “Well then where are your parents from?” When I say Taiwan, they smile and remark, “Ah, so you’re Chinese.” No I’m not, but better to not get into a political debate over Taiwan’s independence in mainland China … or you might end up somewhere horrible.
I get a kick out of the way the local Chinese think they know my heritage better than me. They tell me that my homeland is China, not America, not Taiwan, but China. They won’t let the issue rest if I consider America my home or even refer to Taiwan as a place of origin. It’s China. You’re Chinese. Your homeland is China. You’re not coming to China; you’re coming back to China. The locals I talk to never fail to correct my grammar on that point — I’m not coming “to” Zhong Guo, I’m coming “back to” or “returning to” Zhong Guo. If I bother to argue that I have no relatives at all in China, they point out, “Yes you do. You have relatives in Taiwan. That’s China. So you’re Chinese!”
Seriously. It’s not like I’m aching for a fight and initiate conversations about cross-straits relationships; the Chinese bring it up, vigorously insisting there is no such thing as Taiwanese, but only Chinese. It’s infuriating to me, utterly offensive. Live and let live, for crying out loud. If I think I’m Taiwanese, not Chinese, what’s it to you? What right do you have to tell me otherwise? If you feel you gotta, then nuke the island to the bottom of the ocean just because you can; but don’t point an index finger at my face and tell me how I should think and feel. That much is my own prerogative.
There’s also the issue of conversing in English with other expats in China. If you’re white and speaking English in public in China, then that’s okay. Nobody looks at you funny. If you’re chinky looking, like me, and you’re speaking English in public in China, then people stare. I’m talking unabashed full out open-mouthed gawking. Locals have admitted to me that they find it offensive when Chinese(-looking) people speak English in public. They think that we think we’re better than them simply because we can speak English and thus by speaking English in public in China, we’re flaunting our sense of superiority in their faces. I find that to be twisted logic and a bad case of insecurity on their part for thinking like that; and yet the mentality persists. I’m not sure what negative legacy other expats have left in China to cause the local Chinese to think this way, to think that American-born Chinese strut around with a sense of superiority over the natives, but there it is.
For whatever reason, the sense of superiority whites feel over the locals is not a matter of concern, but the sense of superiority Asian Americans supposedly feel is intolerable. White Americans in China are treated like royalty, but Asian Americans in China are treated like crap. I’ve witnessed it: a white guy struggling to order a meal at McDonald’s in broken Mandarin gets smiled at and receives all the patience in the world, but an Asian American struggling with the same gets a cold glare and no help at all.
So what if I was born in some hick little middle-Americana town like any other Joe Shmoe white folk? So what if I was raised in some hick little middle-Americana town like any other Joe Shmoe white folk? I’m not white and thus not American enough to be considered such in America and now apparently because I’m not white, I’m not American enough to be considered such in China as well. The native Chinese hold the same thought as mainstream white America: that you’re not really an American unless you’re white. What I never knew before was how pervasive the ignorance really was. It saddens me to no end that the native Chinese have adopted an ignorant typically-white perspective on what it means to be American. To cite another cliché, Asian Americans really are caught in this margin between an Asian identity and an American one.
Thus, I have given up trying. Instead of identifying America as my “lao jia” or homeland when talking to people in China, I simply say Taiwan, even though I’ve been to Taiwan all of, what, three times in my lifespan? When they say after that, “Ah, so you’re Chinese,” I sigh and say, “Sui bian ni. Ni yao shuo wo shi zhong guo ren, na wo jiu shi zhong guo ren ba.” (translation: Whatever. If you wanna say I’m Chinese, then so be it, I’m Chinese.)
Then, of course, if I’m overheard speaking what I consider to be my native tongue, the Chinese will further exclaim, “Wow. Your English is very, very good! Where did you ever learn to speak it so well?!”