It’s tough being an American in China… if you’re Chinese-American

It’s tough being an American in China… if you’re Chinese-American passes on a thoughtful piece in the Wall Street Journal today about China’s hostility towards its own diaspora:

Chinese living and working abroad have played an enormous role in the country’s economic boom. For years, they have sent money back and offered hope to those at home during periods of calamity and chaos.

Yet holding a foreign passport doesn’t make these expatriates any less Chinese. Of all people, they are expected to be most attuned to the complex realities of life in China. When they fall short, they are treated with official suspicion and individual disdain.

Being an American-born Chinese, I can’t claim to be one of those expats the Journal‘s talking about. But I’m every bit a part of the larger diaspora, and my own experiences in China reflect some of the same cultural friction. In conversations with mainland Chinese, I’ve often found myself at a loss when the topic of my origins comes up.

The question seems straightforward enough in English: "Are you American?" On the face of it, the phrase is simply a reference to citizenship or nationality (with perhaps some veiled reference to consumer values). In China, however, the term meiguoren can carry a kind of weight that wouldn’t necessarily be apparent to first-time visitors — especially if the person claiming to be American happens to look Chinese. Using the loaded term is a surefire way for a Chinese-American to get judged, one way or another. And when you’re a Chinese-American living in China, you find yourself in conversations about your home at least three times a day.

I had two equally bad responses prepared when it came to answering the question about my roots. The first was, "Yes, I’m American." Answering in the affirmative would generally elicit the kind of reaction that white students in China get all the time: Oh, your Chinese is so good! How long have you been studying? Occasionally, though, I’d get an odder reply: But… but you look Chinese!

It was that second reaction that got me thinking. By declaring myself an American in the national sense, I was inadvertently declaring myself not-Chinese in an ethnic sense. And that bothered a lot of people. I was living up to all the stereotypes mainlanders had about the Chinese diaspora — that I had lost my Chinese-ness as a result of being born someplace else.

My other answer, "no," was just as bad. I became rightfully Chinese, but my foreign hairstyle and mannerisms prompted my conversation partners to assume I came from somewhere deep in the interior. The follow-up questions became more pointed. What province are you from? I don’t recognize your accent. (For the record, I have no accent. I speak neutral Chinese. But in a country where regional accents are pervasive, not having one makes you stick out like a sore thumb. Imagine if the entire United States spoke only in New York and Texan accents, and someone from Kansas showed up.)

Eventually, I started telling people that I was "only" ethnically Chinese. My partners would give a grunt and nod in a knowing manner, as if I were admitting fault or a deficiency of some kind. I got over it and moved on, but the ambiguity surrounding nationality and ethnicity remains horribly complex in China.