Thursday, July 02, 2009

You are Chinese. No I'm not.

What is it like being Chinese American in China? Is it challenging? Is it frustrating? Does it make things easier?

Often as we sit outside under a big red umbrella drinking beer and milk tea, people ask, "Where are you from?"

I can never say I am American, and if the white American who I hang with all of the time points at me and says, "American," my American friend is corrected, "No. She is Chinese." We have both learned how to say the Chinese phrase, "American with Chinese heritage." That people will agree with.

I have gotten pretty good at explaining my adoption story in simple Chinese phrases.
I have two mothers.
One Chinese mother and one white American mother.
My Chinese mother didn't have any money.
She gave me to the American mother.

(Notice I do not use the phrase Taiwanese mother; although, once they know I am Chinese American they now want to know where my ancestors are from. I say Taiwan and that is no problem.)

Sometimes I am much more of a curiosity than my white American friend. Often I will be the center of attention while my white American friend sits there looking lonely nursing a beer as a flurry of Chinese is directed at me. Because of course since I am American with Chinese heritage I can speak Chinese. After they realize that my Chinese is a bit limited, they point at Caitlin and start asking questions about her and finally ask, "Can she understand Chinese?"

At restaurants I am always given the menu, but I do not study written Chinese. I push the menu towards Caitlin coz she studies written Chinese and can probably read at least 100 characters now. But then as soon as she opens her mouth to order, the waitress looks at me. I repeat the exact phrase that was just said and sometimes we get some food. Other times, we sit there repeating and repeating and repeating until eventually they figure it out. I bet they are wondering, what kind of Chinese is that Chinese person speaking? But actually they probably don't even think about it because China is full of so many dialects. Often people don't understand each other especially people from other regions.

In the Treehouse, an English resource center, I can often sit inconspicuously in the corner, while a non-major comes in and bombards Caitlin with a desire to speak English. That is sometimes nice getting a break from trying to understand limited broken English.

In Xian, a big tourist center, we often hope just my quiet muted presence will get us a reasonable price to start bargaining down rather than exuberant prices that have like a 300% markup. I always hope that my Chinese skin doesn't get me terribly ripped off and maybe I trust it a bit too much. I should rely more on bargaining skills which I still have not perfected even after years of living in Africa. But come on, how are we suppose to know what the good price is to even bargain for? The other day I wanted to buy a tank top. The first price given was $25. I think tank tops should be a $1, but clothes in China especially in some stores are super expensive. Wal-Mart is cheaper than Chinese clothing stores!

So what is it like being Chinese American in China?

It is interesting. I have different stories to tell than other Americans in China, and actually, now that I think about it me being the Chinese American sidekick might make it more frustrating for my sitemate. For me though, having Caitlin as a sidekick, makes things easier, hanging out with the white chick brings me face. Travelling alone this summer might be quite frustrating.

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