Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Chinese American in China

During my first two days in China, I was lost and voiceless, but I was expected to understand, to talk, to order food like every other Chinese looking person living in China. The pressure drove me further into a hole of hiding. After only one Chinese lesson of reciting a pinyin chart for two hours, I was expected to go out into the streets of Chengdu and order lunch. LUNCH! Food was a simple need to fill my body with nutrients that would rejuvenate and re-energize. It was a simple basic necessity of life, but scavenging for food to fill my rumbling tummy was a task full of my own fear.

Instead of being an independent American, I took the easy way out and followed the foreigners. I fed off the hospitality and patience that their white faces of being outsiders gave them. Instead of being yelled at,instead of being hurried, instead of facing impatient frustrated waiters during the rush hour of lunch trying to feed a billion people, the foreigners were given smiles of sympathy and lots of sign language to indicate cost. Et voila, we were fed. The obvious foreigners and the hospitality of the Chinese people fed me. I didn't have to open my mouth to face the wrath of expectations, expectations that I would be able to understand and fluently speak Chinese just because I looked Chinese. I was an independent American turned into a non-obvious foreigner.

Looking like a Chinese person, I become invisible. I do not have to bear the burden of being stared at every minute of the day or bear the frustrations of being yelled at by complete strangers or obnoxious school children. HALLO! Bye bye! OH KAY! I am instead surrounded by the silence of looking like everyone else. In such a profound silence, I feel peace yet within the quiet, a deep sense of loneliness overwhelms me. I do not belong to this Chinese culture of high heels, flashy feminine fashion, ankle high nylons worn with sandals, of mothers and children, of conformity, traditional values, and harmony. I am an outsider. I walk in a bubble of invisibility and am astonished by the old people in the park doing Tai Chi with swords, old men walking their birds, and fathers holding their daughters over the roots of city trees to pee. In silence, I walk. I observe. I judge. I write about not belonging.

Not only am I alone because I am just another face among the billion, but I am also alone as the Chinese face among a group of foreign faces. I feel the comfort of the familiarity of western culture, the ease of communication, the cultural references, and being among like-minded people, but because of the color of my skin I become a curiosity.

Chinese strangers wonder, “Who is that Chinese person speaking such good English among the foreign guests? Is she their translator?”

Foreign strangers wonder, “Who is that Chinese girl sitting in the group of foreigners? Does she speak English? Maybe we should start speaking Chinese to her first. Maybe we should ignore her because we can't speak Chinese. Maybe we should compliment her on how good her English is.”

It's lonely and often frustrating always correcting everyone's assumptions, always shrugging in confusion because I don't understand, always telling people I don't speak a lot of Chinese, and always being Chinese when I am Chinese American. Instead of asking and finding out who I am, everyone's first assumption is Chinese girl. Why wouldn't it be? I look Chinese. It's isolating being Chinese but not being Chinese.

In America, the instances that I do not feel alone but feel like I belong, are the points in time when my skin color is totally ignored, ignored because we are just good friends enjoying a moment together. However, as a visitor abroad, a visitor in China where everyone looks like me, being able to ignore my black hair and dark skin is near impossible. To have moments in public where my skin is ignored is rare. Maybe everyone else in China is ignoring me, but I cannot ignore my skin, the skin that labels me as Chinese when I can't speak a lot of Chinese. Plus often in those public moments, when my friends are ignoring my skin color, all the strangers around us suddenly start noticing and start to stare.

In Africa, I was correctly assumed to be a visitor, not African. I didn't have to constantly correct people. In China, I am a great unknown with automatic false assumptions being shot at me from every direction. It is strange not belonging anywhere. I'm always in a land of wrong expectations, expectations to speak Chinese, expectations not to speak English, expectations to be Chinese, expectations not to be American. I am in a land of always correcting people. I've given up and just let whatever people think, think it! I am tired, so if you want me to be Chinese, then so be it. I have learned how to be the Chinese person you want me to be and have stopped correcting. I just nod and smile. Yep. Wow, my English is really good. Yep. Sorry you can't understand my Chinese. I must be from a different province. Yep. I'm not really from America. I'm one hundred percent Chinese.

You may be wondering, why does it even matter? Once people get to know you, false assumptions are thrown out the window replaced with fact. Ah, she is Chinese American born in Taiwan adopted by white foreign Americans. Yeah! Why does it matter? In the Tree House English Resource and Community Center I am a teacher, a friend, an advisor, a person to speak English with and a resource to learn about American culture. My skin color doesn't matter anymore. No longer am I incorrectly misnamed but am correctly factually labeled. I become a human being.

In the Tree House, it is true that I feel the most accepted and respected, feel like I belong to a community and don't feel like an outsider. It is a safe haven from false assumptions where the students have made my time in China less lonely. I am no longer an outsider and am more accepted without expectations, but I can't live in the Tree House forever. I have to leave, face the country of false assumptions, and face the invisible silent bubble, but I always know that I can materialize into an actual human being whenever I visit the Tree House. It is a comforting thought to visit a place where I am no longer lonely but actually feel like I belong.

from The Tree House Book by Women Writers

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