Friday, June 04, 2010

Identity Crisis

Lately I have been thinking about the following questions:
  1. What is the difference between acting Chinese and being Chinese?
  2. Am I acting or am I culturally Chinese?
I asked my students, "Am I American?"

"Yes you are American."

"Will I ever be able to be Chinese?"

"Yes you can. If you work hard. Learn the language and learn the culture."

"Can C (my site mate is Irish American) ever be Chinese?"


"But what if she works hard, learns the language, and learns the culture?"

I understand my students' point of view. Because my site mate doesn't look Chinese, she will never be able to BE culturally Chinese; however, just because I look Chinese and have Chinese ancestors, even if my site mate spoke the language better than me or knew the culture better, I would always be culturally Chinese and she would never be.

This is my Chinese students' point of view. Mine is quite different because I was raised in America where we try not to define culture by the color of our skin but by our actions and way of thinking.

I believe my culture core is American. I was raised in America, taught how to think in America, how to live, how to be and because my parents are white American, I never had a direct connection to Chinese culture. Instead I was a visitor to Chinese culture. Le, C. N. says it perfectly in his essay, "Adopted Asian Americans,"
"In other words, many adoptive parents were open to cultural exploration, but not racial exploration -- 'Asian-ness' was seen almost like a commodified culture, rather than a racial identity."
I feel my culture core is American just like any other American, born and raised in America. My racial identity is Chinese and because I live in America with a diverse population which for the most part accepts the idea that people of different racial identities are American, I can say I am Chinese American. I look Chinese but am culturally American.

I asked several PC volunteers who live in China, "Do you sometimes act Chinese or are you sometimes Chinese?"

They all answered, "We sometimes act Chinese. Plus the parts of the culture that we admire, we try to bring into our own lives."

If white Americans feel that they often are acting Chinese rather than are culturally Chinese, then I too feel like any other American, acting rather than am culturally Chinese.

I asked another white American who has been living abroad for four years and his answer had a new insight. He said, "Sometimes when I speak the language, I am not acting but am a person of that culture." His language skills are much better than mine.

His answer got me thinking. In Africa I did not feel like I was acting as much as I do here in China. Why is that? In Africa I had stronger language skills. I lived in a French African world where I was able to freely communicate, to live, to work and to socialize using French. I taught in French. I socialized in French. I made friends in French. I shopped in French. Every day my world was filled with French, and often when I would socialize with English speakers it would take me a while to jump start my English to feel comfortable talking again in my native language.

Here in China, I use Chinese at Chinese corner. I use it when I go shopping. I use it at banquets and with some of my Chinese friends whose English is not so strong. In China, I mainly live in an English university environment where I spend the majority of my time communicating in English. It is my job to communicate in English. It is my hobby to learn Chinese.

I believe that if my Chinese was better and if I used it more frequently than I use English I probably would sometimes feel that I am culturally Chinese.

Maybe at the end of next year, I will feel that instead of just acting Chinese, I'll feel that I am Chinese.

The next question I have been thinking about is

Why should my Chinese heritage dictate which culture I should embrace and should be like?

As an American, we have the freedom to embrace any culture we want. If we want to learn about African dance, cool. If we want to learn about Japanese manga and anime, cool. If we want to study the great artists of Europe, cool.

The question came up in response to a commenter's advice
" but instead of simply saying that you are not culturally chinese at all, why not embrace the culture? it'd be harder to do if you are in Africa and are obviously visibly different from everybody else. but genetically and phenotypically, your Chinese lineage is undeniable. you have a wondrous opportunity to rediscover yourself and perhaps redefine who you are."
If a European was born and raised in America, should they embrace and learn about their European culture? If they had an interest in their European culture then cool. If they didn't then that is cool too. So why wouldn't the same logic apply to me? If I am interested in learning about Chinese culture then cool. If not so much, then cool.

If a European was born in America but raised in Europe, should they embrace and learn about American culture? If they had an interest then cool. If they didn't then that would be cool too.

I guess the real questions are
  1. How important is it to a person's development to learn about one's culture that is labeled by physical features and genes?
  2. How important is it to learn about the culture whose soil you were born upon but not raised in?
I joined Peace Corps to embrace all cultures that I am living in, the Guinean one, the Burkinabe one, the Chinese one. I joined to walk the walk and talk the talk, to try my best to integrate into the community. I joined to learn about myself. I joined to learn about people, our similarities and our differences. I joined to evolve as a human being. I moved to China to learn more about my ancestors and am going through the process of learning about who am I as a Chinese American.

Having an identity crisis is just part of the process.

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