Written by Melodie Vuong (University of Texas- Austin), Student Correspondent CET Shanghai Summer 2019
I am a banana: yellow on the outside, white on the inside. This is a term often used to describe an ABC (American-born Chinese) or 华裔. We look Chinese, but we do not act Chinese. We have grown up assimilated into the American lifestyle. My friends and I have occasionally joked about how ‘Asian’ we are. Other than the casual mentions, I never really think about my Chinese-ness or my American-ness; it is not something that comes up in conversation. However, being in China has placed this almost identity crisis underneath a magnifying glass.
It is not blatantly obvious that I am a foreigner. When I am with other Americans, I look more “normal” than they do. People do not stop to stare at me on the streets. They do not come over to ask to take a picture with me. To them, I am just ordinary. Sometimes, they even ask me to translate. They will ask where they are from. I have to emphasize that we are from America. It is not necessarily a bad thing. Some of my friends have shared that it does get annoying to constantly be stopped to ask for pictures. They will also jump into your picture to take their own. I do not think I am offended as confused as to if I am considered Chinese when I am in China.
On the other hand, the Chinese students have mistaken me as one of them. We were playing an ice breaker, Two Truths and a Lie. It must be an American game because the Chinese students did not understand the premise of the game. I could see that they were still a bit unsure of how to proceed, and as we were instructed to let the Chinese students go first, I just quickly translated the rules. After I finished, he signaled for me to begin. I immediately shook my head and said that I was American. I was taken by surprise to be considered a native. I thought it was obvious enough that I am American. I was always told that I have an American accent when I speak Chinese, which makes sense because I also speak “Chin-glish”. [Read my previous blog to learn about my interpretation of this phrase.] I also dress in an American style. Granted, I was wearing a baby doll dress, which is less western than my usual outfit of shirt and shorts. I do not know why I was so shocked that he thought that I was Chinese because technically I am Chinese.
Another instance was when I was ordering boba with a friend. [Side note, bubble tea is so cheap here! I think I have had a cup of the fruit teas (because I am not the biggest fan of milk tea) almost every day since being in Asia, including my two days in Macau and Hong Kong.] Sometimes the natives will speak too quickly, and it might be difficult for other students to catch everything they say since most people only study Chinese in a classroom setting where the teacher speaks very slowly and enunciates each tone.
I try to let them figure it on their own: I think it is a part of the study abroad experience to converse in shops and restaurants. However, she was asking her ice level and my friend just nodded. After waiting a bit, I decided I would intervene to help translate. After I ordered, the cashier gestured toward the machine for me to pay. [In China, they use their phone to pay for everything. It is incredibly convenient, and America needs to catch up with the times.] I shook my head, and I “exposed” myself as a foreigner by paying in cash. I almost felt ashamed to hand over the cash because it was nice to be mistaken as a native, not that I do not want to be American. It was very conflicting.
Since being in China, I have been reconsidering how to identify myself. My nationality is American, and my ethnicity is Chinese. It is like my present and my past: which one influences me more? I definitely think I am more American than Chinese. If I have to quantify it, I would say I am 80% American and 20% Chinese. Most of my habits and thoughts are very Americanized. However, when I go back home, my parents still practice a lot of the Chinese customs. At home, we speak Mandarin and Cantonese, take off our shoes, and cook Chinese dishes. I mean, I still take off my shoes at my apartment, but I do not cook, definitely not Chinese food. [My version of meal prepping is saving my leftovers for my next meals.] It is a weird balance. I never realized how precarious my identity was: I never hesitated to fill in Asian on forms, but my American passport is all that I have known. On paper, it is fairly easy to describe, but life cannot be lived on sheets of paper. It is more complicated than black and white texts. In between the lines, there are so many shades to read.