So I am Chinese?!

IMAG4044Ni hao! Hello fine people and welcome to my first blog. There are a thousand and one things I would love to share with you about my experiences in Beijing thus far, but I have landed on one reoccurring thought…it sure is interesting to be Chinese-American in China.

Ok ok, let me explain. First, my parents were both from Southern China. I was born and raised in San Francisco, California. Chinatown to be exact. So that makes me pretty much Chinese right? What does that even mean? I. Have. No. Idea. Or at least I had no idea.


I’ll come back to that question. So unlike most Asian families in America, only my immediate family immigrated to the US and my extended family stayed in China. This means I have been very fortunate to have taken several trips in my lifetime to China to see my family. I also grew up speaking Cantonese (a dialect of Chinese), but not Mandarin (which is the official dialect spoken in China, not to mention Beijing). However, my Cantonese has deteriorated over the years and with it, I feared, my Chinese culture. Because what is a culture? A language? An affinity for white rice? Receiving red envelopes once a year?

My trips didn’t help answer these questions. I would feel my identity change based on my present country. In China, I felt more American than ever and in America I felt more Chinese than ever. I would even say after moving to Portland, the whitest major city in the US, I felt even more Chinese. Dare I say it, this is the internal struggle of a minority in America. We’re quick to notice how we’re different from those around us and never quite feel like we fit in.

I asked these questions over the years, but I suppose because I’m older and more aware now, something has shifted this time around in China. I feel…in place.

I know it’s a little strange, but I feel this whenever I am packed in like tuna into a can… I mean the subway. Much like boarding the buses in Chinatown, I have to fight for my right to stand. This goes right along with the I-don’t-care-what-you-think-I’m-going-to-get-mine attitude as I fight the battlefield of cars on top of cars that won’t stop for me. This is the mentality I was raised with. There are just so many people here that if you don’t you stand for yourself, you will never succeed in getting across the street, putting money in your pocket, or feeding your family.

I also feel in place when I hear the constant rhythm of Chinese being spoken around me. Even though I don’t understand much of this version of Chinese, it somehow still speaks to me. Chinese, no matter the dialect, is poetic.  The written language for Cantonese (traditional) and Mandarin (simplified) are about the same. For example, “小 心” in both dialects, is to “be careful”IMAG4037. This literally means to show “little heart”– or keep your heart small so you won’t get hurt. This is much like how Chinese parents behave towards their children. Rarely will you hear a Chinese mother tell her child, “I love you” and vulnerably wait for the love to be returned. Instead she will put all her love in cooking amazing dishes. And if you eat it, you’re returning her love. Most American psychologists would advise against this, but I learned a long time ago, food = love. Meal times are precious because it is when you pass and share that love. I see this every day when the lunch music plays and my whole office goes to lunch together, as if we’re one unit. A family.


IMAG4025These feelings of belonging have culminated to this one moment. I was sitting across from my new colleague at dinner at a Beijing hot pot restaurant (where you cook your meat directly in front of you). She has been extremely friendly and she told me from day one that her dream was to go to the States. The land of opportunity and where competition does not overwhelm you like it does here. She is a single child, as most of my colleagues are, and so her parents have invested literally everything they have in her. But they don’t have enough to send her to America.

As she told me this, I said something in Cantonese (don’t ask me, I don’t remember what!). She had known that I didn’t speak Mandarin, but when she heard me speak Cantonese, she looked at me, eyes wide, “You are Chinese!” Again, that made me question if language = culture, and if I continue to lose my language, will I lose my culture?

IMAG4077But then she asked me a list of questions: “Are your parents from China? Did they know English? Did they know anyone?”. After my responses, she followed up with an off-the-distance look and the words, “wow… they are really brave”. As I looked at her, it hit me, she was asking me about her hopes and dreams. What would it be like if she tried to go America? What would happen if she sends her child there? How hard would it be to be an ocean away from your family? I never felt more Chinese than that moment because… I am her. Or I could have been. Dreaming that American Dream. But because my parents immigrated, I am now the Chinese Dream realized. I am simply an extension and product of the sweat and tears of the Chinese people. That is my place.

Aaaannnd I also never felt more grateful to my parents than at that moment. I know, I know they sacrificed everything for me. But, No. Really. They sacrificed everything for me.


So I realize, this fear that I have that I’m losing my culture because…I’m forgetting my first language or that I don’t know how to cook all the dishes that my mom does, does not make me any less Chinese. My culture is embedded in me. It’s the way I express myself. It’s the way I care about my family, and the family I’ve built around me. My unit. It’s the way I fight for my own. It’s the way I recognize sacrifice.

But don’t get me wrong, life is different here and I recognize that I am in no doubt, American. To me, that means the pursuit of happiness. This, like most American lives, is a privilege in it of itself. It is the reason I am pursuing the path of an urban planner instead of let’s say a heavy moneymaker such as doctor or a lawyer. It makes me happy to believe that I can have some impact on shaping my children’s future in hopes that their earth will stay green and their society may become a more equal one.

And so I am Chinese-American and for once, I feel like I know a sliver of what that means.

Annnnyways, it’s been three weeks. And this whole reflecting and reinforcing my identity thing is… cool. Not bad Beijing. Not bad.




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Endangered places: Exploring the hutong in Beijing

The hutong is comprised of grey brick homes like this one.

As Beijing rapidly modernizes, the hutongs — the traditional neighborhood unit of the city dating back to the 1300s — have been disappearing. Hutongs are comprised of narrow grey-bricked alleyways, slanted tile roofs, and square courtyards and were once found throughout the city. About 7000-8000 hutongs originally existed in Beijing, however 90% of them have been destroyed to make way for residential high rises, sky scrapers, and other modern urban amenities. In the early 2000s, the municipal government developed plans to preserve the hutongs in inner-city areas, immediately adjacent to the Forbidden City. Since then, however, the hutongs have continued to disappear, inching closer to becoming extinct places.


Nanluoguxiang is a now a busy retail strip that draws visitors from far and wide.

One of the more famous hutongs in Beijing is Nanluoguxiang, which also happens to be just a few steps from my apartment for the summer. Since arriving in town, I have explored some of the alleyways and courtyards of Nanluoguxiang in the evenings, which is always crowded with visitors. The main alleyway was recently refurbished into a thriving commercial strip that features a mix of mom-and-pop shops, bars, cafes, food stalls, as well as some posh retail.

Details found on a beautiful structure found inside the hutong.

Walking through the quieter alleyways, however, has hinted to a less glamorous past and suggests a rich heritage and history worthy of preservation. From talking to some of my colleagues at the office, I have learned that many of the hutongs have been demolished in order to ameliorate living conditions. In addition to the loss of historical structures, another consequence has been the displacement of people from their homes, neighborhoods, and social networks.

Is history repeating itself?

After learning a little bit about this issue, I could not resist  comparing China’s redevelopment program to urban renewal in the United States in the 1950s and 1960s. According to Zhang and Fang (2004), both the Chinese and U.S. programs had lofty intentions to provide housing to low-income people which were later dismissed by governments motivated by economic growth. Is history repeating itself? If so, what can China learn from the United States about what not to do?


Zhang, Y. and Fang, K. (2004). Is history repeating itself? From urban renewal in the United States to inner-city redevelopment in China. Journal of Planning Education and Research, 23, 286-298.

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First Impressions

Year of the Horse

Year of the Horse

I have only been in China for two weeks so these first impressions may change later as I become more adjusted to living here. First and foremost the food is amazingly good and cheap. Portion sizes are just right for a person like me who has a large appetite. There is always something new to try and as an adventurous eater I am always game to test the waters. Every day at work for breakfast and lunch there is a buffet style of selections. I have never eaten so much eggplant, prepared in so many different ways in my life. I also really enjoyed a dish of lotus root, snow peas and gingko nuts, so good! As a side note, the Chinese love to eat pork, so to my friends who disdain the taste of pig flesh if you ever travel here be warned. The Chinese love to sneak pig parts into a variety of edibles like: buns, dumplings, and fried breads as well as mix it with green veggies for flavoring. Despite pork dishes there are still so many tasty seafood, beef and chicken dishes. I can imagine trying something new every day (and I do) and still not be able to hit everything on the menus.

In my past life as a pseudo-hermit, I am making serious effort to transition into the urban world. It is critically important as a planner to be knowledgeable of the intricacies of the city. By looking at the cultural differences of how people live in cities, it can make for fascinating case studies and shed some insights. While I have lived near and in some larger cities, I have never lived full-time in a city as large (area) or as populous as Beijing. The sheer number of people and activity in the city can be quite overwhelming. Old country mouse here has to get along in the city! But the experiences are valuable and it is eye opening to see how much human coordinated effort it takes at this scale to make a city run.

Every morning on the commute to CAUPD we pack onto the subway (quite literally) and head off to work. The trains run incredibly efficiently and there are dedicated “ushers” (not sure what their official job titles are) who inform people to queue up nicely during rush hour at the escalators. Besides yelling into microphones, they seem to keep the general flow of people moving on and off the trains. The automated voices overhead even tell you that if you cannot “fit onto the train, please wait patiently for the next one”. Nick and I were returning from a scouting mission to find a house of board games, when our train arrived so overloaded with people that when the doors opened literally a hundred people poured out of the doors in a fit of shouts and yelling. I have never seen that many people exit a subway car in my life and how they all fit in there in the first place is beyond anyone’s guess.

One final first week observation I find amusing (and probably says more about me than anything) is the readily accessible brooms and mops. You can go just about anywhere and a homemade broom from sticks and twigs is at hand. I walked about 200 feet down a city street near my hotel room and counted six brooms I could have picked up and used and four mops hanging in the trees to dry out. If you need a little gray water they have stations set up outside the stoop. With so many cigarette butts and spit everywhere Beijing has to keep the streets clean.

Grey water bucket

Grey water bucket

Brooms and Mops and Mops and Brooms

Brooms and Mops and Mops and Brooms

Mop just hanging out

Mop just hanging out


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