Ni 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”. 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.
These 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?
But 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.