“Ay, you! What province you from, again?” “Are you sure you’re American?” “But your face looks Chinese…eh, maybe you could be from Xinjiang, but no, not American.”
These are the types of greetings I get every day in China from curious taxi-drivers, to cashiers, to grandmas who want to tell me that I should know better about something or other. Being mixed in China is a challenge, but not one that should scare you away from this beautiful country and experiencing it for yourself.
I’m half white and half Asian-Pacific Islander. My mom is a native Pinay (Filipina) citizen and my father was in the US Air Force. As a military brat, it was normal for me to be around mixed race children in different parts of the world.
Living here in Lishui, Zhejiang, China, there are some Chinese who have been abroad, but not many. People are more familiar with non-Han Chinese (Han is by far the majority ethnic group). Since my features don’t look Han, Chinese people automatically assume I am one of their 55 minorities (they point out my “big” eyes, curvy build and curly hair right away as different from the norm). I always have to be prepared for someone to ask about what area of China I’m from, and explain that yes, I am Asian: Asian American.
There are many pros and cons to living in China as an Asian American. For one, you don’t get the overwhelming amount of attention that your more “foreign-looking” aka “white” colleagues do. You blend into the crowd more, and, thankfully, people don’t try to take pictures of you all the time. Walking down the street doesn’t cause motorbike accidents or onlookers to gawk and jostle each other to try to get a look at you. Another plus, if you know some Chinese, you’re more likely to get a better deal when you (inevitably) bargain with vendors. You are also less likely to be taken advantage of by taxi drivers and tour guides. Furthermore, your every move isn’t subjected to be part of some random person’s WeChat story of the day (the main social media platform) like your obviously foreign friends.
On the other hand, when said foreign-looking colleagues are around, you’re often overlooked or even outright dismissed – and not just when walking down the street. For instance, at the last academic conference I went to, all the Chinese officials greeted the non-Asian teachers, but did not try to introduce themselves or interact with the Asian American teachers at all. I later heard that one of the Chinese citizens there said they were surprised our English was so good! Obviously a little frustrating.
You’ll also get the glares, the side-eyes, the looks up and down and the occasional outburst of “what’s wrong with you, why can’t you speak right?” when you fumble with understanding or speaking Chinese. People will definitely speak Chinese to you, all day every day. They will also attempt to argue with you about everything from your heritage to your weight and skin color to your accent when speaking Chinese. I’ve even had a Chinese grandma at one restaurant get pretty worked up and grow verbally hostile when she didn’t understand that I am American and accused me of lying and trying to play a trick on her.
At times like that, it is important to remember that it is a big responsibility to live and work in China as an Asian American because you’re an ambassador – often the first of “your kind” that normal Chinese citizens interact with. Chinese citizens mostly know that Americans are “White” and “sometimes Black” from what little exposure they get through the State media. There is the term “ABC” or “American-born Chinese” to describe Americans of Chinese descent revisiting their ancestor’s homeland, but that’s about it. That there are other types of Asian Americans doesn’t immediately occur to them.
Part of my job as an educational and cultural ambassador in China is to break down racial expectations slowly and teach tolerance and knowledge of diversity, especially in younger students. I often have to work a little harder than my other counterparts to prove myself in the face of adversity. But trust me, for every jerk that you meet in China, whether out on the street or in your workplace, there are about ten more people who are welcoming and super curious to understand more about you and show you their culture. Staying positive and making friends definitely helps to overcome any anxiety and bitterness that may start to creep up from negative interactions. Eventually, you may also find it kind of fun to blow people’s minds like I do when I reiterate that, “Yes, I am American, and there are over 18 million more like me who are also American.”