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Being Chinese American in China

Beijing Chinese American in China

For many of our students, being in China means viewing Chinese culture as a guest and an outsider, but for Chinese Americans, being in China can be a completely different experience. Being able to pass as Chinese lends them a different lens to view China through and in the meantime, puts them under higher expectations from strangers such as shopkeepers and restaurant owners, which both afford them the opportunity to understand China on a deeper and more personal level as well as present more challenges. To see how different students approach these challenges and opportunities, we had three Chinese American TBC students write about their unique experiences during their time here.

Jessica Xi: Being Half Chinese in China

Sabrina Lin: Being Chinese American in China

Melissa Chiaro: Being an American Chinese Adoptee in China

 

Jessica Xi

My name is Jessica Xi, or Xi Xiao Qing, depending on which side of my family you ask. I’m from Minnesota but I go to school at Loyola University Chicago. My majors are History and Global and International Studies, and my minors are Leadership Studies and Chinese Language. My father is from Jiangsu province in China, while my mother is Minnesotan to the bone, so I was sort of practically raised in a lake in the woods, eating pan-fried dumplings. All of his family live in China, while all of my mother’s live within an hour-drive radius of our house in Minnesota, so we’d just go to China every handful of years, but I’ve had a passport ever since my first trip there in 1997.

Why did you choose to come to China? 

My choice about studying in China really wasn’t much of a choice at all, but not in a bad way. To know why China, we have to backtrack to senior year of high school Jessica, who really hated Loyola University Chicago when she was forced to tour it on a birthday trip to Chicago, but somehow didn’t just cross it off her list immediately when considering schools to go to. And then she learned about their Ricci Scholars Program, a study abroad opportunity wherein students go to Loyola’s Rome Campus for the Fall semester of their junior year and then to The Beijing Center for the Spring, while also doing an independent research project comparing the two. So that’s pretty much the main reason I even went to my school, but of course I’m in love with it now, after two years on campus and one year abroad with LUC students and non-LUC students together. Learning about the Ricci Scholars Program let me know about Loyola’s amazing study abroad opportunity, but I didn’t want to choose just China and miss out on that Europe study abroad experience, or choose Europe and not learn more about China. If I hadn’t become a Ricci Scholar, I would have just gone to China in the Fall and Rome in the Spring.

Last time I’ve been to China was 2013, and when I’m in the States I miss it every day. My family is such an important part of my life, both the American and Chinese sides, and to able to see the ones here so rarely is hard. When I was younger, I always wondered what it would have been like if I was raised in China instead of America – of course, my Chinese would have been better, but the more I’ve been here the more I realize what opportunities I was able to have in the US. But I did want to study in China so I could see them more, so I could connect more with my Chinese culture (my dad has taken to being an American like a fish to water – he loves Sunday football and making hamburgers on the grill, and so on, but in reverse it means we don’t do much more than cook Chinese food a few times a week and celebrate Chinese New Year with a feast), so I could improve my Chinese language skills, to feel what it would be like to live in China and not just visit, and to kind of see where I would be and what my life would be like if I were a Chinese college student, in China. So, I came to China for lots of reasons, and they’re all sort of the same – because I’m Chinese-American.

What were some of your concerns or expectations before coming?

I try not to look into the future too much, but my biggest concern coming here was about my language skills. I’ve only formally studied Chinese for two years, at Loyola, because before that I just learned what I picked up from my dad and what a couple of weeks at immersion Chinese camps taught me. I still am much better at speaking and listening than reading and writing. But I was just coming off a semester in Rome, where I picked up Italian pretty quickly, so I wasn’t expecting my Chinese to come back in full force. But it did come back alright. Besides language, I didn’t really know what to expect at all. I hadn’t ever been to China except as a visitor, and besides the major tourist sites never really got to know Beijing. In Italy, language wasn’t really a problem – if you couldn’t figure it out in Italian, most people spoke English, and a lot of study abroad students don’t even really try to learn Italian. Here, I think everyone, even the most experienced and skilled students went in – and still have – hesitation.

Any surprises or challenges after coming here? 

I think one of the things I wasn’t expecting was for the skills I learned in Italy – traveling alone, independence, fake it until you make it, learning the city well – to translate well here. I think I just had it in my head from all my previous China experiences that ‘everything would work out’ without really thinking: well, that’s because your dad was there, who is a native speaker. But whether I’m just wandering around Beijing with some friends or taking the train for a solo weekend away, I know whatever I’m doing, I can do it. Some of the biggest surprises I’ve had is when Chinese people recognize me as Chinese. One of the things my Chinese professor has told me is that she thinks that people with Chinese mothers tend to look more Chinese, while people with Chinese fathers look more white (assuming their mothers are white, of course). I think I agree. It’s a rare day in the States when somebody sees me and doesn’t think I’m just another white person. I’ve had to prove my ethnicity by showing my driver’s license with my surname, for example. That hurts. But here in China, despite getting some looks for being obviously a foreigner, people see that I have Chinese heritage. I’ve even had people that are part of a company that teaches Chinese people English ask me if I would like to learn English with them. That’s been pretty nice. But on the flip side, my Chinese language skills aren’t everything I want them to be. I can’t communicate directly with my grandmother because even though I’ve learned so much since 2013, she speaks only in our regional dialect that is too thick of an accent for me to understand, so my grandfather sort of translates for the both of us, but even then I never really catch all of what he says. Like I said, I can’t really read, and there’s so much I can’t say.

Any tips or advice to share with others with Asian heritage?

Since I was raised in Minnesota, in a predominately white area, I didn’t have any non-white friends growing up, with the exception of one South Asian girl who went to a different high school. There were ten or less East Asian kids in my graduating class, and about that same number of Southeast Asian kids. There were a few more than ten African-American kids, and little to no Latin kids or Native Americans. So when I went to college in the great diverse city of Chicago, one of the first things I stumbled into was an Asian-interest (not Asian-exclusive) sorority, built for and by the Asian community. It was amazing to go from no community at all to this wonderful, multi-talented, and welcoming organization of girls from backgrounds from all over the world, not just East Asia, and I bring this up because three of my sorority sisters came to China and The Beijing Center before me. But all of them were adopted Chinese women. They offered me advice on where to eat, what to do, what to see, but none of them could really relate their cultural experience with the journey I was going on. They had their own, different but no less important, relationships with China and their heritage. So my tip to others with a connection to China like mine, I strongly suggest doing it and coming to Beijing. I can’t speak to everyone’s experience – goodness knows that everyone comes from different backgrounds, not adding cultural connections into the criteria, but even with hesitation, come see your China. I’m staying here until mid-August because this is my only chance at the undergraduate experience to be here. I’ll tell you to study the language, yes, but that goes for everyone, Chinese at all or not. For me, maybe staying the longest will make it the hardest to leave and hurt the most once my plane touches ground in Minnesota again. But I’m okay with that. My Chinese heritage is a big part of who I am, the same as my American. But my life and experiences aren’t as easy to split half and half like my genes, so I have to do what I can now. Life isn’t like in the books and movies, where somebody suddenly discovers this hidden part of themselves but everything is okay, easy to learn, and useful. You have to work to know and use this thing that makes you unique and strong.

So that’s sort of my advice, to anybody with Chinese heritage, no matter the type or the amount or even your level or history of connection with it. If you want to know the world, and know yourself, come to China. The Asian-American culture, and the American one too, is so different.

And go eat at Hangzhou Xiao Chi when you come here, if it’s still around outside of East Gate. I recommend the Qiezi Gai Fan, even though it’s not exactly on the menu (yet.)

Sabrina Lin

My name is Sabrina, and I came to TBC as a junior from Loyola University Chicago majoring in Statistics, minoring in Information Systems. Born and raised in San Francisco, CA, I grew up in a predominately Chinese American community where within the public school system, we got Chinese New Year’s off. Both my parents immigrated to the United States from China; I grew up in a culturally Chinese household, speaking Chinese and eating delicious Chinese food daily, in addition to observing most of the major Chinese holidays growing up.

Why did you choose to come to China? 

Hearing my parents’ stories growing up about China, I wanted to put myself in their shoes and experience a similar lifestyle to theirs to not only better understand my family, but to better understand what my Chinese heritage truly means to me. A big part of that is retaining my Chinese language skills, which have slipped since moving to Chicago to pursue my education. Coming to TBC and having the opportunity to practice my Chinese every day, my fluency has improved to the point where even my parents are impressed by my Chinese.

What were some of your concerns or expectations before coming?

My biggest fear coming to TBC was not being American enough, but also not being Chinese enough. Having grown up in a Chinese American community where almost all my classmates and a good number of my teachers are Chinese, going to school in Chicago was my first time grappling with having to explain every aspect of my culture. I was forced to explore what it means to be Chinese American as a minority. I was extremely scared that I was going to feel what I felt freshman year at LUC within the TBC community. My identity was caught in the middle of being Chinese and American, being “too Chinese” for the average American student to immediately identify with, but also “too American” to hang out with just the Chinese students. I did not know if there would be any other Chinese American students coming to TBC and was scared of not having people I could identify with, nor anyone who would try to understand my perspectives.

Being the only TBC student from a 100% culturally Chinese household has been my biggest challenge at TBC. My Chinese ability has been both an advantage and a challenge. At times, people expect my role to be solely that of a translator. But the reality is, I don’t always understand, but the burden to be the guide persists. Some people only see me as a cultural ambassador between China and America and not as a fellow classmate, which is extremely frustrating at times. Most frustratingly, however, is watching other students make naïve but hurtful comments about Chinese culture whether it be about the people, food, or even the language has often been challenging for me to hear, because it strikes at the core of my identity. Although I am proud to be a Chinese American student studying abroad, I at times had great difficulty bridging the cultural divides.

Any surprises or challenges after coming here? 

The biggest surprise to me was how easily I assimilated to living in China. Study abroad is an excitingly terrifying experience and as a more introverted person, it was a luxury that I could blend in with the crowd. During my morning commute to my internship, as an ethnically Chinese person, I was just another person trying to go to work. But, because I came to China with the goal of utilizing and improving my Chinese, I have the ability to engage in society like any other typical Chinese person, giving me great opportunities for growth.

What’s striking and sometimes more puzzling though is the reactions I receive from people, both Chinese nationals and expats, throughout China. Because I am 100% ethnically Chinese, people cannot tell if I am an expat or a Chinese national. My Chinese Americanness is undermined by others and it puts me in an awkward place sometimes. Having interned at the Beijing United Family hospital, an international hospital here in Beijing, I have experienced how differently potential clients interact with me before realizing I am an American. It can be extremely discouraging, as I can tell that they either do not feel comfortable or as open with me helping them since I have a Chinese face. Being Chinese American anywhere presents its own challenges, but it is especially prevalent in China.

It is really interesting studying abroad as someone with Chinese heritage. Because you do not stick out as blatantly as a foreigner compared to your peers, people, both Chinese nationals and expats, do treat you differently. People equate looking Chinese to several things. They assume you will speak Chinese. But also, they will assume you understand how certain things work around the country, which means I often get strange expressions when I ask what might be a seemingly obvious question to a Chinese national. This is most visible whenever I visit the train station. The ticket clerk will often wonder why I don’t proceed to use the automatic ticket pick-up machine, only for me to pull out my US passport – you need to have a residence card to use the machine—and then happily help me pick up my ticket.

Melissa Chiaro

My name is Melissa Chiaro. I am a third year student at Loyola University Chicago and I’m majoring in International Studies with minors in French, Marketing, and a recently added Chinese studies. I was born in China near Leping City in Jiangxi. My mom adopted me when I was about one-year-old. I’ve grown up and lived in the US basically all my life and did not speak any Chinese when I came here. 

Why did you choose to come to China? 

I kinda came to China on a fluke. I went to college with the big goal of studying abroad. Before college I had never left the U.S. aside from when I arrived. So in college I was looking for a program that would let me study abroad for the longest and cheapest amount of time. I came across a program at LUC called the Ricci Program where you perform a research project in both Rome, Italy and Beijing, China for one semester and on returning to the U.S. you write a comparative research paper. Although I never had burning desires to study in either place I had been highly interested in going. I am a French minor so I had wanted to study in France to further my French skills. I was vaguely interested in coming back to my homeland and seeing China for myself especially since I like to watch Chinese dramas and variety shows. So this is one of the happiest accidents that has happened and I really didn’t consider heritage that much when I considered my study abroad experience. 

What were some of your concerns or expectations before coming? 

One of my biggest concerns was that I look Chinese, being Chinese born, and I was worried about the language barrier. I was worried people would assume I could speak Chinese and try to talk to me fluently. I was a little worried about the cultural differences and if I might accidentally offend someone.  I was also a little worried about being disappointed. Thinking about my ideas of China before I came here, wasn’t based on history or classes, but on the idea of a homeland to return to and lots of tv shows and movies that I’ve watched which are always known for being entirely completely true to life and accurate (heavy sarcasm). 

Any surprises or challenges after coming here? 

One challenge that I’ve found and expected is definitely the language barrier. I’ve had multiple people try and ask for clarification of something or directions and I just trip over my tongue. The barrier just meant I had to put in double the effort to go anywhere or try to communicate with someone, but language is something I love to learn. I’ve been finding as the semester goes on I’m picking up more words and being able to communicate better. A few perks is that because I look Chinese I have not been a target for taxi drivers or have had random people ask for my pictures or take my picture without consent. I got to walk around China more as a part of the community rather than an outsider looking in. I’ve really fallen in love with China’s small quirks. The rural landscape in Yunnan, the hidden gem shop or restaurant where pointing and “这个” are the only way to communicate, and the amazing Chinese friends I’ve made whether they are our amazing Chinese Roommates or a random stranger who helped me buy some tea and helped me practice my Chinese while they practiced their English and they later called me a taxi.

Any tips or advice to share with others with Asian heritage?

Don’t be scared by challenges. You might have to work harder because people will have more expectations from you, but embracing the culture and truly trying to connect to it is what makes studying abroad so much fun. For the amount of time you  are in a country you are not an outsider or an American tourist. You are a citizen of that country and you need to go out and see everything, the great wall and the great fruit stand outside east gate. Try and connect to people. The Chinese roommates are amazing people and have become some of my closest friends. And you’ll find most Chinese people are pretty helpful and ready to help if you just ask. That being said, have a dictionary like Pleco and try not to rely on the CRs too much. While they are the best of people and will be glad to help, you can’t have them get your 外卖 every time just because you are scared to interact with the delivery driver. In a restaurant if you don’t want to butcher the name of a dish, pointing and saying 这个 ( zhe ge) helps a lot. If the pictures are far away from you and on the wall, I recommend taking a picture on your phone and then pointing from your phone. Weibo, Alipay, Taobao, Ofo, and WeChat are fun apps that are helpful to surviving China. Weibo helps you learn some slang words. Stickers and WeChat pay are the best things in the world. Ofo is a genius idea and Taobao and Alipay help me to spend more money than I really should. Take lots of pictures!! Enjoy the experience, embrace the challenge and don’t forget about classes.