Being Chinese in China

I’m American-born-Chinese – an ABC. Throughout most of my life, I had always identified more with the A than C. America was where I was born and raised. It’s my home. I identify with its culture and history and traditions. I project this identity to the world through my behavior and opinions. I’m American because I feel, think and act certain ways. In China, however, I was reminded of how large a role physical attributes play in how the world perceives me.

This manifested itself every time I opened my mouth to talk to a local. While I understand and speak Cantonese, the differences between that and Mandarin in tone and inflection are significant enough that Mandarin might as well be a foreign language to me. And thus, my “Chinese-language-skills” were rendered completely useless throughout our travels in Shanghai, Nanjing and Beijing.

In each and every interaction with locals, there was an expectation that I speak Chinese because of how I looked. While I tried to conduct each exchange without words (pointing and nodding) or employing the very few words that I know with diligent attention towards proper pronunciation, I would inevitably betray the fact that I don’t in fact speak Chinese. And each and every time the interaction devolved into wild gesticulations, English and attempts to speak Cantonese, the person with whom I was interacting would invariably display a look of confusion and then disappointment. A few people even shook their heads. Because there was a greater expectation that my white friends couldn’t speak Chinese, many times, it was easier to let my them take the lead in the exchange. In fact, when I tried Cantonese at restaurant in Shanghai, the hostess brought over an English-speaking waiter.

All of these interactions were constant reminders that the way I look informs how others perceive me, even if I feel and act something completely different. And even if the judgment I experienced was innocuous and often hilarious, the encounters also reminded me of what a privilege it is that I can rely on and expect to get by just speaking English and gesticulating my needs. International travel often inspires me to learn more languages. After studying abroad in Europe, I decided to learn French. This trip has inspired me to take up Mandarin Chinese. Hopefully by the time I return to China, I will be able to communicate without evoking disappointment.

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