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The tale of a Chinese gooseberry

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SEPTEMBER 25, 2014

Nobody knows for sure the origin of the kiwifruit, and I’m pretty sure nobody cares.

The Chinese gooseberry was said to have been cultivated in northern China, where it became famous for its flavorful flesh and fuzzy skin. In the early 20th century, it was believed that soil outside China served the fruit better, and away it went to New Zealand, where farmers quickly started calling the gooseberry “kiwifruit” instead, due to its resemblance with the native Kiwi bird.

I realized I was a kiwifruit when I was 13. Born in Beijing and raised in the heart of Auckland, New Zealand, I don’t look like a Kiwi, and I don’t sound Chinese. During CalSo at the end of July, exchanges shown below occurred no fewer than five different times:

Stranger: “You don’t sound or look like you’re from New Zealand.”

Me: “I went to an American international school in Beijing, so…”

Stranger: “Oh, so you’re Chinese?”

Me: “Well, I’m Chinese, but I’m also a Kiwi.”

Stranger (with authority): “You sound American though. Are you sure you’re from New Zealand?”

Me: “…”

I wasn’t sure. As I stood in front of a crowd who tried so kindheartedly to fit me into an identity that made sense to them, I struggled for sanity. Where do I belong?

Admittedly, my life, if explained chronologically, would be perplexing at best. I could imagine the confused stares and the torrent of questions that would follow. I was born in Beijing, but how is it possible that I am not a Chinese citizen? I have lived in Shanghai, London and Auckland, so why did I choose to go to an American high school in Beijing? I speak with an American accent — why do I say with assurance that I come from New Zealand?

Just try to fit in, I begged myself. When I was called a Ching-Chong-Chinaman in my Kiwi primary school, I tried to dye my hair yellow using highlighters. When my New Zealand middle school hosted a “cultural” Chinese spelling bee, I chose instead to mingle with the blue-eyed blondes who were playing games of netball. When I was teased for my pronounced Kiwi accent in an American school in Beijing, I chose to straighten my tongue and brighten my voice for an American accent. When I eventually found that my group of friends all spoke fluent Mandarin, I switched to Mandarin too, in fear of exclusion.

I never thought I was hiding anything; rather, I took pride in the fact that I could change like a chameleon at any given moment. How people saw me was what counted, and I would demean certain parts of myself as needed. I made fun of my “Asian” need to study hard when hanging out with my white peers, and I criticized my own fluent English when I was with my Chinese friends, condemning myself to be a “fake” Asian. Everyone needed me to fit into a particular niche, and I obeyed happily, never once considering that there was more to me.

During my four years at the international school of Beijing, I knew people who have lived in eight different countries and people who spoke four different languages. A classmate of mine was a U.S. Army brat who rode her bike to a local marketplace every Sunday to purchase Chinese pancakes. A Taiwanese Australian student I met in Beijing grew up in Sydney but goes back to Taiwan every year to visit relatives and consume night market goodies. The willingness to sit down and talk for five minutes could be all you need to understand internationality, so why hack a multicultural person to pieces that fit your puzzle?

As for me, I will armor myself as an international student and speak in whichever accent I please and look however I want. Taking back my multicultural identity took years, but when I did, I became infinitely stronger. In fact, I revel in the confused stares that others give me when I tell them, in a perfectly American accent, that I’m from New Zealand. I love the fact that it unsettles them and makes them think about the array of possible identities beyond that of a single nation.

I am a child bred by merges of nations, with an accent that oozes nonconformity. Internationalism in itself is a culture, an identity to be treasured and explored. Chinese gooseberry, kiwi fruit, 奇异果 (strange fruit) – they’re all just different labels for the same complex, Vitamin-C rich, flavorful center.

Jessie Qian writes the Thursday blog on issues of internationalism. You can contact her at [email protected].

SEPTEMBER 13, 2015