A few weeks after we had met, my high school teacher — who entered my U.S. boarding school around the same time as I did — started a conversation with me about how hard it was trying to fit in.
“I know,” I remember saying. “For me, it’s strange being the new kid from a foreign country.” Her brows furrowed, and she asked me what I meant. It turns out that despite the fact that I had told her I was an international student from Hong Kong when we first met, she had spent the last couple of weeks thinking I wasn’t “really” from Hong Kong — that my family had come from Hong Kong, but I was “really from the Bay Area or something.” Seriously.
It’s a benign example of countless such encounters that inevitably resurface almost every time I meet someone new. Yes, my English is very good — I’ve studied the language since I was 5 (I hope it is, considering I’m an English major). Yes, we have Facebook in Hong Kong — it’s a special region under “one country, two systems” that’s part of China but has the power to run its own local affairs (in theory, not always in practice). No, I’m really not American, and neither is my family (I’m technically British, passportwise, but that’s a whole other story that’s hard to explain within a socially acceptable time frame). No, I don’t know karate (no comment).
The thing is, I understand the confusion. After all, I sound American. I apparently “look” American — I’m not sure how one can “look” American, but someone who said that to me once vaguely explained that it was because of my makeup and dark skin. Apparently, cosmetics and sunlight are an American thing.
And at first, it didn’t really bother me that people thought I was American. In fact, it was a relief. I wanted to fit in, and initially, it seemed as if I had succeeded — too well. But when it happened again and again, a weird feeling crept over me. It took me a while to realize what the feeling was: defensiveness. I felt defensive because I was constantly being categorized as something I was not, and through a cultural stereotype that didn’t necessarily fit with my sense of identity. I wasn’t really fitting in at all.
From then on, the more people saw me as American, the more determined I was to prove that I was from Hong Kong. When cultural differences came up in conversations, I pointed them out. When analyzing political issues regarding China, I tried to see them from both “Chinese” and “Western” perspectives. When I realized I’d become one of my friend’s “token foreign friends,” I bristled, but I dealt with it.
But after a while, that didn’t feel quite right either. It didn’t feel right because I was still struggling to categorize myself within the stereotype of a particular culture that represented one aspect of myself, just in order to feel connected to a certain community that didn’t necessarily represent me.
The reality is, I’m a Hong Kong-born, U.S.- and U.K.-educated British citizen. Although I live in Hong Kong and I’m technically not American, a significant part of my cultural identity is. Globally, the dominant Western culture is American. Having spent 16 years studying at a British international school and another two at an American boarding school before coming to UC Berkeley, I’ve been more exposed to Western culture than to local Hong Kong culture.
I’ve been trying to define myself through the stereotype of a particular culture or nationality in order to fit in, when it really just doesn’t work that way. I’m always going to feel as if I’m caught between two or three cultures — two or three worlds — and it’s a feeling that all international students grapple with, even if our stories and the way we deal with our circumstances vary. I’m never going to completely fit into a set cultural community, and nowhere is ever going to really feel like “home.” But that’s OK.
Instead of trying to box myself in to fit a certain stereotype and pandering to people’s expectations of who I am or who I should be, I should embrace my diverse cultural heritage. Instead of treating my mixed cultural identity as a weakness, as something I need to defend, I should see it as a strength: something that helps me be more open and more empathetic toward the people and the world around me. To really understand someone’s background and where they’re coming from, we need to look beyond our own preconceived notions and take the time to get to know them and hear their story. At the end of the day, our place of birth, educational system and ethnicity are all important aspects of our identity that shape us — but they don’t define who we are. Only we can do that.