“Wow, you must make a lot of money working for foreigners,” a stranger with curious and probing eyes told my mom in the park. I was 3 years old sitting in a stroller that my mom was pushing me in as she walked.
The stranger had assumed that my mother was my nanny. It was puzzling to people unaccustomed to multiracial folx that one could be a different race from one’s parent.
As I grew older and developed more “Chinese features,” according to my mom, these backhanded comments stopped. But “you don’t look Chinese” is still the most common response that people give when I inform them that I am Chinese. I have passed as Ashkenazi Jewish, Latinx and Middle Eastern, but never Asian.
But I want my Chinese heritage to be visible because I want to feel connected to my community. I grew up around many of the same influences and values as any other Chinese person from China, and to not be seen as Chinese by the world feels like I am neglecting that upbringing.
So I try extra hard to claim it. I pronounce Chinese words in a Mandarin accent sandwiched into English sentences. I talk about “going back” to China. For a long time, my connection to China was enough to justify my Chinese identity. After all, even strangers recognized that I couldn’t not be Chinese when I grew up there and spoke fluent Mandarin.
But when I visited China for the first time since I moved to America at age 15, I began to seriously question my strong identification with being Chinese. I had become so Americanized since moving to California that I forgot some of the simplest rules of Chinese culture.
As I was having dim sum with my family friends in China, I noticed my best friend getting up to refill the teapot. I was confused and wondered why she was doing that instead of enjoying her meal.
But then it hit me. She was doing what every proper Chinese child did at gatherings with family friends — making sure the elders always had their teacups filled to the brim. I had forgotten to follow all the proper cultural etiquette of Chinese dining. Trying to hide my embarrassment, I put my head down and immediately put a piece of chicken feet in my friend’s younger sister’s bowl. This is another common table etiquette — you always try to take care of those younger than you by giving them food.
I realized, with disbelief and discomfort, that I had adopted American culture as my normal that I experienced culture shock in my own homeland of Guangzhou. My Americanization also meant that I adopted different cultural values from those around me.
At a dinner with family friends, one of the aunties’ husbands proudly argued that hitting children was an acceptable way to get them to obey parents. I sat there stunned as he babbled on to the nods in agreement of a few other adults. I was disturbed by the deeply problematic nature of his comments but understood that we were not in America. Physically “teaching children a lesson” was a normal way of parenting in China — even my mom who had married an American hit me as a child.
These experiences made me doubt the certainty with which I proclaimed my heritage. If I no longer remembered the most basic Chinese mannerisms or agreed with Chinese cultural norms, what made me Chinese? I’d held onto my past in China as definite proof that I am Chinese “enough,” enough for myself, my Chinese family and the validation of strangers.
I began to think about what really makes someone a certain ethnicity. For most, looks are enough to box anyone into a racial or ethnic category. But for people like me who don’t fit the stereotype of what my ethnicity looks like, it comes down to more abstract and subjective markers like being able to speak the language and cook the food.
The more I pondered these markers of identity, the more problematic they appeared to me. Just because I don’t possess all the qualities other people expect of a Chinese person doesn’t mean my identity should be called into question. Strangers should not have the right to doubt my self-identification by imposing their own internal biases. Thinking that I needed to “prove” being Chinese by complying to other people’s expectations reinforced this rigid, prejudiced conception of ethnic and cultural identity.
I realized, walking through the streets of old Guangzhou, that China is my home. There’s no one way to “look” Chinese or be Chinese, and that any way I feel is true to me should be sufficient for everybody else.