Finding a cultural niche

By Kelly Diep
0 CommentsPrint E-mail, March 28, 2011
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The other day while walking my usual path home, I was abruptly stopped by two local Chinese women. My first thought was that they wanted directions. To my surprise, they asked me a simple question, "Which country are you from?"

I was slightly taken aback because I usually only get this question after speaking very poor Chinese. This was the first time that on appearance alone I was asked to reveal my nationality. Instances such as this one have lately led me to somewhat question my own identity.

This identity crisis has nothing to do with the common existentialist questions of "who am I? why am I here?" Rather, the entire crisis revolves around one particular question, "where do I belong?" This is perhaps not a unique experience among young Asian Americans in China.

Our interactions with foreigners and locals are sometimes funny, other times very frustrating, and occasionally so bizarre that we make a point to retell the story to all our friends back home. Historic immigration patterns and political discord within countries of origin make self-identification a difficult task for those whose past has forced them to undergo a cultural metamorphosis. This was the case for my family and why "being at home" in the country where my grandparents were born has been an exhausting challenge.

Overall, my black hair and Asian eyes are conducive to blending in and not attracting the attention received by the stereotypical "laowai." Cab rides are a repetitive guessing game. When I first get into a cab, most drivers will guess Korea or Japan as my country of origin. I correct their assumption with two sentences I have mastered, "I am from the States, but my grandparents are originally from Chaozhou. I was born in Vietnam, but moved to America when I was three." This always impresses my cab drivers who proceed to compliment my Chinese. Little do they know how many times I have had to utter these words.

Cab drivers are not the only ones confused and intrigued by my identity. Fellow subway passengers, salesclerks, and Starbucks baristas, are all left perplexed by my fluency in English. In China, I feel uncomfortable telling anyone I am Chinese. In part because Chinese people themselves don't consider me Chinese. More importantly, having grown up in the States, educated by a system and culture that often stands in stark contrast to China's, I find it difficult to always empathize with the Chinese ways of seeing things.

In contrast, I feel completely at ease telling my friends in the States I am Chinese- without the addition of American afterwards. After all, most Americans come from somewhere. Of course, some have been in the States longer than others, but blond and blued eye is neither necessary nor sufficient for being American. Americans often have complex stories of immigration similar to my own. My grandparents escaped the turmoil caused by the Chinese civil war in the 1930s to find opportunity in Vietnam, only to have their lives again disrupted by another civil war in the 1970s.

My parents, while born in Vietnam, have always identified more with China as a result of the prejudice they faced being ethically Chinese during a freezing point in Vietnamese-Chinese relations. Eventually, they decided that more opportunity awaited their children in America and thus transplanted us to a different country when I was just beginning to form memories. While they still observe many Chinese traditions and read Chinese papers, they would never leave the place where they built their lives and where their children grew up.

Studies of the 20th century Asian Diaspora all share a common thesis – there is no simple pattern of cultural identification among Asians who have moved to a non-Asian country. Some would be perfectly happy living and working in the country of their ancestors. Others grew up with parents who only allowed their children to speak English or the language of the new country. Despite this thesis, many of us continue to seek the elusive formula for cultural identification.

As a somewhat insular country that, until recently, was closed to the world, China understandably sees the world through a more simplified lens. Skin color determines country of origin. Obviously, the transience characterizing life in today's megacities does not allow for such a simplistic formula for identity. Cultural confusion is not unique to Asian Americans. Children born abroad develop their ideas of language and culture in a place very different from the one their parents are from. Pearl S. Buck, the renowned author of The Good Earth, is the quintessential fish out of water. Having spent her childhood and early adult life in rural China, all she knew was China. Her literary masterpiece is a reflection of her experiences as an "American Chinese" who felt like a foreigner in America.

It won't be easy to overturn stereotypes and judgments based on appearance. In fact, a world where we completely disregard cultural identification would be monotonous and borderline Kafkaesque. However, it's important to remember there is a story behind every face. A deeper acknowledgment of this will allow us to appreciate the beauty of our own confused heritages in a world of blurred identity.

The author is an American working for an NGO in Beijing.

Opinion articles reflect the views of their authors, not necessarily those of

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