I recently returned from a trip to China, during which, Z, my boyfriend of French origin, joined me for over a week of travel across the country. As a Chinese-American who can speak Chinese somewhat haltingly travelling with an apparent foreigner, the question of my own identity (native versus foreigner, Chinese versus American) was never far from my mind. A couple of incidents seemed to highlight the uncomfortable dichotomy.
During one exchange, a food vendor in Beijing, upon hearing my accent, asked:
“Where are you from?”
“Oh, he’s American? Where are you from?”
“No, I’m American. He’s French.”
In another dialogue with a waitress in Xian, I asked:
“Do you have a menu with pictures? Or in English?”
“I can’t read Chinese.”
The waitress gave me an incredulous look. “You want the English menu?”
Minutes later, the waitress brought the Chinese menu anyway.
“I can’t read this,” I told her.
“You can’t read this?”
“No. Do you have the English menu?”
The waitress appeared mystified. “Are you Korean or something?”
“Where are you from?”
“You don’t look like you’re American,” she protested.
Finally, the waitress brought the English menu. Z astutely noticed a discrepancy in prices between the items on the English menu and the Chinese menu. When our waitress came back, I took out both menus and asked her the price of the dish we wanted to order, gesturing to a number in the Chinese menu to confirm if it was the same. The waitress cried triumphantly: “You can read Chinese!”
It was my turn to look incredulous. “…No.”
Most people I know, when asked where they are from, do not have to wonder if their response will be deemed false, incorrect, or a misstatement of some sort. I do. Every time I’m abroad and posed the question “Where are you from?”, I scan the face of my interlocutor and try to guess if this is one of those times, if this is one of those people who will narrow their eyes in suspicion at my answer. Because inevitably, there are those who have already formed an answer to their own question, who have decided that there are a handful of acceptable responses and that I should identify myself accordingly. “I’m American” is rarely one of these pre-approved rejoinders.
Such people are, generally speaking, quite friendly. They’re sometimes well educated. And they probably don’t think of themselves as racist. But the assumptions they hold about race and identity are nefarious and pervasive, such as the idea that Americans do not have Chinese heritage.
It’s not just in China that I’ve encountered this attitude. In fact, I’m more understanding of such assumptions in China, a country which only opened to the international community within the last generation, and a country where people can correctly recognize my ethnic features as Chinese. Nonetheless, it does get exhausting having to constantly defend your identity. All. Around. The world.
In Belgium, where I was again travelling with Z, a gregarious photographer dressed as a musketeer thought I was joking when I said I was from New York. (This guy did kick butt though; we took pictures together and later sent him a New Year’s card.)
In Morocco, when I was travelling with a group of other American girls, vendors were nonetheless eager to try out their Japanese on me.
France’s record? No better. When explaining that I was Chinese-American, I’ve encountered one person who flat out insisted that I was really Chinese… and another person who said that I was really American.
And I can’t even win in the States. I once attended a dinner at my university, where a young man asked my name. When I told him my decidedly non-Asian first name, he persisted: “No, what is your real name?”
Baffled, I replied, “That is my real name.”
A question that I still get asked sometimes is: “Do you feel more Chinese or more American?” I know a lot of minorities get asked a version of this question and while others may answer differently, I identify as American.
English is my native language. I grew up with the Simpsons and Seinfeld. I watched my first generation parents struggle to establish themselves in the U.S., and succeed, and fail, and succeed again.
Because being American doesn’t mean you can’t be Chinese. Because you can stick a hyphen in front of the word “American” and add any gorgeous modifier on to it. Because this is what being American is all about.
And nobody, anywhere in the world, can take that away from me.