An Asian American Abroad

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?”
“I’m American.”
“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?”
“What?”
“I can’t read Chinese.”
The waitress gave me an incredulous look. “You want the English menu?”
“Yes, please.”
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?”
“No.”
“Where are you from?”
“The U.S.”
“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.”

My definition of being Chinese-American = ordering pancakes in China. NOMNOM.

Being true to my Chinese-American self: ordering pancakes in China. OM NOM.

~

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.)

The musketeer and me

I said I was from America.
He said he was from the 17th century.
Only one of us was incredulous.

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.

Because —

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.

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7 thoughts on “An Asian American Abroad

  1. Very interesting read! I traveled to Morocco with a friend whose family is Indian and we had the weirdest problems. In the north, they thought she was Arab, and would try speaking Arab to her and not get it that she didn’t understand. In the south, they were often enthusiastic to meet an Indian because they were way into Bollywood (unfortunately of course she didn’t pay any attention to Bollywood herself). But the most annoying was when people would ask where we were from.
    “We’re American.” “You’re American? And what about her”? “We’re AMERICAN.”
    In general, and I know it’s not really the same thing, but French people don’t get when Americans say we’re “Italian” or “Irish” either. They imagine that means we grew up there. I saw Bradley Cooper on tv the other day saying that he loves his mother because he’s “Italian”, and the interviewer said, “Yeah right”. I’ve grown used to specifying that I have “des origines irlandaises” otherwise they think that we immigrated last year and not 150 years ago.
    Again, not the same, I know—but I think the French are systematically confused about Americanness!

  2. Pingback: What it’s like to be Asian in France | Academoiselle

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  4. I was shocked to have people ask me the same question about my name when I worked at Disney World last year, though I can understand where they come from since I do have a Chinese name, I was “given” an english one when we immigrated to New Zealand. I guess they just think that the only people native to the country are the ones that look like them. Being taught generation by generations before they obviously don’t understand the concept of migration or naturalisation. But even now, having lived in NZ for most of my life, I’d rather identify myself as a Kiwi (New Zealander), sure ethnically I’m Taiwanese but otherwise everything else I can relate to can only be found in New Zealand.

    • “I guess they just think that the only people native to the country are the ones that look like them.” <– DING DING DING. Not only is this presumption incredibly arrogant, in the US at least, it's totally nonsensical given our relatively recent waves of immigration. I feel you.

  5. I am in love with your blog. I work in an area with a lot of Asian-Americans but constantly get these subtle moments of racism. I got asked what my ethnicity was five times…in one month. Thank you for sticking up to write about this and sharing.

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