Even before I set foot in China, I realize that I’ll be going through some sort of identity crisis. I thought that I have a good answer to this “What are you?” question.
It’s a simple and truthful one, and I’ve rehearsed it well: “I was born and raised in Hong Kong, I moved to the United States to go to college when I was 18, and have lived there since.”
Simple, right? Apparently not. To that answer, the most usual response I get is the initial narrowing of the eyes, followed by a moment of silence when people more carefully scrutinize my face and mince over my words- which may have been spoken in Mandarin, Cantonese or English.
This conversation could go in any direction and typically lasts much longer than needed, this one below was a real example of one that took place over a business lunch that’s fairly representative of how it usually meanders:
Colleague A: Oh, so you are Chinese (dubiously)... but wait, you’re so tall, you must be Northern Chinese.
Me: Not really, my family is actually from Guangdong (the south), but I think my mom’s family has a touch of Manchurian blood.
Colleague B: Ha! That explains it! When I saw your last name 金, I thought you’re either Korean or Mongolian. You proved me right.
Me: Uh, not really.., (did I say Mongolian?!) I meant Manchurian, you know, Qing dynasty and all that (rambling about some story how my grandpa’s grandpa got sent by the Qing government to Guangdong to rule over the southern barbarians....) But really, I’m more of a Han Chinese, just like you.
Colleague A: (Further narrowing of the eyes) That’s not possible, your last name is 金, you’re tall and big-boned (they don’t hesitate calling you big in China), unless it’s all the American food you people eat, ha ha... And your face says you’re from the north. You’ve got to be Mongolian or Korean, you just don’t realize it.
Colleague B: (nods enthusiastically)
Me: (defeated, and realizing this conversation is going nowhere) Of course, I’m sure you’re right. I should go back to Mongolia to search for my roots...
At first I was a little surprised by these conversations, by the amount of interest people display over my identity. But when I thought more about it and back to my own childhood, I guess I can understand it. Over 90% of China is comprised of ethnically Han Chinese, apart from some regional differences and the frequent use of regional dialects, people by and large look the same and most if not all speak Mandarin (with the exception of Hong Kong and Macau, where most people's mother tongue is Cantonese).
I, on the other hand, is a curio- not a foreigner, but also clearly not Chinese, and people aren’t quite sure what to make of me.
I fully experienced this one day when going on a visit with my Chinese colleagues to a physician in a local hospital. This doctor was clearly swamped, with lines of patients, nurses, students streaming in and out of his office, while we patiently wait to see him. At last, his door flung open, and he staggered out to greet my colleagues, and excitedly asking in Mandarin, “So, where’s the laowai?”
Well, the word “laowai” is slang for foreigners. At that, I looked about myself, thinking “Oh, foreigner? Where?” And when all gazes fell upon me, I realized what just happened, and I felt myself blush... My colleague must have told this doctor that they’re bringing in a special guest, a colleague from America, and this doctor was fully expecting a white, and probably male, visitor. He tried to be polite and motioned me to join them, but I could tell from his face that he was confused and probably a tad bit disappointed.
Having been here for a few months, I've grown used to these type of encounters, and honestly I've grown tired of defending and apologozing for who I am not, and I'm slowly regaining my ability to explain who I am. I represent the values that are uniquely me, a reflection of the multiple identities I possess.
I value family, friendship, trust and integrity.
I believe in myself, but I also believe in karma and serendipity.
I savor my independence, but I also understand that we're all connected.
I believe in the pursuit of happiness, but I also believe in respect in everyone and everything around me.
I am American, and I'm also Chinese.
And if I may borrow Dr Seuss, next time I'm asked the "what are you" question, I'd like to proclaim at the top of my lungs, "I AM I! I AM I! I AM I!"
P.S. And because no post is complete without pictures, here is a photo of the lunch I had last week in Wuhan. You are right if you don't think it looks edible; and yes, those are ALL chili peppers. I made the mistake of ordering "medium spicy" in a Sichuanese restaurant (had a brain fart and forgot where I was)... a mistake I'll NEVER make again.
And last weekend, we joined a trip organized by our apartment to Baomo Garden in Panyu, near our home in Guangzhou. Eva enjoyed hanging out with other kids in our group, and splashing in the water, pretending to be catching fish...
Something I've gotten used to here in China: strangers taking pictures of Eva, whether she's awake or asleep. I've learned to take it as a friendly gesture from people who find her interesting, and hey, I guess that means I also have permission to take a photo of them taking a photo of my daughter, right?
Anyway, we just arrived in my hometown, Hong Kong yesterday. I can't wait to show Eva where I grew up, and share all our experiences here on our next update. Stay tuned!