A Chinese American living and studying in China

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Photo courtesy of T.J. Cui, right.
Photo courtesy of T.J. Cui, right.

By T.J. Cui

It was on my tenth day in Nanjing, China when I received a call from the Nanjing City Police Bureau of Foreigner Affairs. I was informed that while they were processing my U.S. passport for residency permit, they discovered that my Chinese HuKou (house registration) is still valid and active; and therefore they cannot process my resident permit unless I eradicate my HuKou first. That made me realize I am no longer a Chinese, but an American; a Chinese American.

It is rather ironic that it wasn’t until I arrived in Nanjing that I came to the realization about just how American I have become. Because after all, I literally spent half of my life here in China (born and raised in northeast China, I immigrated to the United States with my mom when I was twelve years old)! And when you are a foreigner who studies and lives in China with Chinese appearance, you will get intertwined into this often awkward identity recognition issue.

I remember when I first arrived in Nanjing two weeks ago and went grocery shopping with a Caucasian American friend. Once we got to the store, I asked the counter service staff in English with an American accent for some help in finding hand sanitizer. She looked at me and said, “I don’t know where it is, why don’t you go and find it yourself!” My white friend then walked up to her and asked for her assistance in finding laundry detergent in his broken Mandarin Chinese. Without hesitation, she walked him to the aisle, picked the detergent up, and placed it inside his shopping basket. My friend looked at me with a teasing grin. I smiled back with bitterness and sadness. I was being treated differently simply because I looked Chinese.

However, things like this can also happen the other way around. During the Chinese National Holiday this past week, I went to Confucius Temple in Nanjing for its famous night market and street foods with another Caucasian American friend who speaks fluent Mandarin Chinese. We were at a gift shop and not before long one of the saleswomen pulled me aside and said to me, “Hey, if you could make that foreigner buy gifts here at higher prices, we will split the commission with you! You don’t get paid that much being a translator anyhow!” Apparently she thought I was just a translator to my foreign looking friend.

Things like these made me realize that I am quite different from both my American and Chinese friends. I asked a couple of my friends, both American and Chinese, about what they think of me in regard to the way I talk and act. Am I more American or more Chinese to them? Pretty much all of my American friends think I am more American, although it does appear to them that I could fit in more easily with the Chinese because of my Asian look and knowledge of Mandarin and culture slightly more than they do. Half of my Chinese friends think the same. They think I am more American because of my mannerism; it also appeared to them that I could fit in more easily with the Americans because I know American culture and slangs slightly more than they do. But the other half think I am more Chinese. They think I am still heavily influenced by Chinese culture in the way I communicate and interact with people. They can trust me more and feel slightly more comfortable interacting with me.

Being a Chinese American who studies and lives in China can be a double-edged sword. My American friends take me a lot more seriously as an interpreter and transmitter of everything Chinese. Although often undeserving of it, they still think of me as having heritable knowledge into Chinese manners and the ways Chinese people do things. I can blend in with the locals pretty easily as a Chinese American, but I still don’t truly know the customs and lifestyles of the locals that much, just like my fellow Americans. And yet, somehow the locals expect me to behave far more Chinese than I expect myself to be. They hold me in a “higher” standard. Regardless, I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to be exposed to both cultures while growing up as a kid. It enabled me to be empathetic to both American and Chinese perspectives.

While I am writing this article, I still don’t truly know what I am. I am an American by nationality, but I was born in China. I grew up in America and went to middle school, high school, and college in America, but my mannerism, the way I speak and act, are still deeply rooted in Chinese culture. In America, I am a Chinese American. But here in China, I become an American Chinese. This is my blessing, as well as my curse. I am very thankful and grateful to be bilingual and more importantly, bicultural. What am I? I am American and I am also Chinese.

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