In the Garage

A Minority Becoming Part of the Majority

November 08, 2015 | 7 Minute Read

It's been awhile since I last wrote anything, and there have been times where I thought, "I should write about that." But one particular topic that has come up time and again is my relationship to identity. Being someone that went to a liberal arts college and has always been interested in the notion of identity, whether through media or external forces, living in China has really given me perspective. So let's start at the beginning.

Shanghai Beer Festival

For anyone who knows me, you can probably skip this first part. For anyone who doesn't know me, I'm Chinese American, born and raised in a middle class suburb of New York City that's mostly white. Kids don't realize they're different from each other until someone tells them they're not the same. I grew up thinking I was Jewish and celebrated Chanukah because everyone around me was Jewish. My mom had to sit me down and explain to me that no, our family wasn't Jewish, and no, we didn't celebrate Chanukah (to which my answer was, "So why do I have all these dreidels?" Answer: "Because your friends are Jewish and gave them to you.")**

I'm not sure when exactly I realized I wasn't like everyone else, i.e. I wasn't white. But I do have some very distinct memories that added up to my realization. In first grade, there was one other Chinese-American girl, but then another one arrived direct from Hong Kong. The teachers assumed we would automatically all be great friends because we were the only Chinese kids, despite the language barrier. The girl from Hong Kong and I did wind up becoming friends, but I really don't think it was because we were both Chinese. Another memory was using my preferred name in school, Sannie, which is a nickname from my Chinese name, instead of my given English name, Patricia. Other kids would make fun of me, saying, "Sunny like the sun!" or "Sony like the TV!" I wound up getting so frustrated that I started using my English name in school so that kids would stop teasing me, even if I didn't and never have really identified with that name. Another formative memory was in fifth grade, a new student from Israel made some fairly racist remark which made me cry. I don't remember exactly what he said, but I recall going to the teacher who had to sit him down and explain to him that that wasn't acceptable. Finally, on my college application, I checked off my ethnicity as being "Asian American." I'm not sure if it helped me get into college or not considering that so many Asian Americans apply to college, but it made me "different" or helped me "stand out."

The funny thing is, despite growing up and being "different" from the other kids in town, I was also "different" when my parents sent my sister and me to Mandarin school. We were a minority at the school; the majority of kids already spoke Mandarin at home and were just learning how to read and write. My sister and I were learning everything -- speaking, listening, reading, and writing -- because our family speaks Cantonese. Unsurprisingly, we didn't fit in with the other kids, who also usually already knew each other. My mom had to drag me to Chinese school every Saturday for three years until she finally gave up because I cried every time I had to get into the car. Being "different" as a kid is hard, but looking back as an adult, it's obviously made me the person I am now.

Which brings me to the point about being Chinese American in China. It's a topic that has been underlying my entire experience here, from learning the language to looking for a job to just being in the supermarket. From the outside, I look like everyone else. When I sit on the subway and look around me, I don't stand out. On expat publications, they'll comment about expats giving each other a "knowing look" about, "Well, that's China!" in certain situations. If I give a "knowing look" to a stranger that is clearly not from around here, I'm pretty sure they just think I'm staring at them weirdly or they think I'm just eyeing them because they're obviously not local. Meeting people for the first time is harder than outside Asia. In Germany or the U.S., I'll usually comment, "I'm Asian!" and it's quite easy to find me. Here, I have to actually plan what I'm going to wear and describe myself more than just being Asian. I'll have to describe my height, hair length, what I'm wearing, my accessories.

At concerts in Europe or the U.S., I'm normally one of the very few Asians in the crowd, especially if it's a punk show. I showed a picture from the OK Go show in Shanghai to a friend (which you can see below), and she said she could find Christian more easily than me. "Of course you can, he's white in a sea of Asian faces!" I told her. In the past, I've seen pictures from shows and I could find myself easily because I'm Asian in a sea of white faces.

A photo posted by Damian Kulash (@damiankulash) on

Despite the fact that I may look like everyone here, I'm culturally not the same. For example, many women here aspire to have a child here by the time they're my age; I know several women who don't have kids or are not married and are as old as I am, but they're seen as being outside the cultural norm. They're considered "leftover women" (剩女), which is a derogatory term used for unmarried women. Generally, people here are more family-oriented; one of my Shanghainese co-workers goes home every weekend to her parents and stays with them. I told her if I had to do that, I'd probably go nuts (sorry, parents!). And overall, I'm much more direct about saying things than any of the local people I know here. I'll tell my boss my honest opinion and question certain things if I don't agree, whereas my local colleagues probably won't.

Even if I have now become a part of the majority based purely on how I look (because it's definitely not how I dress), I still don't feel a part of the majority. The frustration of being "different" and being on the outside is something I've always struggled with growing up, and it's definitely something to which I still give significant thought. Coming to China, I never expected that this would ever go away, but I think the experience living here has made me accept it a little more. I've come to realize that I've got a little bit of everything -- I'm American, I'm Chinese, I'm a little bit European. The best thing about it is that I know I can survive in the U.S., Germany, or China and be more than just OK. And to be perfectly honest, if I actually became a part of a majority where everyone had a similar background as me, I'm not sure how I would react.

**I wish I could post some pics from school to give you a better idea of the place I grew up with, but after searching Google, I actually couldn't find any school photos. Which made me slightly glad that I grew up in an age where photos weren't ubiquitous and everywhere public.