In the Garage

Embracing Identity as a Chinese American Abroad

February 24, 2019 | 8 Minute Read

In today’s world, identity politics play a large part in the discourse that’s happening. At the same time, intersectionality is a critical part in understanding what identity is; for example, my identity as a Chinese-American is also bound to my identity as a woman. Having said that, the constant debate about what it means to be a minority in the United States and the amount of open racism that is visible has gotten me to think about my own identity.

I’ve mentioned this previously that I grew up in a suburb of New York City where the majority of kids were white and Jewish. I learned pretty early on that I wasn’t like everyone else, asking my mom, “Why do we eat so much rice?” and having an identity crisis when, after being teased for my Chinese nickname that I have always preferred using, she told me that I had an English name. I was never comfortable being Chinese American—I refused to go to Chinese school, struggled with having Chinese food for lunch because it smelled different, and generally tried to hide or erase anything that made me different from my peers.

One of my favorite sights at home, the Brooklyn Bridge When I started at Middlebury College, I suffered from massive impostor syndrome, thinking that the only reason why I got to such a prestigious institution was because of my status as a minority. To put it into perspective, of the 580 students accepted the year I started, 75% of the class was white and 8% was Asian American (at the time, Pacific Islander was included in the term “Asian American”). The full list of stats can be seen here. But during my first year at Middlebury, I truly believed I had nothing to offer but my minority status—my SAT scores were not up-to-par with my classmates’, I went to a public high school and had never learned the difference between a passive and active sentence, and generally felt that I didn’t quite belong. At the same time, I started to embrace who I was: I started using my preferred name again (Sannie), dropping “Patricia” because it didn’t feel like me. I joined the Middlebury Asian Students Organization (MASO), even though I never went to the meetings regularly (it looks like this group doesn’t exist on campus anymore).

Fast forward to living abroad for over ten years. There are all sorts of assumptions when I meet people for the first time. While teaching English, my students thought when I said, “I’m American,” they assumed my dad was white because I told them he was American, born in New York City. It dawned on me at some point that they connected being American to being white, and I explained that that wasn’t the case. People also think that I’m from China, commenting on my American accent in English or German, saying I don’t sound Chinese. Then when I lived in China, people were confused why I didn’t speak perfect Mandarin and when I said I was American, there was slightly less confusion than in Germany.

Outside of Guilin, China The thing that I’ve come to realize is this: it doesn’t matter where I go in the world, people will look at me and make assumptions based on what I look like. My husband, who is German, doesn’t struggle with this. He could tell people he’s American and people would believe him more readily than when I say it, despite the fact that he has a slight German accent when he speaks English and I sound like I’m from New Jersey (because I am).

Because of this realization, I have come to embrace the Chinese side of me more than I had ever done in school or at college. I don’t care if I bring in my lunch to work and it smells different than my coworkers’ food. I celebrate Chinese New Year proudly, wishing everyone a happy lunar new year and not caring if they know about it or not. I get less offended if someone thinks I can’t speak German or English; in fact, I often use this against people if I don’t want to talk to them. For example, if someone wants to talk to me at a concert and I’m alone, I’ll just smile politely and shake my head, pretending to speak neither German nor English. Joke’s on them. I’ve accepted that my family values are strongly influenced by Chinese culture, especially regarding filial piety.

There are several reasons why I think I’ve come to terms with my identity as a Chinese American, like just getting older and wiser. But the public discourse has helped a lot as well. Finding accounts on Twitter that talk about the Asian American experience and what it means has been eye-opening, from accounts like William Yu, who started the hashtag #StarringJohnCho, and Nerds of Color and Geeks of Color, which both tweet about diversity in pop culture.

Speaking of pop culture, two recent releases in particular really hit home for me: Pixar’s short film, Bao, which was shown before The Incredibles 2 and, both surprisingly and unsurprisingly, the movie Crazy Rich Asians.. You can watch most of Bao here (it seems the full version was taken down, but this more or less gets the point across):

I’m not the type of person who cries in movies, but watching this brought me to tears. And it wasn’t just the first time I watched it, but every subsequent viewing as well. I discussed this with some people, and we all agreed that it captured the delicate balance between growing up in a modern society, which values independence and individuality, and traditional Chinese values, where filial piety and responsibility towards the family are of utmost importance. The cultural clash portrayed so elegantly caused all of these repressed emotions and thoughts to bubble to the surface.

This dissonance between the two cultures is also portrayed in Crazy Rich Asians. I didn’t read the book, nor do I plan to, but one element in the movie was capturing the struggle of being accepted as and feeling “Chinese enough.” Without going too deeply into the plot or writing a review, it felt odd watching a movie that I could relate to on a very personal level. Obviously I’m not married to a crazy rich Asian and my life doesn’t remotely resemble some of the characters’ lives, but what I loved most about the movie is that people like me were portrayed as completely normal. Both men and women were depicted as in other Hollywood movies: attractive, career-driven, quirky, funny, smart, stupid. In other words, they were multi-dimensional and there was depth to their characters. Similarly to Bao, there were scenes that actually brought tears to my eyes and I initially couldn’t understand why. After thinking about it, I realized it was because it was the first time in my memory that I could actually relate to the people on screen with cultural values and interests, etc.:

Sure, seeing The Joy Luck Club in 1993 was a big deal in my family, but I was eight at the time. I didn’t relate to the story because, well, what eight-year-old has cultural awareness like that? I was too busy rejecting being Chinese and trying to be like everyone else to appreciate it. But Crazy Rich Asians was a movie that came at exactly the right time for me.

In summary, living abroad has taught me that I have to accept how other people will view me, what their preconceptions of who I am are, and that it’s not necessarily negative. Living in China in particular taught me what parts of me are Chinese, how my thinking is influenced by my family, and I came to accept it, whereas living in Germany has given me insight into being multicultural. I am not just American, I am not just Chinese, and sure, I’ve probably developed some quirks from my adopted home.

To go back to what I mentioned at the start of this post, I experience intersectionality every day. Identity politics are an easy way to find common ground with other people, but they oversimplify reality. So yes, I will happily talk to a fellow American about being American abroad. And yes, I’ll just as happily talk to a Chinese person about being Chinese abroad. And yes, I’ll talk to you about growing up in the Garden State or living in Germany. And the reason is because I am all of these things and more.