* Note: This is the second post of my new blog series on identity. It is meant as an ongoing reflection rather than a summary of conclusions. In case you missed the previous post: https://sophiahar.wordpress.com/2016/04/28/china-gringa-ch-1.
china-gringa || ch. 2, turning dread into opportunity
NO MATTER HOW MANY times I tried to prepare myself for it, I always hesitated when someone asked me, “Where are you from?”
Do I go with my instinct and say the country I grew up in? Or do I tell them what they want to hear: my birthplace, where the people would think twice before saying I’m from there?
I usually went with instinct: “The US.”
Then I would brace myself for the look of confusion or skepticism as they said, “But where are you originally from?” or “But you look Asian or Japanese or something like that.”
So I would tell them where I was born and watch their face light up: mystery solved.
Without a doubt, I love that I was born in Hong Kong. I love being Chinese American. It’s who I am. I’m happy to share parts of my story with both friends and strangers.
What drains me is the follow-up:
“What’s the strangest thing Chinese people eat?”
“Are you related to Jackie Chan?”
“Can you say something in Chinese?”
On their own, each of these questions is legitimate and harmless. The problem is, none of these questions exists in a vacuum. In my current context, these seemingly lighthearted questions ride on a deeper current of prejudices and assumptions.
What I hear and what I interpret:
Question: What’s the strangest thing Chinese people eat?
Meaning: Chinese cuisine is weird. Normal people don’t eat what Chinese people eat. I kind of hope you say “mouse”.
Question: Are you related to Jackie Chan?
Meaning: Jackie Chan’s the only Chinese actor I’ve heard of, thanks to Hollywood, and you’re the only Chinese person I know, and all of you look alike. Therefore this joke is super funny.
Question: Can you say something in Chinese?
Meaning: “Chinese” is so exotic.
I don’t know the intentions of each person who asks me these questions. I, too, get curious when I see someone who doesn’t appear to be like everyone around me. Most of the time, people just want to strike up friendly conversation. That’s fine.
What raises red flags for me is that the desire for small talk mocks an entire people group. Why not instead ask me to describe my favorite elements of Hong Kong’s cuisine or to teach you a specific phrase in Cantonese?
Growing up in the Midwest, I grew so accustomed to colorblindness that I learned to downplay the cultural dissonances I experienced and went with whatever the White majority was into. Most people didn’t expressed much interest in the fact that I was born in Hong Kong except that they thought it was cool to have lived overseas. As a kid, I was fine with that since I was so removed from the realities of life in Hong Kong anyway.
It wasn’t until my first year out of college that I began to miss this part of my story. I longed to talk about my experiences as a young immigrant. I grieved my loss of fluency in my first language. I wanted somebody, anybody, to ask me what Hong Kong was like.
As I’ve processed my aversion to “Where are you from?” and its follow-up questions, I’ve come to see them as an opportunity. An opportunity to shatter assumptions that everybody who comes from the US is White and that everybody of Chinese descent lives in China. An opportunity to reject notions of “nationality”, as Taiye Selasi does in her brilliant TED Talk. An opportunity to proclaim my own narrative.
About a month ago, a friend asked me about the “Chinese language.” I decided to engage the question and explained that Chinese actually consists of hundreds of local dialects that are distinct from one another. She was intrigued.
A few weeks later, I overheard her saying, “Sophia doesn’t speak chino, she speaks cantonés. There are actually many different dialects in China.”
I was so proud. Not only had I taken the chance to celebrate my cultural heritage, albeit in a small way, but I had also helped someone else to see it in a more meaningful way – and she was passing it along.
This incident will not transform an entire society’s view of Chinese cultures. Equally inconsequential would be any attempt on my part to debate, during a passing conversation, the legitimacy of asking where somebody’s “from”. There’s no easy way to navigate the “in-betweenness” that comes with identifying strongly with more than one culture.
Sometimes the only thing you can do for the moment is to turn a dreaded question into an opportunity for you and those around you to see things differently.