Posted by: thelocaldialect | May 23, 2007

Would you like some cheez whiz with your rice?

My dad, apparently, has decided that I’m not an American anymore.

I was talking to him online last night, and he made several comments that sort of amused and surprised me at the same time. We were talking about him and mom wanting to learn Chinese. Now, I think this is great. Learning a foreign language is very rewarding, and if they want to take up Chinese as a hobby, more power to them. However, my dad’s reasoning is that he’ll need Chinese in order to communicate with his grandchildren.

This sort of shocked me. Of course we’ll be teaching our children English. Won’t we? My husband doesn’t speak English besides a few words here and there, and we use Chinese together, but English is my native language. I don’t want to spend my entire life communicating to my children in a second language. We also don’t plan on spending our lives in China.

This comes as a surprise to some people. After all, I’ve been here for four years, which might as well be a lifetime, right? It seems that some people take my extended stay in China as a conscious rejection of America, which it isn’t really. During the same conversation yesterday, my dad said to me “we love your country.” When I told this to Wang Yao, he just about died laughing. How could China be MY country? In China, I’m reminded of my foreign-ness every day. There is not a single person in this country who would ever call me Chinese, ever include me in their mental “one of us,” and yet my own family and friends often seem eager to strip me of my citizenship, and proclaim that I’ve “gone native.” I should clarify that they never say this in a bad way — the attitude is almost always amused, and a bit proud, as if, by association, they too can claim a bit of international blood, a little bit of China for themselves.

Of course, this puts me in an awkward position. My countrymen back home are quick to announce that I’m Chinese now, but the Chinese people themselves aren’t so eager to accept me. To them, being Chinese is not about how long you’ve lived here. It isn’t about how much you love Chinese culture, how well you speak the language. It’s about blood, and that’s something I’ll never ever have. While Wang Yao can go to America and literally become American, I can never become Chinese. My children can be Chinese, but I can’t. In Chinese eyes, I’ll always be an outsider, a foreigner, and, by the same token, Wang Yao, even if we go to America, buy a Suburban and raise our children on Taco Bell and Mountain Dew, and never set foot in China again, will always be Chinese. Even our kids will always be able to lay claim to China, but not me.

Of course, I tend to agree with them. I’m not Chinese and I never will be. As much as the folks back home might delight in announcing that I’m living a totally Chinese lifestyle, I’m not. I’ll sit on a curb, or in the grass, without being worried about dirt. I don’t like my bread sweet. I don’t see anything wrong with wearing flip flops outside the house. I like coffee, not just because drinking it makes me look cool. I hate Mandarin pop music. My cell phone doesn’t have stickers all over it. I don’t feel the need to have rice at every meal. I want my kids to go to school and enjoy it and enjoy learning and not grow up to be robots. I don’t think it’s really that tragic if a woman never gets married or has kids. I didn’t consider my husband’s income or ability to buy me a house and car when I married him. I didn’t get rid of my cat or stop using the computer when I got pregnant. I don’t have a drop of Chinese blood in me. I’m not Chinese.

If anything, living in China for so long has made me feel more American. While there are certain aspects of my native land that I’d love to disown, I can’t deny the fact that she made me who I am. I’m the product of Montessori schools, summers at Folly beach, hippy relatives, building forts in the backyard, swimming pools, learners permits, keggers, Nintendo, free thinking, a multicultural environment, hating Bush, Tex-mex, Indy rock, and a liberal arts degree. These aren’t things you can get in China, and even though my four years here have been delightful and informative and person building, they have nothing on the 23 years, the formulative years, that I spent in the USA.

So, in answer to my father, and to all the others out there who might have, at one point, wondered just what “label” fits on me, just keep in mind that there are some things that are easier said than done, and renouncing one’s nationality is one of them. Furthermore, as frustrated as I get with America sometimes, I don’t think that China is “better,” and my choice to be here has nothing to do with picking sides, or becoming something that I’m not. I think anyone who has spent an extended time in another country, particularly us Westerners in Asian countries, realize that often our experiences here serve not to sever us from that home culture, but to tie us more strongly to it. We crave things we would never touch back home, like Cheez Whiz (a fellow American expat, a slim, pretty, California lady, picked up a can of the stuff in the market today and told me that THIS was how pathetic she’d gotten. Her boyfriend, for his part, had taken to eating tater tots every night before bed). We watch TV shows that we’d otherwise skip (like The OC). We get excited when the cafe has a 2 month old issue of People magazine because we can “catch up” on celebrity gossip that we wouldn’t otherwise care about (Britney Spears had another flip-out). The folks back home might imagine that we’re distainfully shedding our Western skins, but in reality, we’re embracing our own cultures all the more because we’re not within them, not able to take them for granted.

Many Chinese people ask me “which country is better, China or America?” My answer is always the same. It isn’t a contest. There are things about both countries which I love, and things about both countries that I detest. While both sides seem eager to make me choose, I’m content with being in the middle. My kids will learn Chinese AND English. We’ll eat macaroni and cheese tomorrow, and ginger pork the next day. We live in China now, but we might live in America in 5 years. My husband will always be Chinese, and I’ll always be American, and our children will be a product of both of us. We didn’t choose it this way, but I know that we most certainly wouldn’t change it either.


  1. Hi Jessica! Greetings from Chicago. What a lovely posting! I completely agree with you … no matter how long we live in a foreign country, we will never become 100% local over there. I have more sense of patriotism living abroad than when living in my own country.

    Congratulations for expecting a baby boy :D!

    My I link yours on my journal?

  2. Hi Jessica. I enjoy reading your blog, but I have to disagree with a fundamental idea in your posting about how you will never be viewed as “Chinese” while living abroad in China, while ” While Wang Yao can go to America and literally become American.” I am an American born woman of Chinese decent. Wherever I go, I am always asked “where are you from.” When I reply, Baltimore, MD, they ask “No, where are you REALLY from”? Every single Asian American I have ever known has had this happen to them over and over again. And, I live in NYC, perhaps the most diverse place in the world. It’s happened to me here, in St. Louis, in California, in Canada, in Europe and South America! Being American born and educated, I have no accent and I don’t think I look, dress or carry myself any differently from the “average American,” whatever that is, unless, it’s the fact that I’m neither white nor black. Asians have been living and working in America for over a hundred and fifty years. There were the first race-based laws ever enacted in the US directed against us. Please wikipedia the Chinese Exclusion Act and the Gentleman’s and Ladies’ Agreement. This contributes to why the number of Asians living in the US are lower than many other (white european groups, once immigrants). While there are millions of Asians living in the US, some of whom are third and fourth generation, I nor any of the people I know, in real life, or in on-line communities have never been truly embraced as being American. I think its great that you plan on living somewhere else other than China for the rest of your life. It’s great to go out into the world and get some perspective. As the mother of a bi-racial baby, please please please take the time to educate yourself on what this will mean for your son in the long-term. Just by setting foot in America, he will not simply be accepted as being American, no matter if he speaks perfect English or not. Go to Youtube and type in “hapa comedian.” Truth is often disguised as fiction; it makes things more palatable. I’m dating a non-Asian and have had to face discriminatory looks/remarks/attitudes from people from all sides. I have often thought of meaning to Tawian or Hong Kong, but don’t know what this will mean for my family, if I end up having one, in the long run. I’m not trying to be negative, but simply know what obstacles you and your family will face and do your best to overcome them. Never stop fighting for your beliefs. Cheers!

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