Does Racial Identity Matter: From the US to China

While I am not a Caucasian immigrant in China, I happened to resonate greatly with Dr. Daniel A. Bell as I was reading his Wall Street Journal article Why Anyone Can Be ChineseAs a person who was born in China, and lived as a nomad between the U.S. and China since the age of 14, my identity struggle has been like a bad tooth: I would never intentionally bring it up, but when I eat, when I talk, or when I introduce myself to others, it whines hoarsely deep in my soul.

Earlier this year, I was at a conference for Asian-American youths, where most of the attendees were students or faculty from private prep schools in the New England area. When I walked to my seat in the venue and sat next to my friends, the chaperone from another school, who was the only Caucasian person in her row, came over to us, and attempted to start a conversation. “Hey, how are you,” and without allowing me to politely reply to her, she literally threw the question that would have triggered every single person in that arena, “where are you from — China?” Well, I am from China, but if she had known me, talked to me, or at least heard my accent, it would be a fairly reasonable assumption. Yet all she might had noticed was my ethnicity, as well as the pinyin-ed full name appeared on my name tag. I was not denying my Chinese identity — I have always been proud to tell people about my heritage and my life in China, and willing to explore its culture and politics so enthusiastically that I still consider myself a part of it — but an individual with my appearance could also be from San Francisco, Boston or Minnesota.

However, these rules would apply rather dissimilarly to a Caucasian individual. When one encounters a person on a random street, one would more likely assume that the Asian person is from China than postulating that the Caucasian person is from Germany or Italy. Even though the Asian-American passer-by might be a third or fourth-generation American, and the White person might simply be a tourist from France and doesn’t even speak fluent English, these stereotypes are purely based on racial identities which do not usually resemble our true selves. Racial microaggressions which Asian Americans are subject to all the time can hardly be comprehended by the American public or even our own people who have never exposed themselves to multiracial milieux.

As I fly to China every year, my identity crisis transforms: being a Han Chinese, my perspective as an American ethnic minority changes into that of a Chinese ethnic majority. I am an atheist who looks Chinese and speaks Mandarin without an apparent accent. I am expected to behave and think like a Chinese and embrace the worldly and conventional social norms. In Hong Kong, restaurant attendants insisted on taking my order in Cantonese, which I do not at all speak, while my friend’s order in English because he is white, albeit Cantonese is his native tone. In Hangzhou, a taxi driver complained to me about how he hated the U.S. — my adoptive country — and demanded me to stand with the Communist Party of China under all circumstances; I shrugged. It is also uneasy for an ethnic Chinese from an English-speaking country, or a native who has returned from overseas, to convince the parents of Chinese students that they are not any less competent as an English teacher compared to those who have a more “exotic” skin color.

The racial prejudice in China is merely a miniature of the country’s homogeneous consciousness. White people are often privileged in China, receive better service, and enjoy a considerable amount of immunities and benefits. The local joke “the best way to find your lost bike is to let a foreigner report it to the police” is, unfortunately, a quotidian scenario. But when we ponder over the definition of discrimination, it originally means “to distinguish between.” These privileges that “expats” enjoy, have also made them perpetual foreigners in this country. Journalist Didi Kirsten Tatlow shared her story at a New York Times event in Beijing, about how she could never be recognized as a Chinese due to her race, despite the fact that she was born and bred in Hong Kong. At this point, I think immigrants like Didi, Dr. Bell and me, all somehow share the identical struggles although we were from unidentical backgrounds.

I sometimes wonder, why do our racial identities matter? All these stereotypical anticipations imposed upon us, as individuals, can hardly define who we are. When skin colors and last names are seen as the labels for others assuming our true identities, the cultures and spirits we embrace by choice are frequently neglected.

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Author: Tianyu Fang

Tian Fang is a freelance writer and traveler. Follow on Twitter: @tianyuf.