The Puzzle of Identifying as Chinese

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Posted on September 4, 2013


BEIJING — “You Irish people are white because you eat potatoes!” a Beijing taxi driver announced to my Irish husband on a trip before moving here, about a decade ago. We all laughed, though he didn’t seem to be entirely joking.


“Who’s Irish?” asked the Chinese-American writer Gish Jen in her story collection of the same name, exploring cultural differences and misunderstandings in the United States.


“Who’s Chinese?” is the question here.


Much has changed since China began opening up to the world following the death of Mao Zedong in 1976. But deeply held cultural beliefs predating that isolationist era persist. These include that laowai, or “old outsiders,” as non-Chinese are often called, are fundamentally different and can therefore never become Chinese, no matter how long their residency, recent books and interviews with writers specializing in cross-cultural issues suggest.


“I hate to generalize,” said Ms. Jen, who recently published “Tiger Writing,” a collection of essays on “art, culture and the interdependent self.” “They’re starting from a different place,” she said of many people here. “They are fundamentally starting from very different assumptions about identity.”


“I think the difference is related to this: Can you even accept a foreigner as quite Chinese?” she continued, speaking by telephone from Cambridge, Massachusetts. “To some Chinese people who are quite modern, the answer is yes. But to many, they feel you have to be culturally Chinese, and that’s much deeper than anything you can acquire by yourself.”


“As soon as you adopt something for yourself, you’re not Chinese,” she said. “Chineseness does not involve choice.”


Many Chinese have become American but few Americans have become Chinese. Of course, unlike the United States, China is not an immigrant nation. The “huddled masses” have headed for the Statue of Liberty, not the Forbidden City. Just as Irish crossed the Atlantic for America, Chinese crossed the Pacific. China does not recognize dual citizenship, and it is difficult for foreigners to become a Chinese citizen. China’s version of a green-card program is not easy to navigate, Chinese lawyers and academics say.


But as the economic downturn in the West continues and the global economy integrates, people are looking East to make a living, by choice or by necessity. Some bring their families. Others marry here. “Who’s Chinese?” is increasingly important, a question freighted with personal and political implications.


Even serious accounts of the lives of foreigners in China, who number probably in the hundreds of thousands, express doubt about assimilation.


Take “Their China,” a book published in Chinese by Joy Yue Xi, born in China of Manchurian descent, now living in Canada with her husband and two young children.


Out in August, it contains interviews with 18 non-Chinese living here. (Disclosure: I am one of the subjects.) On the cover it says: “They are spectators. And are players. But in the end, they are still spectators.”


“Ouch,” Ms. Jen said in an e-mail, of those lines that seem to exclude so much.


Ms. Xi said by telephone from Canada: “Those words were my publisher’s. I feel it shows a judgment in China about foreigners, but I wouldn’t myself generalize like that. There is some truth to it, but it doesn’t represent all people. But I think it does represent what most Chinese people think.”


Writing the book was cathartic, she said. After 10 years in Canada, she returned in 2009 and felt foreign. She sought to understand “fellow foreigners” in China — Koreans, Japanese, Americans both black and white, Europeans.


“China was very strange,” she said. “A lot of things had changed. People’s values had changed. My friends had changed, and I was very sad.”


“My parents thought it was very weird that I was afraid of crossing the road” in China, she said. “The roads were very broad, and at the red light the cars still drove and didn’t let people cross. Chinese people felt nothing about this, but foreigners did. One said to me, ‘You can only make sure you don’t get hit. Don’t mind the lights.”’


Karen Ma, author of “Excess Baggage,” a novel about a Chinese family in Japan and the conflict between two sisters (one left China, the other stayed behind), says she is, and is not, Chinese.


Born in China, she grew up in Hong Kong when it was a British colony and in Japan.


“I’m not fully accepted because I’m too Westernized,” she said in a telephone interview from India, where she lives. “But I think that’s not unique to China. I see it in Japan, too.”


If non-Chinese — or not fully Chinese, like Ms. Ma — are not truly accepted, there’s a seemingly contradictory, flip side to the mind-set: Even part-Chinese are not allowed to stop being Chinese, Ms. Ma said.


“They,” meaning the government, “have such ways, subtle and not so subtle ways, of reminding you that you may not be fully us but you are still one of us,” Ms. Ma said. “They have a way of luring you back because you were once a Chinese.”


Being a member of the Chinese nation revolves around an idea of a “shared fate,” she said, something the state and many Chinese see as rooted in race and birth.


For Ms. Jen, it’s all about identity, whether inherited or invented. In China, she said, it’s mostly inherited, putting foreigners largely beyond the pale.


“Even in the U.S.A., there’s a tension between the self that is invented and the self that is inherited,” she said. “But in China, it’s 20 percent of one and 80 percent of another,” whereas in America, “it’s the opposite!”


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