Last night, I went to a Chinese Karaoke event. When I entered the dark room, I saw the faces of 20 or 30 other Chinese people and the large, welcoming smile of a dear friend – the only white face in the crowd. I saw him pull over a chair for me and trotted over to him.
“You came!” he exclaimed, almost in a surprised manner. Then he gestured to a young Chinese woman and said, “ 这是我的朋友，诺亚。”
“ 你好！” She looked at me an nodded her head slightly. “ 你叫什么名字？“
“ 我叫。。。” I started to say my Chinese name, but then I looked down in discomfort. The awkward misplacement of my Chinese body and face belying my American brain, education, and identity set in as I realized she thought I was another Chinese person straight from China. I told her my American name, and I watched her face change.
“Ohhhhhhhh? You are American? You don’t speak Chinese?”
My friend interjected, “She’s the same level as me!”
“Ohhhhhhhhh…. I would have thought you could speak.”
“I was adopted from China, but I grew up here.” I told her.
Her face changed again from an expression of surprise to one of curiosity. “Ohhh, so have you been back to China before?” “What did you think? I think some people really, really like it, but sometime people also really, really hate because it’s so different.”
I told her I was in the camp of people who had “really, really liked it” and that I plan on returning soon. She was curious whether or not I knew family over there and what my experience in the orphanage was like and how many kids there were. She wanted to know if I had siblings in the United States and if my parents spoke Chinese or if we celebrated Chinese holidays at home. She wondered why I am trying to learn to speak Mandarin and what I knew of Chinese pop culture.
As semi off-pitch C-pop music played around us, it must have been obvious to her that I knew very little about the current culture of my birth country. Sure, I’ve studied history and Chinese film and literature, and now the language. I think I do this so that I can feel more genuinely Chinese, so that I can have an illusion that I know about my country… until I sit down with a native Chinese person. To my white friends, the fact that I was born in China, eat Chinese candies, and study the language makes me Chinese. But to 诺亚, the fact that I couldn’t recognize one Chinese song other than “ 对不起 ”, that I grew up eating bread and cheese instead of rice and fish, and most importantly that I couldn’t speak the language made me American. I was a new, confusing specimen to her that she was trying to figure out.
As the night progressed, we talked about other things as well – how she liked America, what she missed about home, what types of activities she and her friends did outside of school, various travels, and random topics as they came up. The karaoke eventually ended and the place began to shut down. She looked at me with the deepest sincerity and comfortingly patted my leg, “Don’t worry. You still look Chinese.”
It sounds funny because I see my Chinese face in the mirror everyday, but I think this was her way of telling me that she still saw me as a Chinese person, too. Maybe this gentle reassurance from a young, native Chinese was all I needed to subside the awkwardness I had previously felt and have confidence again in my ability to acquire an equally Chinese-American identity.