Balancing Two Worlds: Creating A Unified Identity

Walking down a crowded street, surrounded by a sea of other Chinese faces and bodies leaves me with this sense of anonymity I am unable to find at home. There is something so relieving about walking out the door of my building and knowing that my appearance here is familiar instead of foreign and won’t make small children cry, that I won’t be the recipient of uncanny stares, and that, for the most part, I don’t need to think about having racialized sexual comments yelled at me when I go out.

This peaceful solace is disrupted immediately once I open my mouth and reveal my identity as a non-native speaker. At this point, I am typically bombarded with a flood of questions, trying to piece together my family history and the parts of my life story that I am willing to share.

A typical conversation:

Chinese Person: 你从哪儿来的?Where are you from?
Me: 美国。 America.
Chinese Person: 你看起来中国人!What?You look like a Chinese person!
Me: 我在南京出生,在美国长大的。I was born in Nanjing but grew up in America.
Chinese Person: 噢,我以为你是中国人!你的父母是中国人吗?Oh, I thought you were Chinese. So are your parents Chinese?
Me: 不是~他们也是美国人。No, they’re also American.
Chinese Person: 肯定不可能!Impossible!

This conversation usually leaves the other person as baffled as I am frustrated. As people continue to try to speak to me, some will laugh when I obviously don’t understand what they are saying.  Depending on my mood and the situation, I’ll decide whether or not to include that I’m adopted. It’s not something that I’m shameful of or am trying to hide; it’s simply an intimate part of my identity that every person I meet doesn’t need to know. People don’t feel compelled to pry out of strangers information on their parents’ current marriage or living statuses, and I don’t see why this information about my family or upbringing should be different.

Furthermore, these brief conversations highlight the common conception of American as synonymous to white. There have been a number of studies in the United States that provide evidence to this American = White mindset – something that even Asian-Americans are inclined to express. [1] It’s clear that the same thought pattern exists here in China, too. While it’s something I have to do in the United States occasionally, never in my life have I had to so frequently and ardently defend my American citizenship.

On the other side of my identity struggle, my own Chineseness is something I’ve had to reflect on significantly since being here. A few weeks ago, this topic came to the forefront of my thoughts by another American, as he told me that he doesn’t see me as Chinese, but as an American.

I was immediately taken aback by this statement because my image as a Chinese person is often the first noticed or one of the most distinguishing physical characteristics of me.  I was additionally startled because I take great pride in my Chinese roots and self-identify as a Chinese-American. I want people in my life to see all of me, and this includes my race and understanding how my multi-faceted identity colors the way I see the world.

He then asked me what criterion I thought makes someone Chinese other than birthplace. I have similarly often wondered what constitutes Chineseness. Last summer I had the chance to attend the opening reception of Wing Young Huie’s project titled Chineseness which spurred much internal dialogue on the topic. Am I Chinese because I was born in China? Am I Chinese because I look Chinese? Is my Chinese identity diluted by having non-Chinese parents? Whitewashed because I have lived in America for so long? Illegitimate because I a can’t speak Mandarin? Who has the ability to label me as Chinese or not – my peers, myself, the Chinese government? And does any of this matter?

While it’s true that I didn’t grow up in a traditional Asian household, a love for China has been ingrained in me from a young age. I always knew I was born in China, and through Chinese culture camp, Saturday morning Chinese school, Chinese children’s stories, trips to the Chinese grocery, and continuous discussions with my parents, an identity centered around Chineseness has been fostered, grounding me in some ways and encouraging me to learn more. Additionally, my appearance does make me easily spottable as a Chinese person and, for better or for worse, this means that I’ve had common experiences with other Chinese people that non-Chinese China enthusiasts aren’t able to claim. My visibility has made me the recipient of some hateful words, but it has also given me a unique sense of comfort in Asian communities, as well as almost immediate talking points on topics ranging from childhood hair style options to Chinese peoples’ global emigration to racism in the U.S.

My inextricable connection to the people, the land, and the history here fills me with a sense of national pride. When I discovered that my favorite trees, Ginkgo biloba, originated in China or that I preferred tea to coffee or that I could out-spice the vast majority of my friends – these simple moments are just a few in which I have felt the greatest sense of Chineseness. When I study Chinese history, it isn’t just the names and dates of important events. These are atrocities committed against my people, documentation of how my city was looted, and the politics and corresponding policies that invariably affected my family and myself. In these ways, I cannot be separated from Chineseness.

Learning to understand this dual identity has been a lifelong struggle and is an integral reason why I came back to China. As I learn new songs, make new Chinese friends, and reconnect with the city of my birth, I am constantly piecing together more of what my Chinese-American identity means to me. I have really enjoyed having the opportunity to explore this dynamic city and view myself from the lens of two cultures. As I observe people’s daily routines in the suburbs of Nanjing, local parks, and historic buildings, I wonder what would my life have been like if I had grown up in this city. Nanjing has been able to develop itself as a modern city while preserving its beautiful temples and old traditions. In Nanjing, I feel so in touch with the past and the present, the city and myself. 

While my time in China is coming to a fast end, the journey I am on will continue. My desire to obtain fluency in Mandarin is just one aspect of creating a more balanced identity for myself. And with each passing day, I can feel my Chinese and American sides becoming more integrated. I credit much of this to a new-found sense of familiarity in China, deeper reflections on both Chinese and American values/customs/traditions,  as well as a bit of nostalgia when talking about the United States.  While my identity may be complicated and sometimes contradictory, it’s one I am proud to hold. And it is absolutely necessary that the people in my life understand how integral both my Chinese heritage and American upbringing are to my being.

[1] Devos, Thierry, and Mahzarin R. Banaji. “American= white?.” Journal of personality and social psychology 88, no. 3 (2005): 447.

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8 responses to “Balancing Two Worlds: Creating A Unified Identity

  1. I am so enjoying your insights in this new phase of your life, I can’t tell you how valuable your blog is to me as I bring up my Chinese daughter – still only 11 – you provide ‘the other voice’ we so often don’t hear, or ignore.

  2. I discovered in reunion that my ethnic identity of birth was Chinese-American, though I “read” as white. I haven’t had the same tension of standing out in a crowd because of adoption, but I do feel I’m filling in missing pieces of my heritage as I learn more.

    I appreciate your sharing of your journey. And that balance that Nanjing has struck — moving forward while retaining its history and roots — I think that’s what we need as adoptees, probably even more so as trans-national, trans-racial adoptees.

    • The environment where Chinese adoptees grow up plays a very important part in their lives, as does learning Chinese! My daughters don’t voice some of the same issues in your blog but they certainly appreciate what you write. It’s a viewpoint that doesn’t get much attention but
      should. I also suspect that what you write and express may also be hidden or surpassed in many (if not most) adoptees. Thank you for opening your heart and letting everyone hear your voice.

  3. Thank you for sharing your journey…I love listening to your experiences and insight…as a parent to 3 children adopted from China, I’m appreciative of hearing/learning more.

  4. Pingback: KAAN 2015: Intersections | Red Thread Broken·

  5. We cannot able to balance nation without first establishing the true meaning of peace within our selves. Sadly, I wasn’t able to see the true meaning peace with the news I keep on hearing every day 😦

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