When I went back to China in the Summer of 2010 to study abroad, one taxi ride truly made me question my identity as a Chinese-American. There were two Chinese-Americans who did not speak Chinese, with one Chinese-American student who did. By default, she instructed the driver where to go and the ride began. What was not expected was that the driver immediately started commenting on the fact that the other two students in the car were Chinese, but unable to speak the language. In fact, he event went as far to say, “If you are Chinese and you can’t speak Chinese, then you’re NOTHING.”
I am a Chinese-American who can speak Chinese; to a certain degree, that is. I can get by with everyday conversations and interactions, just as long as they don’t involve anything too philosophical. But can a lack of speaking Chinese really allow the native Chinese person to perceive the non-native as not being Chinese at all? In my experiences in studying abroad, the Chinese people I spoke with at the market, the mall, in cabs, or just on the street were quick to judge that I was not an “authentic” Chinese person because of my lack of fluency in the language. Speaking the language, more than any other aspect of “being Chinese,” seems to be the main determinant in whether you are REALLY Chinese to the native-Chinese person’s eyes. In fact, in China, there is no distinction made between nationality and ethnicity.
There is a cultural disconnect between identifying oneself as an American or a Chinese person for the Chinese-American. In China, that person is seen as an American; in America, that person is seen as Chinese. In recent weeks, there has been much talk in American news about the Chinese-American success story of Jeremy Lin. Some of this news has made itself into the Chinese newspapers and media abroad. But along the same lines of national pride, divisions are made in identity. In America, he is made to seem as the American success story of immigrant parents; though in China, Lin is the Chinese success story - just taking place in America.
The question of “where are you from?” also yields the same disconnect. For some reason when this question is asked in America, if a Chinese-American says he or she is from America, the answer just does not satisfy the questioner and is immediately followed by, “so where are you REALLY from?” On the other hand, if the same question is asked in China and is responded with “China,” the questioner will immediately follow in the same manner.
Why is it that even though America promotes a culture of immigrants coming together for new opportunities on this landmass, no answer of “origin” based on ethnicity or nationality will be accepted? The dual identities, or perhaps the new identity of Chinese-American just does not seem to be acknowledged in China or America. This leaves Chinese-Americans identifying themselves as either one or the other, or neither, or both. Take your pick, because society tell us that not all four options can really cohesively exist.
Alice Tsui is a piano performance major at New York University, and writes for Generasian magazine.
*Correction: Jeremy Lin is Taiwanese American, we apologize for this incorrection.