I’ve had this label given to me more often in China than ever before - American Born Chinese! I guess they haven’t really caught up with the politically correct terminology that has me now labeled as an Asian-American or Chinese-American by American standards.
I’ve wanted to write a post about what it’s been like to be an Asian-American or an ABC (both do the job) in China for a long time. But I never knew how to compress all that I was thinking about and feeling into a coherent package, something digestible and well fleshed out. I also didn’t know how to write about the subject with an attitude of self-acceptance and grace, not sounding bitter or injured or just plain frustrated as I often am. I’ve always thought that one of the best parts of reading people’s posts is reading their victories, breakthroughs, joys, and accomplishments. It is much harder to write and to read about the things that remain unsolved or unhealed. And yet, this is something I am growing to become more and more okay with. The unfinished parts of my life, the things I recognize won’t take overnight or a few months or an “ethnic experience” like going to China to get over. I understand now, more than ever, that my ethnic identity is something that I will both struggle with and find victory in time and time again for the rest of my life. In some way, China has helped me understand - and in some way, I have made peace with that. So now I am okay writing all of this down, not having to worry whether or not it comes out gently or joyfully or completely finished.
I came to China 8 months ago hoping that this year would affirm my ethnic identity, help show me the beauty and depth of Chinese culture and people, and bring me one step closer to believing in full that it is a true blessing from God that I was made exactly as I am.
It’s March now and I’m pretty used to being mistaken for the tour guide or translator or local Chinese friend or even the girl someone picked up in a bar and for the most part, those situations have made for some good laughs. In the beginning though, they were kind of discouraging and tough to know how to deal with. I wasn’t used to being 1 of 1 billion people, getting easily lost in the crowd, etc. I don’t think I was looking to be something special or exotic, just for some understanding that this country, this culture, even some of the food, was new to me. Even now, it is difficult for me to not receive slack from people, to not have an obvious eternal reason for not understanding them or being lost or needing help. There are days when I’m grateful I can just blend in and days when I am frustrated that people are less willing to help me because I’m just supposed to know what to do.
When I first met my contact teacher, the person my school sent to welcome me, she spent the first 2 hours of our time together talking about last year’s foreign teacher and just how “American” he was. In retrospect, she probably did not mean to come off so abrasively, but I feel okay saying that she knew she was not welcoming me to the school. I was so overwhelmed and so disappointed in myself for not being what they wanted that I cried in the dirty bathroom stall of the restaurant while telling myself to pull it together and get back out there. She thought I was crying because I was saying goodbye to people, but really it was because I was so terrified of going to my school alone with this woman who clearly disliked me and because I felt ashamed that I had let her down by not looking or being more “American”. That is a moment I don’t think I’ll ever forget.
My school has treated me kindly and I know that the teachers who have really been my friends here could care less if I were Asian or Black or White or a potato and that has helped me tremendously. It is an amazing comfort and affirmation to be loved for who you are and I appreciate them deeply. But sometimes it’s still hard to ignore the fact that the principal acts like I don’t exist, that the school hasn’t bothered to take pictures of me because I “look like all the other teachers,” that some of the students still don’t believe I’m American, and that I’ve flown mainly under the radar during my entire time here. Maybe in some ways that’s been a blessing in disguise. Let me be straight - I didn’t come to China for an ego-boost or to feel superior to other people, but it does hurt a little that I am not treated like the other foreign teachers are.
China’s ideas of race right now look like America’s in the 1950’s. Their ideas of gender are right around that time period too. So, in a lot of ways, I get that I have to be understanding. That people don’t understand what racial equality is and certainly make no effort to be fair, respectful, or politically correct. But understanding in your head does not always make up for the feelings in your heart. Even so, there are times when I feel my discouragement is unjustified. I watch my good friend, who is black, handle the constant stares, the touching, the pointing, the pictures, the questions, everything, so well, and I feel that I have no right to be upset. Ever. She is a marvelous picture of grace and I have been fortunate enough just to be witness to how she chooses to walk, moment by moment, in total and complete surrender to Him. And thankfully, in all the times we’ve talked about it, she’s given me freedom to express my frustration and my struggles with my own situation.
Being Chinese in China has not made being Chinese any easier. It has not made me fall in love with the culture or feel deeply connected to the country as I had hoped. But it has shown me a greater reality of my race, it has shown me that some issues and some injustices do not disappear when you go overseas (in fact, sometimes they get amplified), it has proved to me that even as things get harder, God is faithful and His love continues to go deeper into my brokenness, filling me up until I am whole.
I have no tangible solution to ethnic identity issues. I recognize that because of my race, maybe no matter where I go in the world, that there will be stereotypes, that there will be injustice (and I’m not claiming the same injustices as Blacks or Latinos or other minorities, but ones that are unique to the Asian-American community), and that sometimes the true sadness of these realities will weigh very heavily on my soul. And I also recognize that I have Jesus, who thought of me before I was formed, who bled for the injustices in this world to be made right, who knows my heart, who knows my friend’s heart, who bottom line triumphs over everything. I have faith that He is with every one of us, in all of our struggles, perhaps not removing the obstacle but using it to teach us, refine us, and ultimately to deposit in us the love we desperately need from Him.
This is such an unfinished story in my life, but I’m curious to see how it goes.