Thursday, October 9, 2014

On going home

I live in Beijing. Although my books and old clothes are stored in my parents' attic in Connecticut, the things I need day-to-day are here. My girlfriend (and best friend) lives here, and though she came to the US once with me, it was more like a vacation than a homecoming.

However, I'm far from being a citizen of China. The number of people who are naturalized into this country is incredibly small. Part of this is because of the government, which (like America's) is paranoid about foreigners, and makes renewing one's visa a constant hassle.

But I think that even if the government relaxed its controls, the nature of Chinese society would keep most people from staying here forever. There have been several pieces published recently about why, but in short, China is dominated by a monoethnic culture which makes it nearly impossible for someone who is non-Han and/or not born in China to fit in completely.

To give just one example of the cultural chasm between China and the US: In America, when you go out for a meal, you choose between American food, Italian, Chinese, Mexican, Indian, Thai, etc.

In China, on the other hand, the nationality of what you eat is taken for granted. Chinese people eat Chinese food. What you choose is what you want the base of your meal to be: rice, noodles, or porridge.

Similarly, but more serious, are the effects of a single race society. My skin color, although it affords me enormous privilege here in the workplace, also poses an insurmountable barrier to assimilation. Though the US is far from a perfect melting pot, Americans generally wait until they hear someone's accent to judge whether or not they're a fellow countryman. But in China, white, black, or brown skin marks you as a foreigner before you even open your mouth. Even those expats who don't bother to learn Chinese know the meaning of "laowai", a semi-offensive epithet that you'll hear said about you if you go anywhere outside of the expat districts.

So, I'm still a US citizen, and will be for some time to come. I pay my US taxes (voluntarily, since I doubt the American government has any way of knowing how much I make here). But my identification with America has somewhat diminished. When you live in a place outside of America, you realize that just like most other societies, America exaggerates its own importance and correctness, in ways that are nearly impossible to see from the inside.

To take one example, how many of us are taught about the Korean War? We laugh at Chinese people's ignorance of the Cultural Revolution but act as if racism ended with the Civil Rights act.

But really, it's not the negatives of America that makes me reluctant to identify completely as American, but the positives of China. Beijing is a really exciting place, but I'm sure the same could be same of many cities. What's different for me about Beijing is that, like a Tough Mudder race, it's an environment of constant challenge. If you survive, it feels incredibly gratifying.

So for me, when I go back to the United States, it seems like a strange combination of home and not-home. Familiar but yet strange, it feels a lot like going back to one's old middle school. You find that the place hasn't changed, and yet it seems quite different - because you are not the same.

Friday, October 3, 2014

But we're speaking Chinese!

Translated into Chinese, this happens to me all the time.
In fact, in China, if you reply "no" (in Chinese) when someone asks you (in Chinese) whether you can speak Chinese, you can have an extended conversation (in Chinese) about how foreigners can't speak Chinese.

I'm not saying people should assume all foreigners can speak Chinese. I'm saying people shouldn't assume that all foreigners can't.