A UCLA grad from Los Angeles shares lessons learned during her year in China
Yoshiro Nakamatsu, one of the greatest and most prolific inventors of our time, says he often submerges himself underwater and only resurfaces at the brink of suffocation. He claims he comes up with his most brilliant ideas “0.5 seconds before death,” that somehow, testing his utmost boundaries inspires some sort of illumination. This pushing your limits → ‘aha’ moments approach has been applicable to my journey in China in so many ways.
My directionally challenged butt has been in several locations inside and outside of mainland China these past six months and the introvert in me is being challenged every day. But what I’m most thankful for is the journey I’ve taken in order to stand firm in my identity as a Chinese American living in Nanjing, China. It has taken me a cool minute to get to this point and I kicked and screamed throughout the process, but I’d like to think that while I began a Magikarp, I’d emerge a Gyarados.
Here’s my story:
Back in February 2013 when I first applied to AYC (Ameson Year in China), the usual reply I’d give to the “Why China?” question was a mixture of:
1) I need a year to figure out what to do with the rest of my life (law school, wedding planner, chicken sexer - don’t worry, it’s not what it sounds like, the list goes on).
2) I want to be geographically closer to my aging grandparents because who really knows how much more time I’ll be granted with them?
3) I want to be forced to grow up. Yes, I’m a firm believer in adulthood being forced upon us.
While the above responses aren’t untrue, by the time I was asked the “Why China?” question for the hundredth time, I realized that my root reason for spending a year here relates back to my dad. My dad was born in Shanghai in 1952 to a family of intellectuals. Because of his family background, he was forced to do hard labor in Jilin Province for eight years during the Cultural Revolution. During that period, he lost close family members and experienced unimaginable hardships, all in the name of “blind progress.” Yet he continues to hold such a warm place in his heart for a country that almost broke his spirit. I was determined to find out for myself how this could be, so I jumped at the chance AYC provided. “It’ll be my journey home,” I told myself. But what I wasn’t prepared for was the equally layered feeling I’d come to develop for China as well.
It’s strange, I’ve never been more aware that I’m ethnically Chinese than when in China. Maybe my lack of ethnic awareness is the result of a uniquely LA upbringing. After all, the high school I went to was about 35% Caucasian, 35% Asian, 15% Hispanic and 15% African American. And my goodness, UCLA isn’t known as the “University of Caucasians Lost Among Asians” for nothing! The point is, growing up in LA, there was never a single moment I was ever forced to stop and think about how or how not my yellow skin defined me. America’s salad bowl has never given me a reason to. I’m American. But here in China, I often feel neither American enough nor Chinese enough. I’m stuck somewhere in between. As such, while most of my peers have compared their journeys in China to a baby taking its first steps, I’d liken mine to an awkward middle schooler stumbling her way into equally awkward situations.
“You can’t teach at this school because you don’t look like a foreigner. The parents here want their children to be taught by white people, it’s a status thing, you understand.” NO I DO NOT!
I’m not American enough.
Whenever I find myself in a conversation with natives about anything beyond what I like to eat or do for fun, I become incredibly self-conscious. I imagine I come off grossly uninformed and quite frankly, stupid.
我：Uhh, 我最喜欢 Kant 因为…对不起，厕所在哪儿？
Friend: Who’s your favorite philosopher and why?
Me: Uhh, Kant is my favorite philosopher because…sorry, where’s the bathroom?
I’m not Chinese enough.
Needless to say, living in China has caused me to develop a pretty big identity crisis, one that’s ever-present as I’m struggling to translate documents or street signs written in Chinese to my friends in English, one that I can’t shake whenever my friends get the Laowai pass and I get the “you’re dumb” look. Am I 50% American, 50% Chinese? No, but I root for the Chinese national team during the Olympics, so does that mean I’m more Chinese at heart? 40% American, 60% Chinese? No, but I celebrate the 4th of July and dream in English. 75% American, 25% Chinese? It took me months to realize that I’m not the composite of two percentages and that 100% of me would always feel somewhere in between two worlds…and that’s perfectly okay.
To be an ABC (American-born Chinese) in China is to rifle through all the confusion about race and identity, often arriving at no satisfying answer. But that’s the beauty of this whole experience, isn’t it? To recognize that there’s an unexplored part of myself that’s at once completely tied to my dad’s past and yet, completely my own.
What I've learned:
1. Lines don’t exist. The sooner you accept this, the happier you’ll be.
2. Just because something is dirt cheap after the ¥ → $ conversion, doesn’t mean you should buy it. Ladies, I feel your struggle. Also, you’ll return home with a useless skill you’ll impress no one with – the ability to divide by six in your head at lightning speed.
3. Depending on your language goals, enroll in a Chinese class or find a language exchange partner. Have something to show for your time here.
4. Be open-minded. Try stinky tofu. Sure, the smell is enough to burn your eyebrows off, but the taste is, dare I say…quite pleasant…or does it just seem that way in contrast to the smell?
5. The education system here in China might not be what you’re used to back in the States, but a child’s curiosity is the same everywhere. Plan your English lessons with this fact in mind.
6. Invest in the people in your new network. Living in a new country can get lonely and self-imposed exile sounds like a tempting option when you have a language barrier, but you moved here for the experience. So, stop binge-watching Breaking Bad/House of Cards/The Bachelor (you know who you are), WeChat a friend and go on an adventure together!
7. As a foreigner, you WILL be asked to perform at Chinese weddings and office parties, with no prior warning of course. Prepare a song ahead of time, take a shot of 白酒 (baijiu), go on stage and get it over with. “NOOOOWW, this is a story all about how my life got flipped turned upside down…”
8. Stop complaining. Your choice pathologies have led you to China. You’re exactly where you need to be.
9. You’ll meet dozens of Apples, plenty of Yo-yos and the occasional Hitler, Monkey King (first name) or Smackers.
10. There’s a creature that’s distinct to China – 中国大妈. You’ve seen these ridiculously cute, middle-aged ladies with permed hair at your local parks. It might be intimidating to approach them because they tend to travel in packs, but I promise you won’t regret doing so…you’ll be invited to join their daily dance practices or perhaps even get a home-cooked meal out of the encounter. Either way, you’ll be shown a great time :)
11. Your feelings of inadequacy can be attributed to growing pains and aren’t necessarily linked to your new environment. It’s important to separate the two.
12. Carry toilet paper with you everywhere, lest you find yourself in a crappy situation, huhhh huhhh? ;)
13. Volunteer. You’ll be tempted to take those paid tutoring gigs on the side, but remember that knowledge is to be shared and there shouldn’t always be a price tag attached.
14. Look at meow, look at meow, I’m getting paypurr ^-^ Just kidding, you’re probably not making much after the ¥ → $ conversion, but keep in mind that your time here is an investment for the future.