By: Sara Wei
“You are not a real American”, said my student. Lana looked at me with her big puppy dog eyes with her big round gold frames. She was a 19 year old student from a small city in China and I was the first foreigner she had ever met. She didn’t mean for her words to sound racist or disrespectful to me. But I knew what she meant- the color of my skin didn’t fit her idea of what an American should look like. I sighed and for the seven thousandth time, I had to explain to someone that Americans are American not by the color of their skin. That Americans come in all shapes and sizes and the diversity of America is what makes it beautiful.
I call myself the “Invisible Foreigner” and I am an American Peace Corps volunteer serving in China. I have black hair, almond eyes and am of average body size and height. I have no distinct features that would give me away as a “foreigner” in China. And, if you were to see me walking down the street, you would automatically assume that I was Chinese. By all means, I blend in nicely here. In my city, about 99.9% of people are of Han Chinese descent. But my physical appearance and my inner self do not fit in the same mold as all of the other people around me in China. Bottom line is- I don’t fit in here.
I wasn’t used to my physical appearance and my country of origin being a topic of discussion every day. I’ve been met with a look of confusion when people don’t believe that I’m American. My daily interaction sounds something like this:
Me speaking in Mandarin: “Excuse me, can you explain this to me? I’m sorry, I’m not from here and I cannot read Chinese”.
Usually this is followed someone speaking in a local dialect in a very loud impatient voice “What is wrong with you? Why can’t you read Chinese? ” and they walk away or give me a strange look.
I live in a “small city” of over one million people in Southwest China. My city is mainly a residential city and was a former trading port when people would travel down the Yangtze River. There are no tourist here and most people who have traveled to China have never heard of my city. The weather here has 2 seasons a hot and humid summer and very cold winters. I teach English at a university at the top of a mountain where I can see the beautiful views of the city. The area by my university has roughly about 20,000 people but it feels like a small town. I cannot walk down the street without bumping into someone I know and all of the local shopkeepers know me. At times it can feel suffocating because growing up in Los Angeles, California I was used to a lot of personal space and privacy. But at the same time living alone in a foreign country and seeing familiar faces everyday makes me a feel like I have a small community around me.
Most of the people who live here are the first generation of China’s new middle class. This means they no longer live in the countryside in brick houses, use outhouses, or grow their own livestock and vegetables. Instead, this new generation lives in residential apartments with modern amenities such as a washing machines, air conditioning/heating and wifi. China’s development over the last few decades have created new economic opportunities for people not just in larger cities but also in smaller ones like mine. Most of my students are first generation college students. Many have never been outside of their province before and almost all have never been on a plane. The only thing they know about America is from their limited news media. So, I couldn’t possibly get upset with my community for not understanding who I was.
All of people I’ve met in my small city cannot fathom that someone who is ethnically Chinese can be American. Perhaps that is why I have felt more discrimination here than I ever felt in Los Angeles, which is ironic considering this is the land of my ancestors. The people here don’t realize how hurtful their words are. And, I can only describe this type of interaction as a feeling of being rejected every day. I feel that I am constantly reminded by the people here that I don’t belong in America but at the same time I’m also being reminded by them that I don’t belong here in China. I found myself with a lot of thoughts in my head that have never come up before. Being racially similar but culturally different was a difficult thing to process for me and there were days where I wish I wasn’t who I was. There were days when I wished that I could be fully one or the other- Han Chinese or their version of an American. Maybe if I wasn’t Taiwanese American then they would treat me differently? Maybe they would respect me more if I was white? Maybe they would think I was exotic if I was black? Maybe they wouldn’t have all of these unfair expectations of me?
I thought coming here would make me feel more “Chinese”. In fact it was the very opposite- in China, I felt more American than ever. I often feel like I’m stuck between 2 worlds. In America, I am considered very “Asian” and in China I am considered very “American”. During my first few months here I had an identity crisis. I was fortunate enough to have grown up in a diverse area in Los Angeles and understood that Americans come in all forms. But in my city, if anyone is “different” or “outside of the norm” they are automatically seen as an “outsider” and someone that you would want to be weary of. An example of how organized everything is, would be the household registration system also known as the “hukou” system. It’s somewhat similar to a caste system and has records for every birth, death, marriage, divorce, moves in a family etc… It categorizes every family into a group and is used to manage labor, education, healthcare, and housing for the population. The population is all accounted for and for someone like me- I don’t fit into their structure.
I felt a spectrum of emotions while I’ve been here. Usually it’s anger that’s met with confusion and sadness. The feeling of belonging is a primal need. As human beings we are social creatures and from an evolutionary point of view, attachment is important because it improves our chances of survival from natural predators. A feeling of belonging is fundamental to our sense of well-being and happiness. We need to feel like we belong to our family, friends, culture, country, and our world. The feeling of belonging makes you a human being, and makes you feel less isolated. It’s very lonely being different and not accepted. And lastly, belonging is also feeling like you are understood and respected by others.
To add fuel to the fire, I started to notice a duality in my personality- I had started to develop an American Sara and a Chinese Sara. Chinese Sara was quieter, patient, flexible, humble, careful with her words, smiled a lot and was always happy, and did not discuss feeling or inner thoughts and always followed the rules- basically she was really fake. American Sara was louder, more outspoken, more open, more confident and had higher expectations of everyone around her- she was more type A. How ironic that I had my own inner version of Yin and Yang.
I surprised myself because having this Chinese personality actually helped me make more friends. I must have implicitly known that if I used my American personality to live in China that it would have been more difficult to meet people. As an Asian American, I do feel like I get treated more like a human being than my fellow non-racially similar Peace Corps volunteers. Nobody is staring me at…nobody is taking unwanted photos of me…nobody is pointing and talking about me. I am not treated like a circus animal and gawked at. Instead, people ignore me and I have the freedom to walk around and not be bothered. Since, filial piety is one of the most important values of Chinese culture I chose to often speak about my family and discuss how much I love and miss them. I often show people photos of my family so that they could see me as a filial daughter. I also want them to make the connection that I am somebody’s daughter, sister and friend. I wanted them to treat me more like a human being instead of an outsider. I also remind them that all of my familial ties to China are long gone and one of the reasons why I joined Peace Corps was to try and reconnect with my heritage so that one day I can tell my children about China. I think this last reason resonates more with the people here- because it makes them feel proud of their country and they see that even though my family has moved to America they raised a daughter who still hadn’t forgotten about her roots in China.
My American side comes out when I am teaching. She comes out when I am trying to teach my student’s about confidence. I stand in the front of class and show them that it’s ok to make mistakes. I make mistakes all the time and it doesn’t make me any less of a person and I am still worthy of love and respect. My American side comes out when I am trying to teach them about the beauty of individuality and how being different is okay. My American side will dance in class and will sing with her students. She also hugs them and teaches them about self-love and kindness. And she always encourages them and never berates them. My students have commented how they were very confused on the first day when I walked into class. They thought they had the “foreign teacher”. But they said as soon I start speaking, it became very obvious that I am definitely not Chinese- my voice, mannerism, teaching methods and my viewpoints all stand out. One student even made a remark- he said he feels like he is watching an American movie when he watches me speak. He said, “You are just like them but you look like us!” He gave me a good laugh that day. Lastly, I treat my students like precious human beings, I try to make them feel special and show them that they matter to me. I tell them that in my eyes, I think they are beautiful and amazing individuals and that they are perfect just the way they are. A student invited me to her hometown and as we were walking through the countryside and she told me that she thought I was fascinating. She said that I could go between both the American and Chinese cultures and it was something that she would never be able to do. So here I was- in the middle of my identity crisis and feeling like I don’t belong anywhere. And here she was- telling me how much she admired me for who I was a person who was of mixed identities- both Chinese and American. At that moment, I felt understood. I realized that part of my service here is also to teach people about the immigration story of Asian Americans to the United States.
My grandfathers’ fought in the Chinese Civil War and were on the losing end of the war. My grandfathers retreated to Taiwan where they eventually settled down, got married and raised my parents. My parents grew up in Taipei, Taiwan and immigrated to America where my brother and I were born in Los Angeles, California. In a way my grandfathers were like me, they were also invisible foreigners- leaving China alone to start a new life in Taiwan. As Chinese-Taiwanese Americans our relationship with where our parents and grandparents once left is complicated. Complicated by the way they left, and why they left, and complicated by how different our experiences have been from those who lived the last 70 years in China. I hope that Chinese people can hear our stories, know that we feel a connection for our ancestral homeland, and believe us when we say that we are really American.
Sara Wei is a current Peace Corps Volunteer in China. She is serving as a visiting English professor at a Medical College. Prior to serving in the Peace Corps, Sara was the Chief Administrative Officer for the Department of Family Medicine and the Division of Geriatrics at UC Irvine Health. She has over 10 years of healthcare experience in hospital administration, finance, operations, strategy and innovation. For fun she became a certified yoga instructor and enjoys learning how to cook new healthy recipes. You can follow her adventures in China: https://sarawei.com