"Chinese" is more than just a nationality: It's a cultural identity that well over the 1.3 billion people within China have connections to. And in China, "foreigner" technically includes not only the Westerners often associated with the term but anybody whose passport isn't Chinese. The result of these two identities colliding is hard to label—foreign Chinese? Overseas Chinese? Huaren, huayi, huaqiao? ABC, BBC, CBC? The terms are nitpicky and contested by even those who apply them to themselves. We've asked a handful of people with ethnic roots in China but nationalities of other countries to tell us about their experiences in the motherland.
Fei Yen (monkey)
Assistant professor. Born in the U.S. Raised in Guatemala. Five months in China.
Chinese roots: My father is from Nanjing and my mother from Zhejiang province. My parents' families were among the crowd that fled to Taiwan in 1949.
How big of a role did your ancestry play into your decision to come to China? I would say 30 percent. As a scientist, [I wouldn't have] much room to grow working in Guatemala or in any other Latin American country. In the U.S., to become a professor one needs to do a post-doc[toral degree]. So by the law of least resistance, I came to China. I also wanted to leave the U.S. since I very much disagree with the U.S. government's handling of many issues.
What sorts of expectations did you have before arriving? My expectations were extremely low, so I wasn't completely shocked. Also, I've lived in Guatemala for 10 years, so let's just say I've managed worse.
How do you feel you're generally received by locals? Given my height and apparel, I am often stared at. Somehow, [locals I have just met] often manage to make me acknowledge that I am a friendly and benevolent foreigner who does not know much about Chinese politics or how to deal with Chinese people and that most likely I will never understand how the Chinese way really works. Though I speak both English and Chinese natively, in the U.S. I'm regarded as an outsider, and in China, even my grandaunt often calls me a "waiguoren."
What does "Chinese" mean to you? Being able to think critically and dream in Chinese.
Ching-Wen Huang (rabbit)
Mandarin student. Born in Taiwan. Raised in the U.S. Two months in China.
Chinese roots: My parents are Taiwanese. My father's family is from Fujian and my mother's family is Hakka.
How did this play into your decision to come to China? I wanted to develop a deeper understanding of my culture and find a connection between my heritage and who I am. The fact that I speak the language at home was also very helpful.
What expectations did you have of China? I expected the people to be nicer and more courteous. The only thing that turned out to be exactly as I expected was the pollution.
How do you feel you are generally received by locals? I blend in very well. I can haggle easier than most of my foreign-looking friends; the shopkeepers assume that I'm Chinese and don't have a lot of money. When people see me with foreign people they usually assume that I'm the interpreter.
How does your family feel about your being here? My parents were worried about me coming to China. They are worried about me getting pick-pocketed and cheated. They don't really have a very high opinion of the general Chinese populous despite being Chinese themselves. However, they feel that it would be good for me to "connect with my roots" and learn the history of my ancestors.
What does "Chinese" mean to you? Doing the peace sign every time a picture is taken? Drinking bubble tea? Cannot live without rice? Obsession with Jay Chou? I think being Chinese means to have a connection with 8,000 years of history and sharing a culture and language with 1.3 billion people.
David Hung* (rat)
Mandarin and kungfu student. Born in Australia. Raised in Australia and the U.S. One-and-a-half years in China.
Chinese roots:My grandparents are from Guangdong/Guangxi/Hainan.
How big of a role did your ancestry play into your decision to come to China? A very large part, but China is compelling for a number of reasons beyond ethnic roots: [the country's] increasing role on the international and cultural scene, business opportunities, chance to live in and understand a part of the world largely unknown by outsiders.
How do you feel you are generally received by locals? Eventually, people will be able to hear that I'm not a native speaker and ask where I'm from. Occasionally, people tell me, "But you don't look like a Westerner!" to which I explain that I am huaren. I used to think I got a lot of stares, and put it down to dress, hairstyle, etc., but at this point I really don't detect it anymore.
How does your family feel about your being here? They think it's great! I like speaking on the phone and e-mailing them in Chinese. They do keep pressuring me to get a "real" job though.
What does "Chinese" mean to you?
"Chinese" means "cheap fake crap" and "dog-eating slanty-eyed people who talk funny," doesn't it? "Chinese" to me means overcoming hardship, working hard, and struggling to build a better life and more peaceful, prosperous world.
Valerie Yi* (ram)
English teacher. Born and raised in the U.S. Three years in China.
Chinese roots: Family is from Shanghai, immigrated to the U.S. through Taiwan in the late '60s, early '70s.
How did this play in your decision to come to China? The first time, not at all; the second, very much.
How do you feel you are generally received by locals? People generally aren't interested in me until they find out that I'm huayi. Although I speak Mandarin fluently, I find that my [language ability] is critiqued more harshly than my expat friends': A "nihao" will bring on a chorus of praises for non-Asian foreigners, but my inability to speak or understand perfectly is sometimes criticized by locals. In general, I try to blend in. There was, however, a woman who said she could tell I was raised in America because I "look 'American'" around the eyes. Both of my parents are Chinese.
How does your family feel about your being here? Completely supportive.
What does "Chinese" mean to you? Beyond the customs, places, and language, it's an extra lens of perspective that I am privileged to have—and a part of myself that I try to understand a little bit more, and negotiate with a little bit less, every day.
Jay Yiding Qin (dog)
Law student. Born in China. Raised in Canada. Two years in China.
Chinese roots: I was born in Chengdu, but moved to Canada with my mom and dad when I was about 6. Most of my family members are still in Chengdu, and I've been coming back to the city nearly every summer since I was 13.
How did this tie into your decision to live in China? I don't think my Chinese heritage played much of a role. It was more about wanting to be a part of the dynamism of contemporary China, the opportunities. Having grown up as an only child in Canada, I enjoy coming back to my family still in Chengdu.
How are you generally received by locals? The first reaction I get anywhere in China is that I'm Korean. I have no idea why. I've had storekeepers in Beijing reply to my inquires in Korean; I've had a taxi driver in Hainan say that [he] didn't know Korean people could speak "Chinese like a Chinese." I think a lot of the times I am a curiosity to the people in Chengdu, not only because of my eyebrow and tongue piercings, but because I (apparently) look Korean, speak native Chengduhua, and converse with my close friends in English.
What does "Chinese" mean to you? Having certain values: Family is always first and foremost. I think the question I get asked the most when I'm in China is whether I am Canadian or Chinese. To the shock of many mainland Chinese, I'd say I am Canadian because my values, world outlook, pop-culture experience, and education are all very much Canadian.
Diane Tey (snake)
Mandarin student. Born in the U.S. Raised in the U.S. and Malaysia. Six months in China.
Chinese roots: My mother is of Kejia descent and my father is of Fujian descent.
What role did that play into your decision to come to China? Not much. How do you feel you are generally received by locals? It takes a while for the Chinese people to realize that I'm not actually Chinese. Actually, most of them figure out I'm not from Chengdu because I don't speak Sichuanese, but they typically can't guess that I'm from the States. There was one time I told a taxi driver that I'm from the States, and he responded, "But your hair is black!"
How does your family feel about your being here? My parents' natural[ly] worry [about] me, but that's normal.
What does "Chinese" mean to you? Being practical, where words have very little meaning and lying helps you get what you want.
Matthew Liu (dog)
Coffee-shop manager. Born and raised in the U.S. Two-and-a-half years in China.
Chinese roots: My dad is from the Heilongjiang area, but grew up in Taiwan and then went to Japan. My mom is Cantonese, but was born and raised in Japan.
How did this tie into your decision to live in China? I figured that if I were to move to another country, I should start where I'm at least a little bit familiar with the language.
What expectations did you have? I knew that people were rude; that living in a big city would involve pollution; and that people would judge others by their outside, but reality has dwindled my expectations!
How do you feel you are received by locals? I definitely do not receive the "celebrity" treatment. I get treated worse. Locals don't look at me when giving directions whereas I see foreign-looking people getting tremendous help; I have to sign into almost every complex I enter [while] dealing with foreign-looking people takes too much energy; my Chinese will always be "poor" whereas a foreign-looking person has great Chinese saying only two words.
How does your family feel about your being here? They like the idea that I'm here, but also would like me closer to home. I think it is normal for family to want you closer to them.
What does "Chinese" mean to you? If I'm in China, it refers to a national[ity]. If I'm in America, it refers to ethnicity. Only in America is one supposedly considered an American based on birthplace or documentation [rather than] physical features and/or ethnic background.
Wah-Ming Chang (tiger)
Author and editor. Born and raised in the U.S. Traveling in China.
What are your ties to China, and why did you come? My dad's story: He'd run away when he was 12, in 1943, from Nanchong, in Sichuan, to Taiwan, and ended up in New York. He reunited with his remaining family after a 40-year separation. This was my first visit to China. I'm constantly surprised that I'm Chinese, that this vast country's history lives in my genes, and so I've always wanted to visit, especially as my dad's family is here and I'm writing a novel based in China.
How were you received by locals? I gathered [that] I was a curiosity for being Chinese American. The locals all said to me, "You've come home to your lao jia" and "Hey, your Chinese isn't half bad." I find both statements very special on a personal level, especially from cabbies, who took good care of me. And even though my understanding of Chinese is pretty basic, people responded to my curiosity as well with history lessons and personal stories and lectures about pride and family. ... I admit I didn't know what to refuse or to accept whenever something was offered, whether another glass of milk or a paid-for hotel room, but the manner of hospitality, as well as its consistency, was fascinating.
How does your family react to your being here? My mother and siblings, who are left-brained, don't quite understand my interest in China, family, or in the Three Gorges. My father, who's a dreamer like me, was more accommodating.
What does "Chinese" mean to you? Cycles of history. Strong familial and social ties. Hard, fast, and persevering work.
Jane Voodikon (dog)
Editor and events organizer. Born and raised in the U.S. Five years in China.
Chinese roots: My mother is Chinese, from Taishan in Guangdong. I can count to 10 and demand my hongbao in Cantonese.
How did this affect your decision to live in China? I wanted to live abroad, and China happened to be where I found a job. But it's definitely a big part of why I have stayed so long, getting in touch with my Chinese-ness?
What expectations did you have about China?
I equated "China" with my mom's descriptions—a mud-brick house in a 1950s rural village. I did not expect skyscrapers and shopping centers.
How are you generally received by locals? I've been asked if I'm Chinese or foreign, although most people assume the latter, especially if I start speaking my non-native Mandarin. Passing as white affords me certain benefits, and so does being able to say I'm Chinese. But these are mostly getting-a-foot-in-the-door advantages.
How does your family feel about your being here? My mom isn't thrilled—she misses me and wants me to have a secure job and health insurance. Maybe it also offends her that I've chosen to live in a place she left intending to never look back. My father and his side of the family—the white folk—all think it's cool and wonderful.
What does "Chinese" mean to you?Other foreigners sometimes remark, "You don't look Chinese!" But I grew up knowing how to use chopsticks, fools. Of course it's not that simple, but I guess I was raised with some cultural programming that non-Chinese foreigners don't have immediate access to.
Judy Seto (ox)
Mandarin student and yoga instructor. Born and raised in Canada. Twenty months in China.
Chinese roots: Parents are both from small villages in Taishan, near Kaiping, Guangdong. They emigrated to Canada, started having babies, and opened a Chinese restaurant (stereotypical overseas Chinese family).
How did this play into your decision to live in China? In high school I started developing an interest in my cultural background after years of denial. I began reading books about China, visited several times starting in 1999, earned degrees in East Asian studies, and then moved here.
How do you feel you're generally received by locals? I am happy to be able to blend in when I want to. But I feel sometimes that jobs seem harder to acquire. For English-teaching positions, it seems that "white" foreigners are paid more and are more in demand. In terms of making local friends, I think some Chinese are more taken by non-Chinese foreigners. I find it difficult to develop close friendships with local Chinese, mostly due to the language barrier.
How does your family feel about your being here? My parents seem happy though I think they'd rather me be closer to home. Since I've been living in China, my parents seem to be identifying with their own "Chineseness" again.
What does "Chinese" mean to you? The word "Chinese" is intertwined with my search for personal identity. After spending my entire life not ever feeling like I "fit in" in Canada, I went to Taiwan only to discover that I was indeed Canadian. Now, having lived in China for over a year, I think I've come to a more balanced conclusion. In many ways I am more Canadian than I am Chinese. But growing up in a traditional Chinese household has shaped who I am, how I think, how I articulate myself and relate to the outside world.
*Name has been changed at the request of the respondent.
This article was first published in CHENGDOO citylife Magazine, issue 22 ("china"). Photos courtesy of Guo Jian