“Wǒ shì zhōngguó rén,” is what we were taught to recite in costly Saturday Mandarin lessons.
But more specifically, “Wǒ shì HǍIWÀI de zhōngguó rén.”
This simple phrase was one of the few that I actually remembered from those reluctant weekends. Roughly translated, it means, “I am Chinese … over the sea.”
I never gave much thought to that qualification, though, until I finally took the advice of the bigots I’d encountered over the years who had told me to “go back to [my] own country … back where [I] came from.”
My immigrant parents were grateful to be American.
To carve out better lives for not just themselves, but also their children, in this land of opportunity. But even so, they wanted me and my sisters to hold onto a piece of the culture and heritage of their homeland.
Ever pragmatic, they also wanted us to learn a language that might be useful to our future career prospects. But most of all, they wanted us to be immersed (for one day a week, at least) in the culture of our ancestors, surrounded by people who looked like us, peers who might share the same stories as us, and who would at least not consider us second-class. Because they, like us, were “hǎiwài.”
Although this phrase is essentially a proclamation as a member of the Chinese diaspora, it has a dual designation that is also meant to be empowering. This label is used to give strength to the new generation when it comes to actively embracing our adoptive American-ness and obvious Chinese-ness. It teaches us to be proud that we are of both worlds.
Yet after dollars were exhausted and my parents equally so when it came to struggling to get us to the classes that we so vehemently resisted, this phrase slowly faded into memory. I made it my teenaged mission to become as typically American as possible. Through conscious effort, I struggled to make my foreign face the lie and my American core the truth.
Apparently, despite evidence in this country to the contrary, I succeeded.
It was May of 2009, and I was about to visit China for the first time since I was a small child.
The first time I visited, I was three or four—old enough to forever relate the smell of diesel exhaust to the belching black plumes from the antiquated busses that rumbled through Hong Kong, but young enough to remember nothing else.
This time, I was 24, newly wed, and getting ready to move across the country once again. Life was dynamic and thrilling, and our biggest adventure—marriage—was before us. My American-as-they-come, fourth generation Italian husband and I had decided that we wanted to kick it off with a honeymoon equally as grand as (but much less costly than) the typical week on a posh beach resort.
So, we shrugged, said “What the hell?”, put what was left of our apartment in storage, and booked a fast-paced, three-week escorted tour to China.
Our excitement at the prospect of heading literally halfway around the world was palpable. We felt brave and bold. We were going to one of the most mysterious, exotic places the planet had to offer!
My husband was looking forward to knocking a few world wonders and UNESCO sites off his list at such a tender age, as well as the possibility of not being the shortest man in any given room (he still was).
I had, of course, grown up hearing about the beauty and majesty of “the homeland,” and was ready to learn to be proud again of my heritage. I wanted to practice some rusty Mandarin; I made my dad teach me the words for “bathroom,” what types of meat I would and would not eat, and “how much?” (to be immediately followed by “too much”).
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So off we went.
Preparation aside, I was relieved that our amazing guide, Michael, spoke fluent English. He was so proactively helpful that all seven members of our tour group wanted for nothing, even when it came to bartering at the markets. It also buoyed our confidence that we began our journey in Beijing, an international city where English isn’t too uncommon and miming can get you pretty far. But even so, I was delighted to have my first opportunity to test my language skills.
My husband and I approached a booth at a night market on an independent evening. Red paper lanterns lit the streets, their shadows still in the stale air, even as everything around them moved at a frenetic pace. Mandarin shot out of mouths with the smooth but rapid-fire efficiency of automatic weapons, but at my first inquiry, it was me who received a critical blow.
“Zhège duōshǎo qián?” (“How much is this?”) I asked a street vendor, a practiced line I’d worked on perfecting.
A simple question that I was pleased as punch to say in “plain speech,” as they call the official language, this moment was to be symbolic. I was—for the first time since I was very young—claiming my ancestry and identifying myself in kinship and shared history. In that one short query, I was showing off to my new husband my fluidity between cultures, my ability to fit in in a foreign world as well as our American one.
So, I was shocked when her response was not a number, but a word: “No.”
She said it insistently, stubbornly. Her thin lips curved in a harsh frown beneath her broad nose. Her brow furrowed as she shook her head and said again, “No! You Ah-MER-lee-kan; you speak English.”
Strongly accented and even more strongly said, these words cut me to the core. In a country where residents would unabashedly ask—or sometimes, not—to photograph blond-haired, blue-eyed anomalies, it seemed I was an outcast. In the land of my ancestors.
I stood out here. Even though I looked like everybody else, I somehow wasn’t.
Rattled, I tried again in another city, and was rebuffed once more with accusatory eyes and pointed fingers. I was as sore of a thumb here as I was in the States. Even in the cities of the southwest regions, where staccato Cantonese replaced the more mellifluous Mandarin, the English that was spoken was the same: “You ABC! American-born Chinese! You—English!”
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People make generalizations about race.
Especially in today’s tumultuous political climate. But those can be proven false in as short as a heartbeat, or the time it takes to utter the word, “No.”
I was guilty of making assumptions about myself, even.
I thought I’d be welcomed back to the motherland with open arms. In reality, I was forced to realize that there are so many more layers to racial identity than I’d ever even imagined.
It is only through travel that one can even quite begin to fathom the plethora of nuances that go far beyond appearance.
You learn to see yourself, and all humans, as individuals—not members of any group. You gain understanding that tags may mean as little beneath the surface as your own physicality, whether you’re the one designating it or providing it. That everyone’s story is unique, and that we must never lump people into categories for better, for worse, or anything in between.
On this journey, I realized that one can never go “home” again if “home” is defined by others or by ethnicity.
After all, “home” is a state of mind more than a place. It’s who you’re traveling with or experiencing life alongside.
To me, it’s what I feel in my heart when I arrive somewhere. That sensation of my soul settling with a satisfying click into place when I didn’t even know that it had floated out of joint.
Because for some, there is no fitting in outside of oneself. When your appearance clearly designates you as “other” to either side, the only thing you can do is gain strength from your diversity, using that strength to cut your own niche in the world.
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Yes, I am American. Yes, I am Chinese. But I’m also neither of those things, and claim no representation of or by them.
Instead, I am a traveler, floating between cultures and countries and embracing my ability to see the world as an independent individual. When I travel, I’m just Su-Jit.
Because through the rejection by both labels, I found liberation from them—and the freedom to create my own.
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Images courtesy of the author.