Asians are everywhere. Sometimes it seems like we’re taking over the world.
But just because we’re Asian doesn’t make us all alike. Lots of us are descendants of immigrants who came to Western countries to start a new life. And so our culture is often vastly different from that of our parents or our grandparents.
Growing up I never really thought much about my identity as an Asian. According to my parents, I didn’t become aware of my ethnicity until I was about six or seven. The only thing about my Chinese heritage that mattered to me were the red envelopes that I got from my grandparents once a year.
When I first came to Asia, I felt like a fish out of water. It was the biggest culture shock I had ever experienced. No longer was I in the ethnic minority. Instead, I was surrounded by millions of other Asians. If you consider the fact that I couldn’t understand any Chinese, you’ll probably get why I was totally overwhelmed by the shift in culture.
Being displaced from my home country really got me thinking about culture and how it has such a big impact on how we think and behave.
I can’t speak for Asians worldwide, but I think the one thing that most Western Asians have in common is that feeling of being in two places/cultures at once. On the one hand, because you were raised in a Western country, you very much operate within a Western-minded culture. On the other hand, because of your Asian background, you also belong to a completely different culture. Though most of your immediate family’s culture may reflect Western thinking, there’s still a part of you that somehow “belongs” elsewhere.
It seems that some non-Asians in the West also subconsciously have this sense that we Asians belong elsewhere. You see this reflected when they ask us questions like, “So where are you from?” Though we may be citizens of a Western country, our Asian appearance and behaviors still set us apart. Somehow we don’t fully belong.
Initially, I really struggled with this feeling of belonging in two places at the same time. I felt like I was being torn in two, not fully belonging to either my Western culture nor my Chinese ethnicity. I couldn’t fully embrace my Western-ness, and yet I couldn’t fully embrace my Asian-ness.
During the first few trips I made in China, I often felt like being a Western Asian was a hindrance to living successfully here. I didn’t speak the language and I couldn’t grasp the culture. And the fact that I looked like Chinese would constantly confuse the locals, mainly because of my lack of Mandarin-speaking skills.
However, with the help of a close friend of mine, I slowly began to realize that it was a good thing to belong to two cultures at the same time. It was entirely possible to embrace my Asian heritage while also standing firm in my Western upbringing.
The longer I live here, the more I realize just what a blessing it is to be a Western Asian in China. For one thing, I really enjoy the sense of camaraderie that I experience with my Chinese friends. Some have shared with me that my Asian face and Chinese heritage makes them feel “more comfortable” being friends with a foreigner, and that I am “like a brother” to them.
I also love the fact that my ancestors lived in China. I wonder what their life looked like all those many years ago. It sometimes makes me wonder what would’ve happened if they had all stayed in China, and if I had been raised here in the motherland. You can be sure that I wouldn’t be writing this blog had that happened!
Being a Western Asian in China has also made me more grateful. I’m far more appreciative of the sacrifices made by my grandparents and great-grandparents who gave up everything they knew – their home, their language, and their culture – to find a new life in Canada.
Learning to find where you belong is not always easy to navigate. Many of us have to wrestle with personal, family, and cultural expectations. Yet I believe this process is so rewarding. Through it we discover who we are and the role that we play on this earth.
I know my role with definitely evolve as time goes by.
But for now I’m content…to be a Western Asian in China.
How about you? Has there ever been a time when you felt split between two cultures?