Why I Love Being a Western Asian in China

Asians are everywhere. Sometimes it seems like we’re taking over the world.

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Photo courtesy of Shereen M via Compfight cc

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? 

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15 thoughts on “Why I Love Being a Western Asian in China

  1. I habe never truly experienced this as both of my nationalities are too close to each other.
    However my very best friend from my childhood has a bit different story. He is a Chinese born in Austria, lived from his early childhood into his twenties in Germany and then moved to the USA. He speaks Chinese fairly fluent but can’t read it at all. So everytime he visited his relatives in Taiwan and Singapore he experienced real shocks how different everything was and how everyone looked at him strangely as soon they heard his weird sounding dialect.
    As far as I know he never stayed long enough to make experiences as you but I also believe that for example Chinese can better deal with a foreigner who looks Asian or has a Chinese background rather than some laowai from England (just my opinion based on own experiences). 🙂

    • Totally agree with you that quite a number of Chinese can get along better with a foreigner of a Chinese or Asian background. I don’t exactly associate myself as being an Asian from Asia. There have been times in a roomful of mainly Westerners (in Melbourne) the one or two other lone international Asians have siddled up to me for a chat. I suppose the latter is more comfortable with the “Asian way” of doing things – being soft-spoken, polite, sticking to superstition…you get the idea 🙂

    • I wonder what it would be like to be a Chinese person born in Europe. I remember meeting a French-born Chinese person once and I couldn’t get over his accent. I just never expected to hear French coming out of a Chinese person!

      Did you find it pretty easy to make friends while you were in China? Did everyone treat you like a celebrity? I’ve heard that it can take some time before non-Asian foreigners can get past the “celebrity treatment” that Chinese people often give them.

  2. I just finished reading the anthology “How does one dress to buy dragonfruit?” and there’s an essay in there by Edna Zhou called ‘Token’ and she talks about the same topic, how it can be really hard dealing with people’s expectations and preconceived notions of who you are and should be. I think it’s really brave that through this you (and Edna) have stuck it out and enjoy living in Asia.

    Since my love affair with China began, I’ve been interested in British-born Chinese/Asians and how their mixed identity affected them, it’s a really interesting topic and one I will try to get into more and more after I give birth to this little hybrid who may face similar feelings and experiences in the future.

    • Thanks for the kind words, Sarah!

      If you find anything interesting about this “little hybrid,” as you call it, please do pass it on! And if you decide to write about it, I’d be interested to read. 🙂

  3. Very strong post, a cracker of a post, Chris. I read this late last night, and it left me with a lot of thoughts and I had to go away and think for a bit.

    It is interesting to hear you say you weren’t aware of your ethnicity until you were six, seven years old. I’m assuming at that time you’ve lived in Canada all your life – and that it’s a very multicultural and inclusive country (according to my Canadian friends), even though the culture and mindset is Western dominated. So that’s why you didn’t feel out of place back in those days?

    Western Asian. The other kind of Asian is an Asian person who has predominantly lived in Asia all their life. Personally, I don’t feel like I belong to either category. Up until I was six in Melbourne, I was teased in the playground by my Caucasian “friends”. After that I moved to Singapore and Malaysia – it felt awkward not being able to speak my mother tongue fluently but I empathised will the Asian traditions like Chinese New Year. Then moving back to Melbourne was also uncomfortable: I don’t speak with the Asian Australian accent at all, didn’t understood the drinking culture here. At the same time, I like the laid-back lifestyle and individualism. So like you, I feel caught in two cultures…just that I don’t feel that I’m a Western Asian or to crudely and stereotypical put it, Asian Asian. It’s probably because I don’t acknowledge any country “home”, having moved around quite a bit.

    And it’s still this way for me today. I am still confused about where I fit in but I dont’ worry about this as much. Bottom line is, we’re all different, come from different families and don’t have the same stories to tell.

    My Chinese heritage has always been a big part of my life from the day I was born: food, Chinese New Year, superstitions, speaking bits of Cantonese, conservative dressing, not speaking back to elders, you get the picture. I’ve realised as I’ve got older that some of these things don’t matter too much to me anymore, but some still do. Maybe I’m drifting towards being a Western Asian, maybe not. Hard to say. I suppose this all depends where we’re raised, how our parents raised us, and the people we choose to hang out with.

    Like you, I do experience a sense of camaraderie among my Asian friends and acquaintances. Asian international students always came up to me to ask for directions at uni. Recently at a group interview, an Asian approached me and paired up with me to do the interview group task. I didn’t mind pairing up with a Westerner (racism…), and I didn’t mind who I got paired up with in the end. Maybe we do feel more comfortable with someone of the same race – though we might or might not follow traditional Asian mindsets, we know of them and respect that as they are essentially part of our culture, part of all of us.

    I am very grateful for all the experiences I’ve had and have come to accept I’ll be in this perpetual limbo in-between cultures. Being different and having come to be okay with who I am and through my writing, I think I’ve learnt what confidence is – and how to be confident as an Asian in the Western and Asian world.

    Sorry for this long comment. This is a touchy topic with me, but I loved the way you wrote about it. It inspires me to re-visit this topic and some of my older writings 😉 I will stop now, my comment is almost longer than your post, oh dear.

    • Nice essay, Mabel. 😉

      You’re right that our affinity to our heritage is largely tied to the way we were raised and the people we chose to hang out with. I never spent much time hanging out with other Asians, and yet I always felt close to them whenever I had the chance. Whether it’s right or wrong, maybe we simply feel safer with people who look like us…at least when it comes to us Asians.

      Looking forward to reading your further thoughts on this subject!

  4. OMG I just love this post! I always wanted to hear a Western/Asian perspective like this! I also “kind of” can relate since I am German/American and I also felt torn when I was younger because I grew up in Germany but had an American name and people were confused etc. etc.

    I am happy for you that you can embrace who YOU are! It’s great that you are Asian/Canadian and it’s even greater that you moved to China to discover “where you came from”! That story is truly amazing, opens other people’s eyes and made my day! Shared it on my Facebook blog page 🙂

  5. I have so many friends who are Western Asians who struggle with identity, and now we live in Asia together, so it’s always interesting to see the different things we face. I’m glad you have come to accept both ‘sides’ of yourself, but I think that the world should adapt to two cultured people and stop assuming that Asians have to be ‘from’ somewhere else. Identity in any form is confusing, but working out who we are and how we relate to the world around us is an important step in keeping sane.

    • It would be nice if “the world” got used to two-cultured people, but I think the responsibility really lies on our shoulders (meaning us people who have mixed cultures) to integrate. I think you said it best that it’s important to figure out who we are and how we’re supposed to relate to the world. I think that’s what we’re slowly learning how to do. 🙂

  6. I found your experience interesting to read.

    I’m Austrian, but I sometimes feel like my choice to live in China and being married to a Chinese has me (and my husband) trapped between two cultures. We embrace both cultures, but sometimes others aren’t able to understand that part of our identities. To Austrians, I might seem a bit Chinese, to Chinese, my husband seems like a foreigner. I think that everyone who lives abroad for a few years has a similar experience. I hope that our son will be able to embrace both of his cultural backgrounds. People in China often refer to him as “the foreign baby”. In this special case, I’d prefer them seeing him as “biracial” over “foreign”.

    • That’s fascinating, Ruth. I think it’s great that you’ve become a little bit “Chinese” to your fellow Austrians. It shows that you’re adaptable, which is a character trait that’s so crucial to cross-cultural living.

      I think Chinese people by and large refer to anything they’ve never seen or experienced as “foreign.” But don’t we all? 🙂

  7. This calls to mind memories of learning about different TCKs. I don’t remember the names for all of them, but there were four categories. One was the “hidden immigrant,” which is the TCK who lives in a country and blends in but doesn’t really “fit in.” Here’s a post that talks about this, though I hadn’t read it before today: http://libbystephens.com/blog/third-culture-kids/49-the-evolution-of-the-tck-stage-three-the-hidden-immigrant. I’ll copy and paste abit of her article here:

    “The TCK returns to his passport country and sees people who look like him, speak the same language, dress like him but at the same time they are nothing like him. Interests are different, experiences rarely intersect and neither the Third Culture Kid nor the Mono-Cultural Kid find much to say to each other.

    “Unknowingly, they have embarked on a cross-cultural situation. But this is a cross-cultural experience like no other. Prior to this stage most cross-cultural encounters have been obvious. It may be skin color, language, clothing, etc. that set the TCK apart from the mono-culturals around him. But when the TCK returns to his passport culture most of the differences are beneath the surface and are rarely seen. But when they are, they are often looked at as strange quirks at best at worst socially slow or under developed. In either case, the child is known not as a TCK but rather a person who is socially out of step.

    “During this stage many TCKs begin to question their identity and to wonder where if anywhere they belong. It is not surprising to see TCKs embrace the TCK label at this stage when they may have disregarded it before returning to their passport country. Why? Because for many TCKs this is the first time they have spent a prolonged period of time in their passport country. It is no longer a holiday place…they live there. For the first time, reality hits that citizenship and cultural belonging are not the same.”

    This was me when I moved to the States for uni. For the first time in my life, I was living in the USA, but I looked like I was from the States. I talked like it, except for all the cultural phrases I didn’t get. I had always considered myself fluent in English (I was a certified ESL teacher and taught lawyers and bankers in Europe before moving here!), but when I arrived in the States I felt like the English spoken was always just a bit out of my grasp, a bit beyond my comprehension. The words were the same, but I couldn’t quite get the meaning. I constantly felt a step behind everyone else. That wasn’t so bad– I’d been there before in each of our cross-cultural moves– but this time, people didn’t realize it. I remember thinking that it would be a lot easier if I looked obviously different, if people knew right away that I was foreign. Instead, I wasn’t extended the same grace and allowance to mess up but was expected to fit in and be like everyone else. When I wasn’t, I looked slow or strange, and people didn’t understand why I was different. It IS different adjusting to a culture when you look like you shouldn’t have any adjustments to make, when the expectation is there that of course you know the language and understand life and “get it.” That gets better as time goes by and you learn, but in the beginning, it’s definitely a challenge to navigate.

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