Strap in this is going to be the most writing I’ve done since college because I have THOUGHTS that I’d like to SHARE.
The last few weeks have flown by: lesson planning, learning how to lesson plan, teaching, wandering around, attempting to decipher all the Chinese apps I downloaded, eating 饺子 (dumplings), and frequenting nearby markets for pomelos. I’ve been slowly leveling up from level 0 (no toilet paper, can’t turn on gas stove, wait which bus do I take?) to level 1 (owning two plates and a pot, doing laundry successfully by pushing random buttons, purchasing garbage bags) to level 2 (learning how to use the scan to pay function on WeChat, buying things on Taobao, owning plants, etc) to a nice current level 3.5 (knowing all the nearby bus routes, not needing to pull out Baidu maps every time I leave my apartment, loudly talking to the takeout delivery guy and trying to give him instructions to my building in Chinese, and finally owning one of those Chinese emails that only has numbers in it).
A little background info: I’m currently teaching Oral and Written English at Dalian University of Technology / 大连理工大学 in Dalian, China through an organization called Princeton in Asia (PiA). This is my first time in Mainland China (and my first time living solo in an apartment~). I grew up speaking Mandarin with my parents, I'd pin my Chinese level at “can answer a call about a returned package but can’t cleverly banter.” I heard this at the PiA orientation and quite liked it: I am a heritage speaker - which I’ve defined as familiarity to the Chinese language as a part of my family history without the rigid expectation of fluency.
post-identity crisis julia arrives ~ * ~ * ~
Stepping off the plane, my first impression of Dalian was that it reminded me a lot of Japan and Taiwan (the only other two places in Asia I’ve been to) from the airport smell to the loud (poorly color coordinated) signs lining the streets. Since arriving, it’s felt almost…..seamless? At first, I was a little surprised on how quickly I settled in but then I remembered the previous labor I have put into acclimating to Chinese culture in the form of multiple identity crises. So now, I’m just REAPING THE REWARDS. I feel good. (Granted, the previous two years were spent commuting between NJ & NYC and before that it was 16 years of continuous schooling…)
Growing up, I’d go back to Taiwan every 3-5 years to visit my extended family - so I’ve gone through a couple rounds of “where do I BELONG/I don’t belong in Asia OR in America ugh” culture shock. During the summer of 2015 I went back to Taiwan for two months to create a project about my family history for my senior thesis project at Tisch. (Which you can see here! Crisis in photo form~) When I was younger, I think I thought deep down that being in East Asia would be validating - that I would be accepted in ways that I wasn’t in the West. And oh man, was I disappointed to find out that it was almost worst and more alienating. You’ve heard it before, but damn if it isn’t true so I’ll say it again, in America you are a perpetual foreigner because you aren’t white and in Asia you are just too American from your words, thought, and behavior to ever belong. (Plus, it’s so difficult to get the American accent out of Chinese. I’ve had v interesting talks with other immigrant children about accent assimilation in one’s heritage language. Anyway, another time.)
SHe’s CHinese-AMErican n’ PROUD ~ * ~ * ~
Long story story, over the last few years I’ve come to terms with existing in the middle. And I quite like it here. While dual cultural identity can be alienating, I see it now as a strength rather than a barrier. I think learning that assimilation (to both USA and Taiwan/East Asia) was the root of the problem, instead of the solution, was the game changer. Who cares if I don’t have a perfect accent, I don’t because I’m not from here. Plus, I don’t think anyone really cares except me. Language is about communication - not accent elitism~
My sister showed me this quote last year by Gish Jen (1996) in a book about Asian-American identity (slightly paraphrased):
It’s a very Western thing to want to resolve the tension between two things and want a conclusion versus the Eastern idea of fluidity…Yin and yang, sweet and sour…Opposites don’t fight each other but belong together and can intensify each other. They are the nature of the world.
So, what used to make me feel stupid while trying to navigate the motherland now doesn’t really faze me. When posed with an issue, I will shamelessly announce HELLO I AM A 外国人 (a phrase that by definition means “foreigner” but our immigrant parents use it to describe anyone who isn’t Chinese, even though technically…they are the 外国人 in America..) 请你说话慢一点！CAN YOU HELP ME? OR TALK SLOWER? And people have been quite gracious and kind. Though, I have forgone many great deals because I just don’t…understand what they’re asking me to join when I check out. There’s too many buttons on WeChat.
Usually after a few sentences, people will ask where I’m from (Korea?). Perhaps because Mainland China is much larger than Taiwan and therefore has a greater variance in accent (unproven/untested hypothesis), people don’t seem too surprised when I tell them that I am American but my parents are from Taiwan. Ah, you should like you’re from Taiwan. That shocks me each time and delights me, because in Taiwan it’s my American accent that takes the center stage. (But, don’t get me wrong, they hear the American). I like that my voice announces part of my identity.
I like to tell my students that being Chinese-American (and other hyphenated identities) is like a multi-flavored cake instead of a simplistic “banana” (white on the inside, yellow on the outside). You can’t reverse engineer eggs out of a cake that has already been baked. So, much like a cake that can’t be unbaked, I can’t exactly pin down what parts of me are Chinese and what parts are American. It’s more of an amalgamation~ that is unique to every individual. Some ingredients: take your shoes off when you’re in a house, classic Western individualism, immigrant child tears of familial obligations, love of PB&J, and some 等一下妈妈我来了不要叫。
BEING IN CHINA! ~ * ~ * ~
The Chinese characters I botched/partially learned/promptly forgotten from my Chinese school days are slowly (emphasis on slowly) but surely coming back. Every time I went back to Taiwan the same thing would happen, the characters would slowly merge with their meanings and I’d start to regain the ability to read. I haven’t had time to formally study it yet, but I feel it happening again - the characters that normally would give me a headache are slowly resurfacing and connecting to their meanings. Language is cool. I now use trips on the bus and walks in 沃尔玛 / Walmart (oh yes, there’s a Walmart here and but the stock of items is of course…Chinese) to translate and memorize new characters.
My family roots start in China, so I’m really excited to explore the Chinese part of me. (I’d love to be able to go to my grandparents’ home provinces!) To be honest, I don’t really feel “American” when I’m in the US. It’s hard to figure out while you’re home, but now that I’m away I can very much see the ways in which I am different/American. So it’s quite…weird…but kind of nice??? to have “American” be the most salient part of my identity in China vs. back home where “Chinese” is the first half of my hyphen. I no longer need to be the ambassador for the entire Chinese diaspora! Rather, I get to be the newbie - asking questions about Chinese culture and impressing people with my dumpling intake ability.
Because of how I look, I also enjoy the ease of assimilation. Wow. I have never lived in a country where I am the ethnic majority and it is wild. “Is this how white people feel?” I ask myself daily. I don’t even know how to describe it besides relief. I can just go about my damn day without having that subconscious racial alarm on. It feels like there was a tiny knot in my back that I never knew was there and now it’s just gone. (Note: I am by no means claiming there isn’t racism here - rather I am just specifically referring to my experience growing up Chinese in a heavily white country to suddenly being “white”/part of the majority here.) I can walk around as a part of a crowd and not feel eyes / or think people are staring at me. Of course, when it comes down to it, I will always chose diversity over uniformity. But for the time being, I’m kind of enjoying it.
It’s been quite the learning curve to use Chinese apps as someone who can only read beef - 牛肉, dumplings - 水饺, noodles - 面, and bathroom - 洗手间. But she’s getting there, with the generous help of Google Translate and friends who can read Chinese.
I feel blessed every single day that I get to live my dream and for the gift my parents gave me of self-actualization. I love teaching and my students, I love all the food, and so far I’ve had a lot of fun connecting with new people and less fun trying to explain the current state of our government. (I’ve gotten a few: “Does everyone in America like Trump?” “If he’s so terrible why did he get elected?” And then I have to try and explain systemic racism and white supremacy in a language I can just barely order food in.) I do miss my family, my angel Kira, my friends, and my home - but I haven’t been too homesick yet…probably because of FaceTime, chatting with other PiA fellows, and binging Brooklyn 99. (Also thank you everyone for sliding into my DMs - it makes me v happy and warm!)
For now, I’ve been settling into my small university bubble. I do hope to breach it soon and learn more about my new home for the time being on a deeper level - but I’m taking each day as it comes~
IN SUMMARY: Thriving. Loving my bachelor pad and filling it with plants. Embracing being that American and finally ditching my desires for assimilation that were forced into my mind as a child. Eating all the delicious noodles and bing and dumplings. I made one friend! Most of my time is spent working or wandering around the beach or malls. Would like to level up next semester and make some Chinese friends and do something young people do.
On a technical note: I recently bought a Sony Alpha Mark II with a 50mm 1.8 lens and it is the only camera I brought to China! My Canon 5D Mark II + assorted lenses are back in Jersey as well as my 35mm cameras. So far, the Sony has been a DELIGHT. It’s so light and gives me that full frame creaminess that I crave. And it’s light and small. I only kind of look like a tourist.