Pros and Cons of Being a Chinese American Living in China

Repost     May 03, 2014 By Ailsa Zheng , Comments (36)     Add your comment Newsletter

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There are plenty of articles on what it’s like to be a foreigner in China. The constant stares, locals coming up to you for a picture and endless English-teaching jobs are deeply embedded in your journey through the country. Your “foreigner” status is stamped on your face wherever you go. But what about those of us here who evade all of that? What’s it like to be a fully Westernized ABC (American-Born Chinese) and how does our experience in China differ from that of, you know, “foreign”-looking foreigners living here? Based on my own experiences, I have identified several pros and cons to being an ABC in China.

Pros and Cons of Being a Chinese American Living in China

1) You don’t get pick-pocketed as much as white people do
In the two years that I have lived in China, I’ve had my wallet stolen twice. My white Canadian friend, on the other hand, had his cell phone pick-pocketed six times in eight months. Thieves frequent public places, especially overcrowded ones like clubs and rush-hour metro stations. They scour their surroundings for easy prey, and nothing screams easy prey like a white person: they’re rich (from a Chinese POV), unsuspecting, and generally can’t speak Chinese well enough to get the thieves in trouble. Luckily, ABCs can camouflage in with the local Chinese, especially if they’ve lived in China for a few months.

Pro or Con: Pro

2) You don’t get asked for pictures
I once went to a theme park with a group of friends. Among us was a British girl with flaming red hair and light freckles all over her face and arms. She was sitting with us on the outer edge of a giant water fountain when suddenly a local Chinese woman yanked her up into a standing position without a word and forced her to pose for a picture. After the camera clicked, she tried to get away but the woman grabbed her arm and forced her to pose with another Chinese vacationer. A line started to form—at least seven other vacationers wanted a picture with the ginger. My friends roared with laughter as the British girl yelled at us for help. On the other hand, when I go anywhere with a white friend or classmate, the local Chinese automatically assume I am their tour guide. They ask me if it’s okay if they take a picture of my classmates, or even if I can hold the camera, which can be aggravating. But sometimes when I respond and they hear my foreign accent, we end up having an interesting conversation about cultural differences and traveling.

Pro or Con: Varies

3) Chinese strangers hate you because they think you are Japanese
You look like them. Your Chinese is terrible. To the Chinese, oftentimes this means you are either Japanese or Korean. Thanks to the WWII atrocities and the more recent disputes over the Diaoyu Islands, the boycott of Japanese goods and restaurants is high and anti-Japanese sentiment is even higher. “Now wait a minute,” you say, “there is still a 50% chance that I could be Korean!” Well, sort of. According to the old Chinese guy who had the nightshift at my former residence, there are crude formulas used to calculate what type of Asian a “non-Chinese” person is. From what he described, the formula goes something like this:

If (sex = “female” and height > = 165cm) Or (sex = “male” and height > = 175cm) Then message = “I like your country’s Gangnam Style!”
End If

If (sex = “female” and height < 165cm) Or (sex = “male” and height < 175cm) Then message = “Your ancestors killed my people!”
End If

The anti-Japanese sentiment shouldn’t bother you too much, but if it does, be prepared to announce you are a huayi (ethnic Chinese of foreign nationality), repeatedly. I’ve heard that anti-Japanese sentiment is much higher in rural areas than in cities, but what would I know? They like my country’s Gangnam Style.

Pro or Con: Con

4) You blend in a little TOO well
My friend’s roommate was an Asian-American. One day, he decided to go out for a jog. He wore a light blue tracksuit that he brought over from the US, then jogged through the streets of Shanghai. During his jog, he was repeatedly stopped by the local Chinese. They would hand him their trash. He found out, too late, that the street cleaners in Shanghai wore the same light-blue uniforms. Although we ABCs can blend in with the local Chinese, we don’t really know the culture or the lifestyle. This means we are subject to the same social blunders as our non-Asian counterparts, but without the oft-relied upon “I’m just a crazy foreigner” excuse. Even when the locals learn we were born and raised in a different country, they still expect us to act far more Chinese than we do. One thing that bothered me far more than it should have was the utter lack of support I received when studying Chinese. Even after shutting myself in my room and studying furiously for several hours a day after class, I was still scolded by complete strangers for my accent or for misunderstanding a sentence here and there. Imagine my annoyance when I went to the mall with the worst student in the class and he received excessive praise for a simple ni hao.

Pro or Con: Con

5) You get paid less than white people do
A former classmate of mine applied for an English-teaching post at a small private school. She was born and raised in California and was a graduate of UC Berkeley, majoring in both English literature and history. When she applied for a job teaching English, however, she was told she could only receive half of a Caucasian teacher’s salary due to her Chinese heritage.

“Why?” she asked.
“You have an accent,” her interviewer replied.

The conversation was in English, because my classmate could not speak Chinese.

“But I don’t have an accent,” my classmate said, “listen to me speak.”

“Well, my English isn’t very good,” her interviewer admitted, “so I can’t tell whether or not your English sounds authentic.”

“How can I have a Chinese accent if I can’t even speak Chinese?”

“That is another problem. If you could speak Chinese, you could explain grammar rules to the students.”

Though the interviewer’s reasoning was unfair, I don’t blame her for offering my classmate a lower salary. My classmate’s Asian appearance would have hurt the school’s reputation. In a country as competitive as China, parents pay enormous amounts of money to push their children’s education. Much of that money goes into getting their children to learn English. Private schools see an opportunity to make money and promise “native speakers.” To the Chinese, a native English speaker is synonymous with someone white…anyone white, really. Foreigners from France, Germany, and Russia who do not even hold bachelor’s degrees, much less teaching certificates, are instructed to lie about backgrounds while qualified Asian candidates are paid a fraction of their salaries. Though this may sound disparaging, fear not: teaching English in Chinese private schools is shady business in general and your qualifications for those jobs do not affect your qualifications for more legitimate jobs. I myself have made plenty of extra cash from tutoring and from teaching adults at a software company—these jobs did not concern themselves with my physical appearance; instead, they focused on what I could offer.

Pro or Con: Con

6) You are more approachable to the Chinese
When I was hired for an office job at a Chinese company, I was immediately accepted by my fellow coworkers. They had no trouble approaching me to discuss an upcoming project. A few of the male employees even asked me for a date. I was invited to soccer games, basketball games, and even the company’s World of Warcraft group. The other foreigners at the company did not receive the same welcome as me. Most of them had no interaction with coworkers other than what was necessary for work. It wasn’t out of malicious intent—my Chinese coworkers were often too shy to approach them as they had approached me. Being able to connect to my Chinese coworkers was an incredible experience. Not only did I get to meet new people and make new friends, I also gained a better understanding of my workplace and its intricacies. I could share my opinions and impact the content in future company products. While the other foreigners did only what they were instructed to do, I was able to expand my duties. It would not have been possible had I not been approachable, and so the very things that hindered me during my stay in China were also the ones that helped me gain a better understanding of the country.

Pro or Con: Pro


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Keywords: Chinese American in China

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36 Comments ( Add your comment )


Hello, I'm also an ABC in China and have experienced some of the same issues mentioned in the article. The most difficult aspect I come across from being an ABC in the PRC is finding a job. Even though my English is perfect and my Mandarin is not bad, most employers I meet want someone who is "white". Do you have any ideas or suggestions on getting past this barrier?

Mar 02, 2013 00:21

I have this problem, too.

Mar 02, 2013 12:55

Ugh. Is this what is happening to me?! UGH. don't even have an "English" name.

Mar 02, 2013 13:08

try, universities or international schools, if all else fails try an agency

Mar 03, 2013 15:04

First, get an English name! Use your imagination! Or just try a standard one. It's not that hard. Second, try language centers, like WALL STREET. Big names, those hires only native speakers. Native speaker for them is NOT ONLY A WHITE FACE, for them your PASSPORT counts. Your passport makes you a native speaker in China not a white face. I am a "white face" not native speaker and my white face don't get me plenty of jobs.

Mar 06, 2013 23:02

I wonder if this would happen to me. I speak a bit of Cantonese and am horrible at Mandarin, but I am half chinese/white... many asians think I am Latino or Philipino.... I wonder how that would effect my chances of getting a teaching job.

Mar 02, 2013 00:43

It's Filipino. for your information.

May 03, 2014 09:13

This was a great article. You hit a lot of the points that can be funny and frustrating all at once.

Mar 02, 2013 02:58

Nice article. You write about things that we, as foreigners, would never think of or consider. Thanks.

Mar 02, 2013 12:31

about the pick pocketing thing. that is wrong and stupid. i've been in china for ove 3 years and i haven't been picked once. not because i'm black. because i pay attention and i secure my belongings. chinese people get picked all the damn time. so that negates your first point. the rest of the article is great though

Mar 02, 2013 21:08

being picked has nothing to do with being stupid or careful, trust me one day you will let your guard down and it will happen, you cant escape these fools they will wait for the perfect oportunity

Mar 03, 2013 15:07

I think depending on your familiarity with pickpocketing and protecting against it you will have more or less trouble with pickpocketing. Its not about being stupid. If you have never been around pickpockets before and don't know how they do their thing you won't be protected. I was not familiar with pickpockets and I was amazed at how well they could steal my phone from my front pants pocket in one case without my knowing until it was too late.

Mar 07, 2013 17:22

oh, crimochina is still alive? can someone break this thing's neck?

May 03, 2014 09:16

I agree, have never been pick pocketed before. Someone once tried. He was luckly I was getting off the bus. I only had time to slap his hand away. I find many Chinese people tend to have poor spacial awareness so they are easy targets for pickpockets.

May 03, 2014 10:58

It seems to me people who get pick pocketed, get pick pocketed a lot. They are doing something wrong. Also been in China 3 years, never pick pocketed. I secure my belongings well, try to stay out of arms reach of people, if I can't, I will put my hands in my pockets. Always use front pockets, tighter and deeper the better.

May 04, 2014 09:52

I experienced the same too but i survived. Theres still school who believe in true essence of Asian teachers. Keep it up!!!

Mar 02, 2013 23:54

There always seem to be issues you never think of until you experience them, or hear from someone who has. The issue of identity is a big one. Someone of Chinese ancestry can be seen as Chinese, and/or Asian, even if living in America. However, here in China, we see people of European ancestry as outsider. Europeans (European-Americans too) are always just "Foreigner", or called worse. They'll never be accepted as Chinese. We tend to even think that only yellow people can ever be Chinese. Even if Europeans live in China for years, or even if they were born here, they will always be just white foreigners living in China.

Mar 04, 2013 06:35

I might have liked this article if I could have gotten past the author's ridiculous belief that an American/Foreigner (or at least one worth mentioning) who is not Chinese/Asian/ABC/whatever is white.

Mar 04, 2013 23:09

The article sets out clearly explaining that this is a contrast and comparison between "foreign-looking" and "non-foreign-looking" non-Chinese living in China. Doesn't matter whether you write ABC, white, American, etc.

Mar 07, 2013 17:27

The notion that white people are automatically foreign, that white people = non-Chinese, and that only people of a certain ethnicity are Chinese (to the point where the term "Chinese" itself is used as a term ethnicity, such as "ABC") is at the very least nationalistic, right in line with groups like the British National Party (the BNP hold that only white, ethnically British people are truly able to be British, and all other races can only be foreigners living in Britain. That's not any different from the view that only yellow, ethnically Han Chinese can be considered really Chinese, and other races are just foreigners living in China). It would be as insulting as calling blacks in the United States "foreigners" because they aren't the right ethnicity. Now, there are people who consider Obama not really American, but those people are fringe racists, recognized as extreme-right nationalists. In China, it's the norm to think of people as being Chinese or "foreign" based on color.

Mar 07, 2013 20:10

Yet the article uses the word 'white' 7 times. Reason 5 even says: 5) You get paid less than white people do So no, the only thing "clear" is the strong implication that "non-foreign-looking non-Chinese" are white. Given that Chinese people (raised in China) think that way, I'm not at all surprised that a Chinese American would write from that same perspective.

Mar 19, 2013 09:45

what u just said doesnt make much sense...

Mar 21, 2013 02:27

@marinos Do elaborate...

Mar 21, 2013 14:41

First of all, ABC is a term I can only presume to be used by Chinese-Americans, to point out their ethnicity and where they're born, much similar to the British Born Chinese. Whether they consider themselves to be a Chinese national is a different thing entirely. Second, how dare you compare this with the BNP, whose policies not only deny foreigners the right to citizenship but actively try to "repatriate" these said foreigners back to where they came from. Do not confuse a person's pride in their ethnicity with an obstinately facist party.

Jun 29, 2013 09:15

One is ethnic nationalism, while the other is ethnic nationalism. The only difference is that the BNP is more honest about its fascist leanings. Question: How many times have you heard "Chinese born American" or "Chinese born British"? How often has someone been described as "Half British, half black", or "Half American, half yellow"? This author keeps describing Chinese as though it were an ethnicity (despite there being supposedly many different ethnicities in China. I say "supposedly", as anyone not Han Chinese is not considered "really Chinese", due to the ethnic nationalism), as though Chinese and white were comparable terms. China has the same policies and views. Those who are not yellow are not Chinese (notice the assumption you yourself make that white people are not Chinese, as thought only people of a certain race belong in China).

Jul 09, 2013 08:31
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