Pros and Cons of Being a Chinese American Living in China

Pros and Cons of Being a Chinese American Living in China
May 03, 2014 By Ailsa Zheng ,

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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Apr 05, 2021 20:45 Report Abuse



There is hope for ABC and BBC people for finding teaching jobs as an ESL teacher!

Aug 27, 2018 15:21 Report Abuse



Yeah! I am totally agreed with this person there is hope for ABC and BBC people for finding teaching jobs as an ESL teacher!

Aug 31, 2018 20:55 Report Abuse



I would surely work on skin-whitening from now on...and perhaps open my eyes a little more to make them appear bigger and appear more Western. Funny.

Aug 22, 2016 00:10 Report Abuse



Tough one.

Oct 16, 2015 17:54 Report Abuse



Comradova commented that: "Writers can only really write about what they know". Does that not defeat the whole point of writing? Journalism is not only about what you know, but also about what you can discover and investigate. Essentially, the point here is that the article was written in poor fashion from a perspective that leaves me wondering if this 'writer' actually got paid.

Aug 04, 2014 16:33 Report Abuse



You are a self-righteous moron. Get over yourself. F.Y.I - referring to someone as 'the ginger' is not something that your editor should pass as appropriate use of language to describe a 'white' person. I am ashamed to say I actually read your entire article. What a waste of precious space.

May 05, 2014 22:26 Report Abuse



Hey at least you're still "american" chinese, as a chinese from indonesia all i got is the shitty treatment without the ass kissing part because i'm from a 3rd world country lol.

May 05, 2014 05:29 Report Abuse



Nice article! I've been living in China for 7 years now. At first I got that, "Oh, you're Korean" thing. And the increased expectation to learn the language simply based on my appearance. I found that it was a great impetus to learn though. Most certainly a motivating factor. I'm going to, however, disagree with your point about the assumption that disdain comes if they think someone is either Korean or Japanese. They love and they loathe the Japanese. They think Koreans are cute but a bit dumb. I was just told by a cab driver last night that my Mandarin is more "standard" than most in the region. 成功了!I occasionally get terrible treatment from Chinese women because they think I'm from here. I'm not sure exactly what they're thinking. Maybe I'm not standardly beautiful enough to have as handsome a fella as I do; I'm putting on airs by being polite (sorry, I'm Canadian), or reading an English newspaper (and it's only because it's easier!). They're often very classist, and I dare say self-loathing. Thanks for writing this. There were lots of bits where I could really identify. :)

May 03, 2014 15:56 Report Abuse



Your article is quite interesting. In fact, there are several points that are so true. For example getting paid less for a teaching job or being rejected because the appearance. I've seen some schools and parents who prefer to choose teachers with "foreigner" appearance who don't master English at all over qualified ABC teachers. The worst is sometimes those so-called teachers with the "right" appearance are needing English classes themselves. Their students may end up speaking English with Russian, Spanish, French, whatever accent that's not English. That's what happened to a kid: his English teacher at his formal school complained to the parents about the kid's accent and expressions.

Mar 07, 2013 14:51 Report Abuse



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 Report Abuse



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 Report Abuse



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 Report Abuse



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 Report Abuse



what u just said doesnt make much sense...

Mar 21, 2013 02:27 Report Abuse



@marinos Do elaborate...

Mar 21, 2013 14:41 Report Abuse



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 Report Abuse



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 Report Abuse



@nusat.... 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..... have you ever tried to live in China, get visas, even if you have Chinese family, you are still considered an outsider because you don't look like one of them or were stupid enough to marry into this country of hate? It is exactly what race hate groups bleat on about. Only difference is that this one runs the country.

May 03, 2014 01:46 Report Abuse



I think it was just the author's experience. She probably doesn't have (m)any other friends she regularly hangs out with of varying shades of skin tone. Writers can only really write about what they know.

May 03, 2014 15:38 Report Abuse



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 Report Abuse



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 Report Abuse



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 Report Abuse



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 Report Abuse



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 Report Abuse