Clarissa Wei: An American in disguise in rural China

Clarissa Wei: An American in disguise in rural China

Vacationing in the Gobi Desert is hard. American? Chinese? Nobody really knows what you are

I’m American, not Chinese. 

I refuse to even use the hyphenated term Chinese-American.

I was born in the United States and raised in Los Angeles. Though some ABCs (American-born Chinese) want to be recognized as “real Chinese,” I don’t.

In fact, I’d imagine it would be offensive to the Chinese if I were called a “real Chinese.” It would be a total lie.

My parents immigrated from Taiwan in 1990 with pharmaceutical degrees and very limited English.

But before moving to Shanghai for school, I had little to no connection to China. I wasn’t familiar with Chinese holidays, couldn’t tell you the name of the current Chinese president, and didn’t even know the name of the last Chinese dynasty.

I’m as American as the white kid down the hall who moved to China the same time as me. I insist on telling people I’m American because that’s what I am.

However, this concept simply did not fly throughout my trip to rural China this past autumn.

You’re Chinese

“You’re lying to me,” my guide said to me in Mandarin after I told him I was American. I was a bit offended.

“She’s American, you’re not,” he said, pointing at my friend Becca, who is a towering 188 centimeters with brown hair and equally brown eyes.

I was in Dunhuang, an oasis in the middle of the Gobi Desert. Cars were few and all the locals knew each other. People grew their own produce and farmers drove down the street with wagons full of freshly picked grapes.

Becca and I were on camels en route to the sand dunes and our guide was a cheery Dunhuang native who embodied every definition of a rural Chinese man. No older than 50, he had rough, tan skin. He was simple, rooted in his family and never traveled outside of China.

Clarissa Wei in DunhuangAn unwavering American girl venturing in the Gobi Desert.The concept of an Asian being American was foreign to him.

“Your Chinese is too good,” he said.

Americans were the people he'd seen in movies. Like my friend Becca, they had white skin and large eyes. My skin and my language were too similar to his and by association, there was no way I was American.

This sort of disbelief went on for the entire trip.

Though I blended in easily with the locals whenever I was alone, Becca definitely did not. And by association whenever I was with her, I became equally as strange to the people we encountered.

Americans were the people he'd seen in movies. They had white skin and large eyes. My skin was similar to his. There was no way I was American.

“Are you her translator?”

I looked behind me and there were two Chinese men, no older than 30, staring at Becca and me.

“No, I’m her friend,” I explained.

This happened a couple more times. Because the city was so small and we stood out, people who had seen us the day before would approach us and ask me about my background: Why was I with Becca? Why didn’t I have an accent when I spoke English?

Street vendors asked whether or not I was an English teacher.

At one point during the trip I found myself in between an Australian family and a group of Chinese businessmen, trying to explain my background in two different languages.

I’m American

The concept of being an American who is ethnically Chinese has not yet trickled down to rural China.

People don’t get it. Perhaps it’s the lack of Asian-American representation in the mainstream media or just cultural isolation, but it’s frustrating.

It’s frustrating when you’ve undergone the exact same education and upbringing as the kid next door, only to travel to China and have people insist that you’re not American.

The skin tone and language of a person does not determine their nationality; their upbringing does.

I’ve consumed as much McDonald's as any other American; I’ve couch-potatoed it in front of the television as much as any other American; and I’ve celebrated as many Hallmark holidays as any other.

My Chinese-ness comes only from my ethnic background. But to the people I encountered in rural China, this somehow made me less American than my friend Becca, who is, on the flip side, ethnically and culturally Jewish.

More on CNNGo: Jane Leung: Tired of not being 'Chinese enough'

To the people in China, America is literally a “beautiful country” (mei guo, 美国).

It’s beautiful for its diversity of people and culture. And part of that beauty is that anyone, regardless of his or her upbringing and cultural background can be American.

That’s why I insist on going through the inconvenience of telling people in Dunhuang that I’m completely American. I refuse to be stripped of my American identity because of the color of my skin.

I’m not a banana. I’m not yellow on the outside and white on the inside. I’m merely a proud shade of red, white and blue.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Clarissa Wei.


Clarissa Wei is a freelance journalist based in New York and Los Angeles.

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