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When I first moved to America for college two years ago, I had no problem proudly declaring my Chinese heritage. Fall Quarter of freshman year revealed no shortage of small talk, and anytime somebody asked me where I was from, I never hesitated to answer Shanghai, China.
Although I was born and raised in China, I was removed from what it means to really be a native Chinese person. My family has Canadian citizenship, I went to an international school, I hung out among the “expat” community of Shanghai and I rarely dealt with the difficulties commonly associated with living in China. Yet being Chinese was the only identity I knew, and it was the identity I proclaimed in Evanston.
Fast forward two years. I am currently studying abroad in France, and the answer to the same question is not coming as easily. Shopkeepers, waiters and everybody else are keen to know where I’m from. Yet every time I’m confronted with this question, I hesitate a little and answer with a neutral, “I go to school in Chicago.” Sure, having lived in the States for the past two years, I’ve grown attached to the city, but I’m not truly from Chicago either. For some reason, I find it convenient to simply give the Chicago answer than going into the more lengthy Shanghai explanation.
I often hear, “But you speak English so well,” or, “Why did you give yourself an English name?” or my personal favorite, “But you are so American!” which contrary to popular belief, is not a compliment, but I digress. I never had a problem explaining these things to my classmates back in Evanston, and I am by no means ashamed of my Chinese identity. Yet who I am seems to have changed when I’m in a different country.
I thought maybe this was a common experience for international students studying abroad. Another Northwestern student in the same program who went to international school in Beijing shared similar sentiments. “We’re surrounded by ‘loud obnoxious Americans’ anyway,” she said, “and the French think we’re all the same. So it’s easier to just go along with it.”
I soon noticed that people treat me differently depending on whether I am alone or with a group of friends. Whenever I walk into a store alone, shopkeepers welcome me with lukewarm greetings and condescending looks as if I were one of the typical Chinese tourists believed to be plaguing the streets of Paris. However, when I’m with a group of friends, the reaction we get from the French is completely different. When we visited a bar a while ago, people would come up to us and speak to us in a tone that wasn’t unfriendly yet not genuinely welcoming either. Where are we from? Chicago. Are we on spring break? No, we’re here to study, and no it’s September. After the bartender gave us some novelty gifts that advertise the bar, he asked us in a joking, but almost accusing tone, “Why aren’t we acting American enough?” Was he expecting us to dance on tables and lift our shirts up to yell “Woooh” in a style befitting of a “Girls Gone Wild” video? Or was he waiting for us American girls to make fools of ourselves in his bar?
However I introduce myself, neither answer seems to satisfy the Parisian imagination. Do I want to be put in the mold of the “typical Chinese” or the “typical American”? Am I simply choosing the response that would elicit the least amount of negative reaction?
But why should I be so afraid of their perception of what it means to be Chinese? Shouldn’t I be even stronger in proclaiming my Chinese identity, just to prove their misconceptions wrong? I have realized I should never shy away from declaring the identity I take so much pride in just because of some misconstrued stereotype of the “typical Chinese.”
The “be proud of who you are” message may seem trite and overused, but in reality this really is easier said than done.
The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.