The Spectrum: We’re more similar than different

Dani Zhang, Columnist

When I tell people I am from China, they immediately jump to conclusions. “I don’t hear an accent from you,” a college friend observed in a deeply analytical tone. “Where did you learn English?” the doctor at the Health Office asked as she plunged a vaccine needle into my arm. “Your English is very good,” a student in my residential college said.

Their reactions suggest my Chinese heritage means I should not have an American accent. They assume I should have trouble speaking English and my culture should be different than America’s. Due to these reactions, the desire to both distance myself far away from the stereotypical Chinese persona and defend my Chinese heritage has welled up inside of me.

On the one hand, I want to remove myself from the perpetual foreigner stereotype. On the other, I want to be proud of my ethnic background. These two parts of who I am are in constant conflict with each other, and I am left in a state of frustration.

When I am seen hanging out with a group of Chinese people, whether Chinese-American or Chinese-local, I feel a sense of guilt. Enjoying my time with these people almost confirms a stereotype: Chinese people stick together. By fitting a descriptor of the stereotypical Chinese persona, I feel like I am affirming the misconception that we are intrinsically different from Americans, further preventing Chinese people from integrating into America.

Outwardly Asian-looking people like me feel as though they must prove to “the Americans” that we are “one of them.” I feel an urge to prove that my English is fluent, that I’ve watched “The Godfather” and “It’s a Wonderful Life” and that I know whether In-N-Out is better than Shake Shack. If I don’t, people may see Chinese accents and a refusal to interact with the American culture, among other stereotypes. We feel the need to attain approval because we start off at an unequal standing. We do not want to be perpetual foreigners, always seen as outsiders because of our outward appearances.

I spent my early childhood in North America. For the past eight years, I attended the Shanghai American School, an international school in Shanghai with a Western education system. At international schools, students are typically multilingual, with English as their primary language. We are taught in English and we socialize in English. Most of us are American citizens. Most of us applied to American universities. The only difference between us and American students is that we happened to live in Asia growing up.

There appear to be two different kinds of Chinese people: Chinese-Americans and Chinese locals. Unfortunately, there is a negative perception of Chinese locals. Chinese-Americans are considered reconcilable with American society, but Chinese locals are considered alien or intrinsically different.

I’ve lived in three countries and traveled to over 12. My takeaway is that we humans are more similar than we are different. I, with a background that fails to fit neatly under the categories of either Chinese-American or Chinese local, find myself simplifying my background to help Americans understand me: “I grew up in North America, though.” “My high school had AP and IB courses like you guys.” “English is my primary language.” By translating my background into terms that Americans will understand, I feel myself losing my identity.

As a person with a multinational background, I never associated myself with a singular country or group of people. I can only speak to my own experiences, but I believe that no one ever feels they fit completely within a single category. Nerds, Northwestern students, debaters, sports enthusiasts, writers, Americans, blacks, whites, Latinos, Chinese — we are all part of groups, but humans are far more complex than a few simple categorizations would suggest.

Once that is understood, we should express our understanding by adjusting our language and behavior. Our word choices should be articulated so that, rather than marginalize people, we are opening common ground for sharing and understanding each other’s experiences. Only then can Chinese people and Americans alike expand their understanding of each other.

Dani Zhang is a Communications first-year. She can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.