Saturday, September 4, 2010

On being a Chinese-American 外教 (waijiao, or Foreign Teacher) in China

I write this post with some hesitation, mainly because I have only been in Changsha for about a week and a half and I haven't even started teaching.

However, I hope the initial reactions to my race from the Changsha locals and my colleagues at Yali are not representative of what is to come.

Being Chinese-American in China can be difficult; some local people just cannot comprehend how you can look Chinese and yet be of another nationality, or not be able to speak Chinese fluently (in this case, the Hunan dialect). I've found the phrase 美际华人 (Chinese-American) to be useful most of the time, but even with this rather black-and-white identifier, I still encounter folks who nod their head knowingly, only to say, "我就知道, 你是中国人" (I knew it, you are Chinese). When I go out with the other 外教, people we meet assume that I am a tour guide or a translator. It is not an uncommon experience for Chinese-Americans in China, but as you can imagine, this is (more than) slightly frustrating.

Compounded by the fact that I can be young looking, it makes every introduction very strenuous. I have to politely deny that I am a student, that I am Chinese, and that, no, I am not 18--or sometimes, 16--but rather 22, very close to 23. I have to bear the murmurs that arise at the beginning, people questioning my background. Very quickly, it gets very old, very tiring.

Having said all this, I am trying not to be bitter. I think I do understand where much of the confusion and curiosity comes from. It isn't common for the locals to encounter ethnically-Chinese people who are not Chinese, so why would they assume differently when they first meet me? In fact, when a stranger comes up to me instead of the other teaching fellows, his or her instinct is correct--my Chinese language skills, while not anything to boast about, is probably the best among the Yali 外教 (thank you Yale Chinese classes and Light Fellowship!).

My main concern is my students: How will they respond to the fact that I am Chinese-American? Will my race become a factor in my classroom? How do I control that, or use it for my benefit?

1 comment:

Terrence said...

I don't think I can do a commiseration justice in a comment, but I feel you. It's different, of course, here in Europe, but I'm really, really tired of being judged for how I look, and not how I sound or act.

Funnily enough, my father got the same treatment in Japan when he was there a while, as they refused to believe he wasn't Japanese. I know it's no consolation and doesn't make it suck less, but hey, your dad's been dealing with it for four months and I'm alive (if weary and headed home asap), ne?

Use it to make jokes, son, when you're abroad you have to lose a bit of the american pc-ness.