I am American. At least that’s what I try to say when kids and adults ask me “what are you? Where are you from?” Sometimes I receive nods and awkward following silences. Other times I receive confused stares in response: “If you’re American, why do you look just like us?”
This week was the first full week of teaching at the Zhuhai No. 9 Middle School and the first week of extracurricular classes. I learned 3 main things this week:
1) I am mosquito Mecca and I should religiously spray highly concentrated DEET. I’ve accumulated more than thirty (yes I counted) mosquito bites on my legs; so much that every time I walk into someone’s house, the host pitifully shoves a new bug bite ointment into my hands to treat my poor legs.
2) Some of the No. 9 students might not know English very well, but they sure do know the lyrics to “See You Again” by Charlie Puth.
3) When students ask me “are you Chinese?” they’re actually asking “are you from China?”
When some of my English class students saw me, they would ask “are you Chinese?”. At first, I would answer “yes, I am Chinese,” but the immediate question that would follow would always be “when did you leave China for America?” or “how long did you live in China before going to America?” I was confused, because why would they assume that I had lived in China before? I then had the realization that the diversity that I have been exposed to is extremely different than that of my middle school students in Zhuhai. As someone who was born and raised in America, I am accustomed to seeing people of many ethnicities everywhere I go, knowing that they possibly live in the U.S. and are not simply tourists from other countries. With my higher exposure to diversity, I have the instinct to think that all these people with various ethnic backgrounds can be one nationality: American. However, in Zhuhai, the population is much more homogenous, where everyone is of similar backgrounds and any foreigner warrants a long glance by passersby on the street. My middle school students probably have not been exposed to the amount of diversity I have been able to experience back in America, and thus they may not as easily see right away that me, an Asian girl that has similar features as they do, can be someone not from China. This made me realize that the diversity that I observe everyday in American society was something that I had been taking for granted. How lucky am I, to be able to perceive many different colors, races, identities, and still see them as one?
Which brings me to my next dilemma: appearing Chinese but being American. Though I do not look like what my students consider a “typical American” to look like (blonde hair, blue eyes, etc. according to some of my students), I have experienced a unique fusion of Asian and American culture, and therefore can offer my students in Zhuhai a taste of American culture from my point of view. I am not quite sure if my students see me as someone that can satisfy their curiosities about American life/culture because I seem so similar to them. Yes, I can understand Chinese and yes, I can communicate in Chinese, but I’ve also spent nineteen years going through the American education system, celebrated Fourth of Julys under the blazing sun at 4-H Fairs, shoveled two-feet of snow from my driveway for four-hours after a blizzard, and laughed at memes that I scrolled through on my Facebook feed (I am very cultured indeed). Many of my Zhuhai No. 9 students are fantastic and eager kids that I’ve really grown to love over the past week (some have bought me snacks when I’ve most needed the energy!), and I hope that they’ll be able to see me as someone that can just as whole-heartedly contribute to this cultural exchange for the next several weeks to come.