Flocculent magnolia clouds were all scattered in a backdrop of cerulean blue. There exists a pavilion, bolstered by the Garden’s iconic ‘Couple Bridge’, perched on the stale river. Still waters run deep. If you stand here long enough, the zephyr may gently caress your cheeks. But its touch is teasing: this is perhaps the only company you’ll get for now. The tour guide approaches and inquires, “Which part of Guangdong Province are you from?”
“I am with the rest of them. I’m a student at Duke University in the USA.” My response was inevitably laced with annoyance. Far too often, I’ve had to re-assert aspects of my identity while confronting uninformed assumptions from the locals. He was unconvinced. “I know you’re from Duke. But where in China are you from… originally? I can tell you know… you look just like one of us!” I could also be from Japan, Korea, and various parts of Southeast Asia. And I could possibly hail from Europe or the African Continent. “My ancestors from 6 generations ago lived in Taishan, Guangdong. At some point in time, they migrated to Singapore. I was born and bred there.” He nodded, and then proceeded to inspect the lilies and lotuses adorning this Chinese Garden in Zhongshan.
I am more than comfortable when people here choose not to identify me as ‘American’ – I am not one, and will certainly not become one. Nonetheless, I do find their dismissal of yours truly (simply because I am not immediately foreign) problematic, since their blatant displays of nonchalance makes me feel slighted and inconsequential; it impedes me from making the effort to interact and socialize with them. Duke Engage Zhuhai has received immense publicity on local news media and our presence has stirred much excitement amongst the local community. My face rarely makes it onto these news reports or interviews. Here, I don’t look exotic enough to perpetuate that exhilaration that foreign, American guests putatively proffer. If I am featured in a photograph, it’ll appear as if I were one of them – said image would not be representative of international cultural exchange, would it?
A student at Jilin University Zhuhai offhandedly mentioned that she didn’t come up to introduce herself initially because she thought I was Chinese. Others expressed their surprise (in Cantonese) upon seeing Asians since they had been promised ‘American students from Duke University’. Understandably, our appearance was contrary to their expectations. But my expectations have, too, been disappointed at the epiphany that many of the locals I’ve met seem to view the world with coloured lenses. Further, they speak of the United States fondly – most are compelled to think of the USA as a land that generates wealth; it is where dreams come true. I have been the last pick one too many times when we had to partner up with our host students during visits. Instead of speaking with a Singaporean who understands their language, I heard a few of them comment on how it was ‘more authentic to go for someone who’s actually American, even if he or she looks Chinese’.
I asked a friend about his thoughts on why I’m usually ‘the last pick’. He noted that it wasn’t an issue of my Chinese ethnicity, nor was it because of my nationality. He offered that I should take the initiative to befriend others rather than play hard to get. He highlighted that it was imperative for me to show my genuine interest in them. I remember trying. Five weeks ago, I tried so hard and was dreadfully tired from all that forced smiling and cordiality. Yet each and every attempt acquainted me with new stereotypes and assumptions others had of me, and I don’t remember liking any of those; I only remember that they hurt, and that they repeatedly challenged my self-esteem.
I am alone on the bridge. It is noon and the winds have come and gone. The sun’s glare strikes me in the eye and a sudden thought accosts me: was coming here a mistake? Did my ‘unauthentic’ presence short-change the local students’ Duke Engage experience? Would I have been treated differently in Ireland, Thailand, Guatemala or Jordan?