By Lizzie Chen
“White person, right there!” I shouted, trying to get the attention of a Caucasian male in his mid-twenties, as he walked past me amid the aromatic Chinese bakeries and restaurant stalls at the corner of Xin Hua and Ding Xi roads in Shanghai. I was hoping to make a friendly connection with a fellow foreigner, and thought there was a chance that he, like me, might be an American.
But here’s the thing: I am a Taiwanese American, and standing on that street corner in China, amid the honking taxis and thronging sidewalks, my fellow foreigner didn’t even glance in my direction before he hopped in a cab and zoomed away. To him, I guess, I was just another Asian face in the crowd.
I thought about that encounter a lot, and started to wonder what kind of childhood I would have had if I’d grown up in a country like China and not in Texas. There wouldn’t have been any name calling in grade school, at least of the ethnic kind. Kids wouldn’t have taunted me by pulling up the edges of their eyes to create almond shapes. I wouldn’t have heard friends and neighbors mouthing stereotypical Asian assumptions. Not in China.
To put it simply, traveling in China for 35 days this May and June raised questions about my ethnic identity that I had thought were long resolved. As a Taiwanese-American, growing up in Austin and Bastrop, the only ties I had to my heritage came through my family and family history was, I thought, settled. In China, I responded accordingly. When Chinese would ask me where my parents were from, I’d always answer: “My father is Native Taiwanese.”
When they automatically responded, “Oh! You are Chinese, just like me!” I rebelled at the thought. In the back of my mind, I was screaming, “No! I am not the same as you. My dad’s family are native Taiwanese. You guys migrated to Taiwan and are imposing your Chinese policies on us!” But instead, sticking to my Asian courtesy, I smiled back and said “Yes, yes, yes.”
It goes without saying, I suppose, that before landing in Beijing in late May, I had certain preconceived notions about the Chinese, their government and their lifestyle. When I first stepped off the plane, for example, I was struck by the strange emptiness of the airport. The first Chinese I came upon was a janitor in the restroom. She didn’t look Han Chinese, China’s dominant ethnicity, and when I smiled at her, no smile was returned. I thought she looked oppressed and felt as though I really was in a heavy handed communist country.
When I stepped outside the airport, however, and into China’s capital city of nine million people, my initial impressions began to quickly change, a process that continued to evolve for the next month. Talking to the citizens of the three locations we visited – Beijing, Xiejiaqiao, and Shanghai – I was shocked by the freedoms ordinary Chinese possess and the lives they lead, which are for the most part increasingly determined by the individual.
Whether I was reporting on someone’s personality as revealed in their craft or job or hearing their personal stories, I began to see the Chinese people as the kind and thoughtful individuals they are. It was interesting to see the different views by the different generations. Often the younger generation and taxi drivers would tell me that I am Chinese and not Taiwanese. When talking to the older volunteers who serve as neighborhood guards, one of them told me right off, “You look like you are Taiwanese!” There was a glitter of happiness in my heart when she said that.
Halfway through the trip, during one of the many concerned phone conversations I had with my mother, I discovered that my grandfather was from Henan, China, and not Taiwan as I had previously thought. He was one of the Chinese that followed the KMT party to Taiwan in the late 1940s after the communist takeover of the mainland. It was in Taiwan that he married my grandmother, a native Taiwanese. So there I was, halfway around the world from my home, when I found out I am a quarter Chinese! Eating Chinese food, walking in and out of shops, learning about the culture and traditions of China, I realized where much of my heritage had, in fact, come from.
During my time in Beijing, I swore I would never come back to such a polluted city – one that had given me a perpetual cough. But after visiting the countryside and meeting some of the most kind and genuine people ever, and going to Shanghai and meeting some of the most interesting people ever, I do plan on going back to explore China with an even more open mind.
Now I am back in smaller, quieter Austin, where, unlike Beijing or Shanghai, cars will stop for me to cross the street and people next to me understand English, when I say, “Look at that man picking his nose!” In the end, despite my new understanding of the Chinese people, I still wish for Taiwan’s independence, because I believe in the self-determination of my parent’s homeland, the democratic process and personal rights. Yet I was hoping for a kind of transformational journey – and I think I experienced it.