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Not Chinese enough in China? Chinese-Americans caught between 2 worlds

A shopper at a Beijing Adidas outlet prepares to buy a souvenir Jeremy Lin Knicks t-shirt.Brittany Tom

BEIJING – Asian-Americans continue to be the fastest growing ethnic population in the U.S., according to U.S. Census Bureau statistics released on Wednesday.

The data, which come weeks ahead of Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month in May, also demonstrates how integral a part of the American fabric Asians have been. As many as 1.5 million businesses in the U.S. are owned by Asians. More than a quarter million have served in the U.S. military. And nearly half of the Asian-American electorate voted in the 2008 presidential election.

And yet while generations of Asians have integrated into American society, a small but growing number of the 3.8 million Asian-Americans of Chinese descent are finding themselves in mainland China to study or to work.

Especially since the 2008 global economic crisis, many ethnic Chinese are seeking economic opportunities in China as emigrants. Almost all are also motivated by cultural heritage interests.

At the same time, Jeremy Lin's popularity has reignited discussions about identity among Chinese-Americans that are unlikely to wane as quickly as Linsanity.

One writer for the sports website Grantland hit on the issue during the height of Lin hype last month: "These have been a revealing two weeks, not only for the Asian-American community or the Ivy League basketball community or the talent evaluator committee, but also for the watchdogs, handwringers, and pulpit-thumpers. Not since Barack Obama's presidential campaign has there been so much national discussion about the appropriateness of discussing race."

And in China, where many American-born Chinese have gravitated over the past few years, race and nationality intersect in interesting, sometimes confusing, ways.

Brittney Wong feels "even less Chinese" in China than she expected.

"I realized how American I am," said the 23-year old Seattle native, who recently arrived in Beijing for a year-long intensive Chinese language course. "Which is strange, because I just assumed I would just blend in perfectly here."

Cultural disconnect
But in trying to befriend local Chinese, Wong came to see that "learning about their experiences in high school and their lives, how they lived so far, [are] so different from my experiences. Even their personalities."

The cultural disconnect is compelling enough to have provided some inspiration for a new feature-length film.

Daniel Hsia is a Los Angeles-based filmmaker who has just wrapped up production for "Shanghai Calling," a movie about American expats in Shanghai. "The world is turning on its head. Expectations are being reversed all the time," said Hsia.

In the movie, the main protagonist is a Chinese-American executive whose employer sends him to Shanghai. "I thought it would be more interesting to have the character [be] of Chinese descent but completely ignorant of Chinese culture. It just creates more conflict. It's more interesting to watch a character who looks like he fits in but doesn't."

Sometimes the cross-culture experience makes people feel even more American.

"In many ways, being in China has caused me to have a strong appreciation for just how American I am," said Jason Chu, a 25-year old Delaware native. "It has helped me come to terms or embrace the positive aspects of being distinctly Asian-American."

Chu is wrapping up two years in Beijing, where he has been dividing his time between serving as a pastor and writing music. The child of ethnic Chinese parents from Malaysia and Thailand, he grew up speaking English and began learning Chinese in college in the U.S. 

Speaking fluent Chinese, Chu has found, is perhaps the most critical determinant of authenticity. "There is this sort of disappointment that many Chinese-Americans are familiar with, where if you look Chinese or people know you're Chinese and your Chinese language isn't good, you're less of a person," he said.

Writer Gish Jen, on a recent trip to Beijing, recalled similar reactions when she first visited the mainland in the 1980s.

"In the early days, I used to feel they were quite critical," said Jen, one of a handful of hyphenated American novelists who led the multicultural wave of fiction in the U.S. in the early 1990s. "They saw me as a sort of fallen Chinese… You don't even speak Chinese, what's the matter with you."

Asian body with a Western mind
Although Jen believes mainstream Chinese attitudes toward overseas Chinese such as herself have improved, she thinks many still fail to understand what it means to be American.

"I don't think they understand what it means to be in between [China and the U.S.]," she explained.

The Chinese "don't distinguish between nationality and ethnicity," said Chu. "They don't understand that it's possible to have an Asian body but a Western mind."

That seemed to be the case when U.S. Ambassador to China Gary Locke arrived on the mainland last year. Some Chinese media commentators and bloggers voiced expectations that Locke, an ethnic Chinese born in the U.S., would be more sympathetic to Beijing's point of view. When it became clear that he was here to represent America, some of those same voices accused him of betrayal. One critic called him a "fake foreign devil who cannot even speak Chinese."

For Chinese-Americans like Chu, being in China means more about being American and behaving more overtly like an American. "I dress more differently [than the Chinese here]," he said. "I over-emphasize my foreignness."

Sense of apartness
Similarly, Toronto native Lili Gao thinks living in China has brought out a sense of apartness that she said she never experienced growing up in Canada.

"I never had any cultural identity issues in Canada. I speak Chinese, but I'm Canadian," said Gao, who was born in Shanxi before moving to Canada when she was 6 years old. "But then, coming back here, I realized I really was not Chinese. That was an interesting experience to have a clearer idea of identity."

As with many other Westernized Chinese, Gao found the issue of identity to be rooted in communication.  Although she speaks fluent Mandarin, the young marketing executive said that social culture was a large hurdle. 

"I couldn't possibly get used to it…the way people interact [here,]" she said. "The Chinese have a different way of communicating" that is not simply about language.

Now, having lived in Beijing for five years and working at Chinese companies, Gao finds herself "over-interpreting all the time, even when I'm communicating with foreigners!"

For someone like Jonny Chin, an 18-year-old senior at an international school in Beijing, it's simply that his American identity is much stronger. Even though he was only 6 years old when his parents, originally from Hong Kong, moved the family to China from San Francisco – meaning he has spent two-thirds of his life in Beijing.

"I still refer to America as home," he said. "Like when I say I'm 'going home' for Christmas. And when people ask, 'Where are you from?' I say I'm from the U.S."

With additional research from Brittany Tom and Isabella Zhong 

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