Negotiated Spaces

Words and photos by

kathleen chen

Navigating privilege and

identity in the diaspora

I’m looking through postcards in a souvenir shop in Qingdao when the shopkeeper comes over and asks me, “Where are you from?” This is a question that I’m used to hearing. Sometimes it comes from a place of ignorance, and sometimes it comes from a place of genuine interest, but it’s always loaded and complicated.

I reply vaguely that my family is from the South. The uncle then asks me if I’m from Fujian.

It was probably just a lucky guess on his part, but I entertain the idea that my heritage has left a legible mark. Could it be possible that some things persist? That, though my family left China generations ago, I still carry some trace of our province, of this country, with me?

Being Han Chinese in China carries a great deal of privilege. Being the ethnic majority means that the system is built with you in mind. Your belonging in the system is not up for debate and you have the privilege of not having to think about it at all.

When I visited China this summer, looking Chinese gave me the privilege of blending in. In contrast, my white friends always complained that people would stare at them and take pictures, sometimes without asking. While being photographed without your consent is no doubt an uncomfortable experience, underlying my friends’ “complaints” was their fascination with being treated like celebrities purely because of their whiteness. Despite China’s attempts to be seen as a major player in world politics facing off against the West, white privilege is built into its system and culture.

Privilege is something that the system decides for you, but how to respond to it is up to you. When you have privilege, it is unacceptable to bask in it without thinking carefully about it. An American I met in Beijing told me that he found it “adorable” that children wanted to take pictures with him and get his autograph, but he had accomplished nothing to warrant this level of attention other than being born white. Part of the problem is systemic and cultural, but his obliviousness to his privilege makes him complicit in the maintenance of the unequal status quo, because accepting attention simply for being white upholds the idea that West is Best.

In the same vein, it is imperative for me to examine my own privilege. In China, many people assumed that I was a local, or a tourist visiting from a different part of China. A lot of the time, I didn’t correct their assumptions. This was partially because I wanted to avoid being perceived as a foreign tourist, and because I was unwilling to reveal too much about myself to strangers, but I also wanted to see what it was like to have this degree of privilege and how others would treat me. However, this linguistic and cultural immersion felt voyeuristic at times. Though others defined this role for me, was I performing an identity? Was it problematic for me to play such a part if I know so little about where my family comes from?

More fundamentally, am I even allowed to call myself Chinese?

It’s only when I start to really answer the question of where I’m from that people get confused. Do I qualify as being Chinese if I am practically illiterate in Mandarin, if I forget the dates of Chinese holidays, and if what I know about Fujian consists of brief and hazy stories about communists taking away the house of my ancestors?
When I attended a language-exchange event at a university in Beijing, I introduced myself as having grown up in Canada, and told the group that I had decided to spend some time in China that summer with the intention of improving my Mandarin. In response to my self-introduction, somebody I’ll call Mansplaining Chinese Guy told me, “Though you may not identify with being Chinese, we still consider you to be Chinese. Isn’t it ironic that you’re coming to China to learn Chinese, while the majority of Chinese people want to go abroad to learn English?” He then proceeded to ask me where I had travelled in China, only to tell me that, in his opinion, the places I had chosen were not worth visiting, and that he “always recommends to foreigners” to visit such and such other place.
This guy that I had just met defined my identity for me with so much confidence and certainty. He seemed to believe that he had pinned it down, before he too became confused about whether to see me as Chinese or foreign.

I can understand where Mansplaining Chinese Guy is coming from—though, his comment is pointing to my immense political and economic privilege to be able to go between China and the West. And it is more than just geographical mobility; at times, I also have the privilege to distance myself from being Chinese.
It was relatively easy to identify as being Chinese while in China, because it was to my advantage to do so. Coming back to Canada, however, forced me to think more carefully about the implications of identifying as Chinese, because being Chinese is not something the West sees as desirable. The West is scared of a “Chinese invasion”—scared of Chinese people taking up spots in top universities, of Chinese people buying up real estate. Our accomplishments are cheapened; if we do well in school, it’s not because we’re hardworking or talented. Instead, it’s because we have “tiger moms” who force us to go to extra tutoring.

This racism and xenophobia played out recently at UofT, when The Varsity launched a Chinese translation of the paper after being approached by “a club run by Chinese international students for Chinese international students—with an ambitious proposal for a new way of engaging international Chinese students in campus media.” I was excited for this major step towards explicit inclusion of the Chinese student population at UofT, but a quick look at online comments demonstrated to me that acceptance and inclusion are still a long way away. One Facebook comment reads: “This is not multiculturalism/diversity. This is culture imperialism/invasion.”
This was also happening on Reddit: “This is so fucking shameful. What’s the purpose of TOEFL? What’s the reason why they come to UofT, knowing it’s an anglo school? Is it because [they] think this is a pathway to citizenship? That you can buy your citizenship through this institution just like you can buy your essays, assignments and extra tutoring to get the degree you are also paying for? A one stop shop?”

The fact that anti-Chinese racist sentiments are held by our peers is disappointing, but not at all surprising. The first commenter sees Chinese students as “other” and views their participation in campus media as an external takeover of student spaces; this person does not consider Chinese students to be UofT students who are worthy of representation in student media, and who deserve to play an active role in shaping campus narratives.

The second comment makes assumptions about people’s intentions, and stems from the stereotype that Chinese people are obsessed with grades and are willing to do anything to do well academically. It also dismisses the effort and hard work of Chinese students, claiming that, just because they are Chinese, their achievements must have been bought.

But most of all, these commentators are scared of the fundamental idea of translation. This is one of the most common taunts directed towards minorities: “Learn English.” The sentiment that we shouldn’t make integration any easier for these students is absurd, arrogant, and mean-spirited.

Moreover, the assumption that Chinese students don’t speak English well, or that they are not making enough effort to learn English, is racist. The assumption that students who communicate amongst themselves in Chinese must speak English poorly is unfair and illogical. Having a Chinese accent means that you have to work harder to demonstrate “proficiency” because the accent itself—and not actual linguistic execution—is seen as incorrect.

These comments are not directed at me. I have the privilege to feel angry, and not attacked or fearful.

Though people sometimes come up to talk to me in Mandarin, most of the time, I am perceived as being Chinese-Canadian. Because of my upbringing, I have not had to experience many of the struggles that Chinese students put up with, which is why I feel uncomfortable occupying some of the spaces that Chinese students set aside for themselves—and I wonder whether the linguistic space of identifying as Chinese counts as one such space.

There have certainly been instances when I have made the choice to distance myself from my ethnicity. In addition to the reality that my identification with being Chinese is tenuous and up for debate, I have not always been proud of being Chinese, and it is often easier to erase and neutralize my racialized experiences.

But on the other hand, am I really that privileged if I’m asking myself these questions? The Western system sees me as a Chinese stereotype, but I also have a superficial understanding of the nuances of what it means to be Chinese. Perhaps, rather than ranking levels of oppression, it is more productive to say that, compared to my Chinese peers who moved here more recently, I experience oppression differently. Though I may be able to choose how I self-identify, ultimately, I don’t get to choose how the system perceives me. The system is unaware and indifferent to the complications of my identity.

Going to China this summer certainly complicated my view of the country and my understanding of my own identity. But on that trip, I also learned a word that provides a working solution to my issue of identification: hua yi, a term which refers to a person of Chinese origin living overseas. It’s a powerful word. It provides an opening into my experiences living outside of China, without discounting the validity of my ethnicity. It’s a space that I feel comfortable occupying; a space made for me, that accepts all the variations and nuances that come with living in the diaspora.

And when people ask me where I’m from, replying that I’m hua yi allows me to summarize my experiences, dilemmas, and doubts about being Chinese but not quite Chinese, without simplifying my story.