Awfully over-generalized. Alienated. Exotified. Confused. Mysterious. People over there.
These are the phrases that pop into my head when I think about the Asian population in the United States. I understand that I don’t have the right to use my own Asian-ness to talk about the experience of an Asian American. As an international student from China, although I have spent the most important years of my adolescence in the U.S., my cultural and racial experience still differ from that of Asian Americans in so many ways. I grew up as a part of the majority group in the society; I have never been considered “different” in China because of my appearance; I have never been discriminated against in my home country because of the way I talk, the food I eat, or the clothes I wear; I speak Chinese loudly and proudly and have never been forced to learn another language to survive. Therefore, I am examining the racial experience of Asian Americans through my own perspective, the view of an outsider, a foreigner, a Chinese person.
“Count your privilege,” I have heard of this phrase repeatedly at Davidson. When I use my own experience to examine the racial experience of Asian Americans, I understand my privileges. As an international student from China, I believe it is my privilege to be an actual foreigner, especially Chinese, in the United States. Let me explain one of my recent interactions.
When I was visiting my Asian American relatives in Irvine, California, I went to a Barnes & Noble bookstore near their house. As I was waiting to check out, there was a white lady standing in line behind me. She was talking to the person (maybe her husband or a friend) next to her about a “Chinese proverb” that says, “once an adult, twice a child.” However, that person hadn’t heard about that proverb and didn’t seem to understand. She then turned to me, of course, as I was peacefully minding my own business, and asked: “Do you know if there is that Chinese proverb?” I shrugged and answered her: “Sorry, I don’t think I have heard of that.” (To be honest, I don’t think that is a real Chinese proverb). After she heard my voice, she raised her eyebrows and said: “Wow! Your English is really good. You don’t even have an accent. Welcome to America.”
“Count your privilege,” I have heard of this phrase repeatedly at Davidson. When I use my own experience to examine the racial experience of Asian Americans, I understand my privileges. As an international student from China, I believe it is my privilege to be an actual foreigner, especially Chinese, in the United States.
It was not the first time I have been complemented with “your English is really good,” or “you don’t have an accent” by a person I have just met, a person who doesn’t know my nationality but just acted upon their assumption. It was not the first time I have been assumed to be Chinese either.
Because I am a Chinese citizen, unlike an Asian American, I do not have to take any offense in this interaction. I mean, I don’t have a sticker pinned to my chest that says, “Hello, I am from China,” but that lady guessed it right. It is a good thing that I am not Japanese or Korean; It is a good thing that I was actually born in a different country and am not just from right across the street (considering the giant Asian American population in California). It is a good thing that English is indeed my second language, and I do take what she said as a compliment. It is a good thing that I do speak Chinese and know my culture, so I would not have been caught off guard by her question. Good. Good for her. Her assumptions were validated, instead of challenged. Her perception of the Asian populations in the U.S. was yet again affirmed, instead of expanded. However, it is bad, bad for Asian Americans. They are put in the same category with me, labeled as “foreign,” or more specifically, “Chinese,” despite of their citizenship, ethnicity, family history, and generational residence on this land. Their sovereignty is negated, their stories unheard, and their presence erased. No, I do not have a right to use my own Asian-ness to speak for Asian Americans, but my encounters with these trivial comments scream something louder regarding their racial experiences — They have been yet again overly generalized, exotified, and erased in American society.
It is a privilege of mine to be Chinese and my ownership of a red passport makes my social interactions so much easier. When people ask me, “where are you from?” I do have a satisfying answer for them, so they don’t need to ask again with the word “really” before “from.” When people assume that I am Chinese, I don’t need to roll my eyes and explain that there is more than one country in Asia. When people praise my English-speaking skills, I do take it with great pride instead of having to tell them that it is my first and only language. When people excitedly ask me to say something in Chinese, I will be able to satisfy their curiosity instead of having to shy away because I grew up in a hegemonic English-only linguistic environment. When people treat me like a foreigner, I can thank them for their consideration instead of having to awkwardly explain that my family has been here for generations. When people ask me any questions about Asian culture and expect me to know the answer, I will not “disappoint” them because I have never been to Asia my whole life.
See? my Chinese identity makes interactions so much easier. I am foreign; I grew up in a different country in the mysterious East; I do speak a different language; I do represent a different culture. When people see my Asian appearance and automatically put me into a box, guess what? I fit. And I believe it is my privilege.
李思洁 Sijie (Bess) Li is a senior Anthropology major and Educational Studies minor from Shenzhen, China. Her passions are education, cultural studies, and social justice.