Can a Chinese-American be Chinese and American? (Part 2)

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5:00 PM HKT, Thu January 18, 2018 4 mins read

View Part 1 here:

Despite the existence of racism and discrimination in the United States, my education from growing up in Northern Virginia indoctrinated me with the idea that we must avoid making assumptions and judgements simply by the color of someone’s skin or their cultural background. I was taught that the way we identify ourselves is a personal choice, and that we have that as a personally endowed freedom. I was taken aback when it became clear to me that in China, I would be judged and evaluated on a scale I have never experienced before, just because of my identity.

This was the first time in my life where I really felt that because of my cultural background and the way I identify myself, I was being evaluated in a meticulously pessimistic manner. This was the first time in my life where I felt that the people around me and the society I was immersed in genuinely cared about how I personally identified myself.

I was not entirely sure if this was just a particular online reaction, or if this could be considered the regular attitude of most people within China. Despite the hurdles I face, I was asked by several other media companies to come in and discuss possibilities of collaboration.

They said they were impressed with my content and the ability to produce videos completely on my own, considering that I do not have a team of people to help me so all the directing, camera work, video editing, and even subtitles are done by myself. After attracting the attention of a few other major online accounts and companies, I quickly discovered that generally the idea of cooperation would involve me having to identify myself in a way that does not match how I view my own identity.

I have been asked by more than one media agency of some sort to call myself a proud “Chinese.”

I have always felt that it would be inaccurate to describe myself as either plainly Chinese or completely American. If I called myself just an American, that description would ignore my cultural identity and roots. Calling myself Chinese would neglect the fact that I grew up in the United States, its environment, and its educational system.

Even though I felt like I already knew the answer, I still always asked the question: “Why must I specifically call myself Chinese?”

The explanation given to me was short but comprehensive: the ability of the average Chinese audience to digest someone who is ethnically Chinese denying being Chinese is seen as extremely offensive. Regardless of cultural background or what kind of experiences I may have had, the fact that I am ethnically Han will always fix my identity as Chinese to most viewers in China. They will generally see me as a Chinese person with American citizenship. If I do not adhere to this view, then I’m at risk of offending audiences for what they view as “forgetting my roots” (数典忘祖), and for betraying the Chinese race.

To be frank, I was quite tempted to take a few deals with certain companies. I would be offered large-scale support and given decent pay. From a materialistic point of view I’d have a wide array of resources to utilize for my social media platform. Doing media work completely by one’s self is time consuming, inefficient, and difficult. So naturally, I considered making the compromise of simply calling myself “Chinese” to appease mainstream audiences. I figured that perhaps I could morally rationalize this as an avenue to build up my own platforms so that eventually I can use whatever influence I garner to do what I really wish to accomplish later on in my career.

However, after a few moments of reflection, I determined that there was no way I could accept any of these compromises.

These companies and other agencies were sympathetic to my hesitations. When I sat down with them to discuss these possibilities, we agreed that if I were somehow willing to compromise my identity, it would cause two major problems.

First, it would consolidate a certain image for my viewers and it would be hard to separate myself from that personality later on. I did not want to be the Chinese-American who unconditionally praises my Chinese roots and overly exaggerates my sense of being Chinese, which would ultimately move many Chinese viewers since I would appear to be an overseas Chinese person finally realizing the sacrosanct worth of his roots. That kind of “character” would stick with my online platforms and I would not be able to get away from that, especially after I attracted a certain fanbase.

The second and most important reason is simply that I would not be true to myself, and true to what I want to do, if I compromise my identity for the sake of material success.

Since I have chosen to stubbornly maintain my identity and my approach of pursuing media, it has created mixed results. I have received praise for being able to maintain myself and maintain my own character. At the same time, I have been scolded for abandoning my roots (数典忘祖), for being a traitor (卖国贼,叛徒), for eradicating my own sense of filial piety, and for simply not accepting my position as a “Chinese.” My experience of this phenomenon is a product of an environment like contemporary China, where as a result of patriotic education, substantial economic growth, and other complicated political factors, a sense of ethnic pride and fulfillment have visibly and rapidly intensified in recent years.

In the context of my media work, online reactions, in-person reactions, and feedback from colleagues and friends have all implied that the idea of Han exceptionalism is rooted deeply in the minds of people in today’s China. From these reactions alone, it is clear that many people have trouble understanding why I refuse to call myself “Chinese.” They constantly remind me of China’s rise and economic powers, its “five thousand years” of rich history, how Han people are naturally more civilized than the rest of the world, and a whole list of other reasons. They are shocked that I am unable to identify with such a successful, powerful, and prominent group of people in this world.

Since I choose to maintain my identity as a “Chinese-American,” considering the current state of China’s attitude towards nationality and ethnic pride, it will be hard for the majority of people to digest my statements and my own personal identification. Given my own biases, background, and personality, I learned slowly to resign myself to the fact that this is the current situation regarding identification, and that the way I choose to identify myself will continue to impact myself and my work in this way.

What seems to be the big question for many people is: am I a so-called “traitor”? Am I just a Chinese person with American citizenship? Am I just an American? What am I?

In the end, I am just me. I plan to keep being me, and that’s all I want to be.

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