Fake Goods: An Australian-Born Chinese in China

The Chinese taxi driver had a big incredulous smile plastered over his face. “Where are you from?!” he asked, hardly containing his laughter. To any ordinary foreigner this is an ordinary question. But to a Chinese Australian in China, the question contains an unintended implication which stings, just a little.

“I’m Chinese,” I replied.

This made him laugh even more. “HAHAHAHAHA, no you are not! I mean you LOOK like one–”

“But I certainly don’t sound like one,” I finished for him, with a sigh.

It’s been a year and a half since I landed in China. Back then I didn’t have a lick of Chinese, any kind of Chinese. I couldn’t even say “I don’t understand,” so people would speak to me and I would open my mouth, but then say nothing. Just stare at them, open-mouthed and silent. The road from there to now – conversational Mandarin – has been a hard, brow-beating slog of masochistic proportions. And after all of that my white foreign friends will be applauded for the simplest of ni haos, while my Chinese will always be substandard.

For according to my appearance, it should be flawless.

Dazu.

There has only been one instance where I’ve managed to pass myself off as a Mainlander. Chongqing gave me my first taste of having Mandarin that, lo-and-behold, was better than a Chinese person’s. On my first night in the friendly town of Dazu I found a street corner with food stalls and in ordering up some of “what that guy is having,” soon discovered the waiters weren’t able to speak Mandarin, only speak their own dialect.

Luckily I’d picked a table with a young, local student who could also speak Mandarin, and his father, so they translated for me. The student had a cute, boyish face, and wore a black T-shirt with a stylish print. He told me his English name is ‘Smooth’. I laughed, and gently informed him that ‘smooth’ isn’t really a name. “I know. But it sounds good and it suits me,” he replied with a smile. Fair enough.

After chatting a while I asked him slyly, “where do you think I’m from?” He thought for a moment before offering, “Xinjiang?” I was floored! Xinjiang is a North-Western autonomous region of China, quite distinct from the rest of the country. The province has a strong Eastern European and Turkish influence, and the local ethnic group look almost white. So while it’s not exactly a compliment to my Mandarin I was amazed he had even assumed I was Mainland.

I knew I was about to blow his mind with the next sentence. “Actually,” I paused for effect, “I’m a foreigner. My ancestors are Chinese, but I was born and raised in Australia.”

His eyes widened, “No way!” His father also smiled in surprise. “You’re my first foreign friend!” he beamed. I pointed out that he’d said his English teacher was Australian, but he replied that didn’t count.

That evening I thought sure, I’d never pass as a Beijinger. Let’s face it, with that piratey-rrrrr, few Chinese can. But what about the provincial locals who can’t really speak Mandarin? Surely I can pass for one of them?

The next day I landed in the city of Chongqing, where I met up with my Chinese friend, 22 year old customer service assistant Xiao Hu. She took me to the city’s esplanade, which was buzzing with Friday night revelers. Even so late in the evening the heat was suffocating, with Xiao Hu commenting that Chongqing is the hottest place in China. “Wouldn’t that be a more Southern city like Guangzhou?” I asked, feeling uncomfortably beads of sweat slide down my back. She explained that Guangzhou had the sea breeze. In Chongqing the heat was trapped like an angry bee, seeming to rise from every surface. I looked down on the Yangtze River. At that time of the year the water was very low, revealing mangy patches of dirt.

We entered a packed elevator to leave the platform. I’d been talking to Xiao Hu in Chinese while everyone else was silent so my voice seemed extra loud. A moment later I heard an awed voice from behind me suddenly say, “foreigner.” The young woman had even said it in English, further rubbing salt in the wound. I turned around, exasperated, and said, “Yes! Foreigner.” All my joy from Dazu where I’d been taken for a Xinjiang person instantly evaporated.

Chongqing.

And so it is with every Beijing taxi driver I come across. They never suspect my substandard Mandarin is because I’m from another province. They know that I’m a foreigner because I speak Mandarin like a foreigner. As one particularly hilarious driver once told me, even in Chinese I betray my banana-hood – white on the inside, yellow on the outside. (He went on to tell me that he’s a lemon: yellow on the outside, yellow on the inside, there are boiled eggs: yellow on the inside, white on the outside, and scrambled eggs: those with one Asian parent and one White parent.)

It’s difficult to pinpoint why, exactly, it’s so important to me to pass off as a Chinese person. No more guffawing from taxi drivers would be just one of many advantages.

I like looking like a Chinese person in China. When I’m traveling in the countryside I can go for days without seeing a single foreigner. One simply becomes accustomed to being surrounded by 1.3 billion Chinese people, with the sight of that shining, white skin with the curly hair or absurdly tall figure is somewhat of a shock. Even my white friends living in China – all of whom will report a degree of frustration at the staring they attract – say they also can’t help but double-look at the sight of a pale-skinned compatriot.

I like the fact that I don’t get gawked at and can quietly, and inconspicuously, go about my business. I like the fact that this country and culture is, in so many ways, so different to what I knew growing up. And yet the bridge between me and the Chinese is smaller than what it is for a non-ethnically Chinese foreigner. A white person can work on their Chinese all they like, peppering their flawless Chinese with all sorts of authentic local slang. They can live, eat and sleep like a Chinese person. But in the end when you’re living in a country that’s as ethnically homogenous as this, there will always be an unbridgeable gap.

My gap is not physical in nature. It is entirely abstract and one that can be filled in with time, experience and knowledge. Language is only the first step. There is culture too.

Chongqing hot pot.

My last dinner in Chongqing with Xiao Hu was hot pot. Plates of meat and vegetables cooked in a delicious broth infused with shiny-red chillies, plump mushrooms and herbs. As we ate, Xiao Hu and I discussed some of the peculiarities of the Chinese language, and she asked me if I knew about the roundabout ways one must talk in Chinese.

“Let’s say you invite a Chinese person over to your house. Naturally you ask them if they’d like a drink. They’re going to say no, because they don’t want to trouble you.”

“Even if they want one?” I ask, with a smile.

“Right. So even if they say no, you should get them a drink. Tea preferably, otherwise water is fine.”

“But what if they really didn’t want one?”

“Then they won’t drink it.”

I laughed at this. Humility, self-depreciation, courtesy and saving face lay at the heart of Chinese manners, in a way that takes some high degree of getting used to. Particularly for Australians and Americans whose nations’ histories are short, and did away with their colonial past in order to create young, dynamic societies featuring first egalitarianism, honesty and efficiency. As a child growing up in Sydney my parents had done a poor job in educating their children about Chinese-style behaviour. Every time my brothers, sister and I were taken to their hometown in Malaysia on family holidays we’d spend the time feeling like elephants crashing through the Chinese crystal shop of manners. We couldn’t pick up on the subtle cues that they, having grown up in a Chinese community, were so well versed in. And my extended family couldn’t understand why we were so rude.

Only as an adult did I begin to get a handle on things, and have since learned to “fudge” it – but it never feels like second nature. It is a language I’ve learned, just like Mandarin, rather than something I was born with. So I am always fumbling around awkwardly, afraid I’m about to (or have already) taken a wrong step in a very crowded minefield.

Young Chinese women riding the Chongqing subway.

Despite all my dining faux pas, grammatical errors on Weibo, and horrifyingly Australian accented Chinese, I can look back on this last year and a half and see I have improved in leaps and bounds and in that stepped closer into that thing called China. It is only a matter of time before my ‘fraudulent’ Chinese identity emerges into something close to authenticity. My ancestral links to this country will no longer seem absurd, but only natural.

China, that 5000-year-old-plus great dame, in which nearly one fifth of the world’s population lives, is, in many ways, as close as the rest of the world has to a parallel universe. Being ‘hua-ren’ means I have a rare opportunity: a foreigner with full access. And in this process of discovery I find myself changed. Not so much a transformation, as a new ambidexterity. I have not lost myself, but gained a new self.

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  • KenfromCanada

    I was able to pick you out from the other 8 in the picture, and I dont think it was luck.

    I love the bit about the piratey-rrrrr! Classic!

    • anon

      Already saw this post elsewhere but I do want to add that I thought the piratey-rrr was funny, though I wouldn’t say the Beijinger rrr is actually very piratey sounding. The line is just funny because it involves pirates.

      I like that you address the fact that while overseas Chinese still don’t quite fit in, they do escape a lot of the things that non-East-Asian foreigners in China love to whine about (like getting stared at, the “hello!”s, being instant targets for price jacking — the last one still applies the moment you open your mouth and can’t pull off reasonably fluent or non-accented Chinese).

  • Jay K.

    I first thought it was the girl in the red hat, but as i continued reading, my 2nd choice was this girl. man i am good! and no i did not cheat i actually read it.

    SOFA!

  • latalata

    嗯。。英语不好,不过还是结结巴巴的读完了。。
    挺有意思啊~嘿嘿。。

    已经加weibo了来着~

  • Joseph Jiang

    I like this post, it is quite similar with my case, I also hua-ren, work in China for 1.5 years, but I cannot speak Chinese until I go to China. I especially like the part of being able to blend with Chinese, and the language learning effort.

  • Jason

    I’m a halfie (everyone asks if I’m from Xinjiang), but I felt like you were describing my entire life and feelings that I had in China… right down to us both being from Sydney. Great read.

  • http://moominhouse.blogspot,com moom

    Yup, I picked the right picture.

  • Capt. WED

    Man I knew without even looking. They call it ESexP or something.

  • Capt. WED

    BTW, It’s not capt. marijuana, just so you know. Hmmm…

  • Capt. WED

    It’s quite brave of you to make this post and have all the internet haters hate on you.

  • Jason

    I’m a canadian-born Chinese who doesn’t speak mandarin (only Cantonese) and I feel the exact same way when I’m in shanghai…glad to know I’m not the only one out there lol

    • doraemon1971

      Jason,
      recently my wife and kids have returned from a 10 months stay in Zhuhai / Guangdong province / PRC. Before my wife and kids left both of the kids barely spoke a few words of mandarin but a lot of Cantonese. Now after they returned i feel like an alien in my own home. The 2 kids rattle on in fluent mandarin from which i don’t understand a thing. When they spoke Cantonese i could at least understand a bit of it.

  • Erwin Sennett Wu

    i thought the bottom right corner. quintessential foreigner right there.

  • http://wanderingchina.org Bob

    Greetings from a Singapore-born, Australia-living Chinese!

  • http://www.thebakcpack.com.au Marianna

    I picked you out straight away: ) I think it was the Western style fringe! Love your blog. I can totally relate. I’m an Australian Honkie. I would love to have a submersive working holiday experience in my home country but not quite ready yet.

  • ruike

    I’m mixed, but not asian, and people ask me if I’m from Xinjiang because I don’t like a “typical white person”. I don’t know whether to take it as a compliment or not. :P Especially because they ask me this before they hear me speak.

  • Daniel

    Thanks for posting your story. I really enjoyed reading it. I may go to China myself one day as I am a Chinese born Canadian. I hope I can relate to my country in a postive way too.

  • Jay

    I’m Australian, and I have to admit, it works a bit the other way too… I certainly didn’t pick you out “instantly”, but I did pick you, and when I scrolled down to see if I was right, I was about 95% sure that I had picked right.
    a) that’s quite an aussie smile
    b) you’re the only one with a styled fringe
    c) it’s subtle, but you look better nourished

  • liz

    you will be still sime no meter where you are born as when you go out of China you are still sime simple giggle whit no reason eating whit no manners as when you go to let say America of Australia .. you still living in Chinese com unity you do not mix whit local people you living like in China ,, some of you do not learn to talk English . most of all i think special female You are so simple the way you dress the way you taking silly photos whit fingers out i find you so simple grow up be lady’s and brash you manners .. special when you eat make me seek to see you eating like is your last meal.. hehhe

  • http://Hotmail History Student

    GREAT STORY!

    Now I don’t feel so inferior when white people speak better Chinese than I do!

  • Johno

    I never understood the whole “I was born in Australia, don’t speak Chinese, but I’m proud to be Chinese” thing. Geez, if you were born in Australia, and don’t speak Chinese, then you *aren’t* Chinese. There really isn’t any more to it than that. If you really consider yourself to be Chinese then give up your Australian passport. I’m sure the Chinese government will be happy to “repatriate” you, just don’t expect to go on facebook anymore.

    • Clara

      It should be interpreted as this:
      “I was born in Australia, I don’t speak the Chinese language, but I’m proud to be an ethnic Chinese”.
      The same applies for me. I’m ethnic Chinese, born in Malaysia, and identify myself as Malaysian Chinese (Nationality first, then ethnicity). Unfortunately many mainland Chinese people (Citizens of China whom are of Chinese ethnicity) do not understand and reject the notion that whoever doesn’t behave like them, isn’t Chinese. What crap.

  • Kiwimantou

    ^_^ I picked you because of your hair cut ;)

    Enjoyed reading your post …

    • mr. wiener

      Also the way she holds her mouth in the photo, she looks like she about to offer a full on Aussie”Yeeer, wada you lookin’ at?”

  • Pingback: Spot the overseas-born-Chinese among these eight Chinese women | Monica Tan

  • Golu

    i dnt hv anything to do with china or australia because i was born in italy from indian parents.However,I too face similar problems when i go back to my own country.I am not considered italian in italy nor indian in india.I just dont know where do i belong to.

  • http://www.facebook.com/greg.pringle.773 Greg Pringle

    I picked you pretty quickly. It was the eyes, not the hairstyle. Those other girls look so Chinese (but then, I live in China).

    Johno is one of those ‘assimilation’ types who believe that all Australians have to abandon every skerrick of their ethnic or cultural background in order to be truly Australian. Totally narrow and boring.

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  • tawhaki

    I would say India is much more of a parallel universe than China.

  • simpsonslover

    Hi Monica,
    I really enjoyed your article, so much so that I decided to comment which is something I rarely do. My parents are from Hong Kong but I have been raised in London all my life. I went to China a couple of years ago and it was quite an experience. I really felt you hit the nail on the head with your article and expressed in a much more eloquent way than I could have.

    My experiences in China was quite similar to yours, and I got frustrated by the lack of leniency Chinese people would have over my level of Mandarin compared to my friends. When I first came to China, I was insulted quite a few times by natives who would ask me why I never finished primary school since my Chinese was so bad! Becoming a bit more thick skinned was my coping mechanism. As my Chinese improved somewhat, I was still mistaken as a foreigner although they always seemed to think I was Japanese. Perhaps I was too used to my British ways and said thank you and please too much!

  • @theDebbyRachel

    Beautifully written article. This is exactly how I feel, being an ABC studying in Beijing. I get stared at all the time if I’m speaking English to my Aussie friends because we all look Asian. People know my ethnicity is Chinese by looking at me, but don’t realise I’m a foreigner until I open my mouth. Most of the time, people just think I’m mentally retarded and can’t speak properly. But despite this, I feel like I’ve gained a new identity over here, and I actually wouldn’t mind living here for a long time and continuously strive to improve my Chinese. At the end of the day, being both Australian and Chinese is a great thing, and I recommend all ABCs to go to China and discover their roots, or at least try and understand the culture that everyone in Australia inevitably asks them about.

  • doraemon1971

    Really loved the article. Makes me understand better how my kids feel when they go to China. I’m Belgian and my wife’s Chinese ( Guangdong province ).
    Both kids speak fluent cantonese, mandarin & english and my son adds dutch to that line. But the first one that calls this beauty scrambled eggs will get scrambled himself :D

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