I Became American and The World Kept Turning

George Ding.

When I was seventeen, I became an American citizen. The woman from Immigration Services sat across a broad desk and asked me to name the third president. When I did so swiftly—after all, my high school was named after him—in a standard American accent she seemed surprised and said, “Oh, you’re an American.” Well, not technically.

Instead of asking me more questions—my mom had been posed three, including, “What was the main reason over which the Civil War was fought?”—she pulled out a piece of paper and told me to sign it. It began, “I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen…” As you might imagine, this was a lot to take in for a seventeen-year-old. What exactly was being asked of me here? I knew I was technically a foreigner, and, if we’re being really technical, a subject of the People’s Republic of China, but did I have any allegiance and fidelity to that country? It was an ocean away and I hadn’t visited in years. I looked at my Chinese passport. I had never liked its shade of burgundy but now, faced with having to relinquish it, I felt a pang of distress that I had not cherished it more.

I signed the paper. The woman took my passport—or had I handed it to her, like Abraham offering up Isaac?—and put it in her drawer and that was it: I was an American.

I waited for a sign—a chorus of angels, a burst of light—but there was nothing. I was still me, and the world kept quietly turning. My mother picked up her purse and we drove home. Two weeks later I received a new passport in the mail. It was navy blue and I couldn’t help thinking that I liked this color better than that rusted burgundy.

Five years later, after college, I came back to China on a lark. I wanted, as in an old bildungsroman, to find out who I was. But I quickly discovered that my identity confused people. A common conversation went like this:

“Are you a Chinese?”

Well, I was born in China and moved to America when I was very young.

“So you’re an ABC.”

Not quite. ABC stands for “American-born Chinese” and, as I just explained, I was born in China, so I guess, if you had to, you could call me a CBA, a “Chinese-born American.”

“So you’re an American?”

That depends on what you mean by “American.” I have an American passport.

“You talk like an American.”

Well I have lived there for nearly two decades.

“So you’re Chinese-American.”

I guess you could say that.

“But you look Chinese.”

Because I am ethnically Chinese.

“So that makes you Chinese.”


It was frustrating at first, having people cram me into whatever racial box suited them. I was Chinese so long as they liked me, but if I made a comment critical of China or not in line with “traditional Chinese thinking,” they would counter with the pseudo-rhetorical: “你是中国人吗?”, “Are you Chinese?”

I never knew how to answer that. I can’t blame people for wanting simple answers to complex questions. Chinese people, coming from a largely homogenous society, are used to thinking about race in black-and-white and, because the culture discourages individuality, often conflate the concepts of nationality, race, and identity.

My nationality is American and I am a member of the Han race. But the question of identity is much trickier. I am a product of two cultures, as trite as it sounds—which is to say that I am influenced by two ways of thinking more or less equally. I was raised in a Chinese household but spent most of my day in American society.

This caused problems. When I was growing up, my parents made me go to Chinese school every Sunday from 2 to 4 p.m. in order to learn Mandarin and retain some semblance of being Chinese. I went for ten years. Today, I’m thankful for being able to speak Mandarin as it has helped my work and life in Beijing immensely. But growing up, I tried to get out of it every week. I didn’t understand why my friends got to sleep over on Saturdays and didn’t have to learn another language on the Sabbath.

I think Chinese school, more than anything else in my childhood—more than the dismissive way girls looked at me, more than my lack of musculature or the size of my family’s apartment compared to my friends’ houses–contributed to my sense of not belonging, my sense that I was different, not in a cheesy, unique snowflake kind of way, but that something deep down separated me, irrevocably, from others, and from America.

So when I came to China after college, I tried to see if I could belong here. I decided to do my best to blend in. If I didn’t talk too much, no one should be able to tell me apart—I’d just be another bespectacled Chinese man. And yet this failed spectacularly. After being in Beijing a month, I walked up to the counter of a Dairy Queen and ordered a Blizzard. The girl at the counter asked, “You’re not from this country, are you?” I ask her how she could tell. “I don’t know,” she said. “Something about your 气质 (disposition), the way you walk.” How strange, I thought, after all that posturing, my stride had given me away.

In retrospect, it was foolish of me to think I could belong to a country I had no memories of and had only visited sporadically. But it made me wonder: was there really no place in the world I could call myself a part of? It’s a question I sometimes ponder in the moments when my mind idles before sleep. Did I ever have a choice in who I’ve become? Could any child born in China, brought to the United States at the age of four, and raised there under the strict supervision of Chinese parents, be any different? Then, if sleep still hasn’t taken me, I do a little thought experiment: I tweak the variables of my early childhood and construct my life in that alternate reality. What if I had gone to the United States as a teenager? What if I had been born in America? Who would I be then?

Imagining life in these bizarro worlds makes for somnolent fun but I inevitably arrive at the same conclusion: who I could have been is nowhere near as interesting as who I am now. There’s no one else, and no place else, I’d rather be. Sure, I sometimes feel isolated, misunderstood, and alone, but those emotions are present in every life, not just those of immigrants or minorities.

If anything, my upbringing has made me look for something more than race and nationality by which to define myself. It has made me restless and inquisitive. My want for a sense of belonging made me go out into the world. My failure to find it compelled me to stay there. Most of all, my experiences have made me see that petty human distinctions such as race and nationality, not to mention gender and sexuality, don’t mean anything beyond the physical, beyond boxes on a form and the hue of a passport. They don’t determine anything when it comes to your life and they fall far short in defining who you are. Your identity, like your future, is something you construct for yourself. That’s why there were no angels or bursts of light. I was still me, and the world kept quietly turning.

George Ding blogs at The HyperModern.

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  • Interesting comment about your qizhi. After spending a couple years in China, I came back to Canada and my cousin said I seemed like a Chinese guy now. My clothes? My mannerisms? My posture? She couldn’t say…just ‘seemed’ like a Chinese guy.

    • Thanks for your comment. I’ve been in China a while now, I wonder what Chinese traits I’ve unconsciously picked up.

  • Sean

    You shouldn’t change your passport in the first place…

    • Brian

      It’s not a simple decision.

      I became a naturalized citizen at 17, about the same time as George Ding, and I had no say in the matter.

      My parents became citizens and because I was still a minor, my parents decided to naturalize me also (they also legally changed my name to Brian).

      At the time, I argued with them fiercely. “I’m proud to be Chinese!” But their reasons were pragmatic. As a citizen, I can site-step the bureaucratic swamp of approving a Permanent Resident Alien for work in the Federal Government, at a government contractor and many private businesses. True, I can now be drafted, but I can also travel to over 100 countries without a visa.

      When I hear people comment – “Oh, but that’s not worth it: you’ve sold your identity” – I shrug. Because I believe that it’s a misunderstanding through oversimplification. How do you compare the pride you feel in keeping the passport you were born to and the urge to find a well-paying job: how do you put those two ideas on different sides of an greater than/equal sign? Instead I build my identity not around a passport’s color, but on my actions. I speak Chinese at home and with friends, AND I am proud to vote.

      I shrug because by the time I’d have explained that, the conversation has moved on.

    • Andy

      Every time I look at my beautiful burgundy colored passport I am filled with pride, and every time I am thankful that I am neither American nor live in America. Considering that I’ve lived in the U.S. for a decade since I was nine years old, it’s truly a miracle that I never became a citizen of that evil empire. I guess it’s thanks to the fact that my parents remained in the motherland for the entire time, while I lived in the U.S. with other relatives who didn’t have the legal power to make me get U.S. citizenship without my consent. Despite my parents’ and other relatives’ incessant efforts to convince me to pursue American citizenship, thanks to my strong sense of patriotism and disdain for America, at 19 despite everyone’s protests I returned to the motherland. During the first year back home when I could only afford to eat potatoes and couldn’t even dream of meat (since my parents cut off all financial support due to their disapproval of my decision), every day I was just thankful that I’m no longer in America. It’s already been over three years since the end of my American exile, and to this day I never regretted it. If I wanted to go to America now, I’d need to apply for a visa just like any other citizen of my country, but not like I’d ever want to set foot in that craphole again anyway.

      P.S. I’m not Chinese though, actually from Eastern Europe.

  • Dawei

    Well written, the identify conclusion is spot on.

    • Thank you for your kind words.

      • JZ

        Hi George,
        Just wanted to say I have a similar story as you. Like you, I gave up my Chinese citizenship at age 17. I was born in Beijing and grew up in the capital until leaving the country at 7 years old. I’ve lived in different places, eventually settling in Canada, the country I’ve lived in for the past 14 years.

        I’ve had some experiences quite akin to yours and I’ve recently returned to Canada after a 8 month visit to Beijing. I’ll be back in Beijing in a few weeks and would like to get in touch with people like yourself.

        After I’m back in Beijing, I’ll like to remedy this deficiency, do you mind keeping in touch? How may I reach you?


        • Hey JZ, I don’t know how I missed your comment. I’m really sorry for the late reply.

          Please get in touch next time you’re in Beijing, we’ll hang out. My e-mail is on my blog, which is linked on this page.

  • anon

    Whoa, “somnolent”…

    • Erwin Sennett Wu

      Hey George, nice read!

      I am similar to you, yet so different. I am ABC…born in Los Angeles, and lived there for 27 years (parents are from Taiwan) before moving to Shanghai for the past 19 months and 2 weeks.

      I, too, find it hard to explain my identity to local Chinese. They just don’t get it.

      “I am American.”

      “But you don’t look American.”

      “I was born in America.”

      “So what are you?”


      “Your parents?”


      “So you’re Chinese.”


      I, too, attended Chinese school for 8 years as a child (every Saturday between 9 and 12). Between 10 and 11 was “activity” time…truly I only looked forward to that school for the basketball session. The only reason I kept graduating to the next grade? My mother was the vice-principal.

      Needless to say, I arrived in China (during the American economic meltdown) with zero comprehension of Chinese. I probably knew how to speak 20 words and understood 50. It has been much easier for me to pick up than the average Lao Wai, though, and there is very little semblance of an accent because of the exposure as a child. When I unwillingly strike up a conversation with a local here, I inevitably reach “Wo ting bu dong.”

      That’s like a white face in Los Angeles looking me straight in the eye, with an authentic American voice and saying “I don’t understand.” Their first reaction?

      “This asshole is mocking me.”

      My next response, “Wo shi han guo ren.” (I am Korean)

      Just like the locals, I’ve learned to cut corners.

      Erwin Sennett Wu

      • Brian

        “Wo shi han guo ren.” Haha, that’s a good one! I’ll try that next time.

  • Similar in stride..

    I loved this article. Funny – I was told I wasn’t Chinese as well, because of the way I walked. When I signed that piece of paper naturalizing me as an American, I wondered what I was giving away or what I was becoming.

    Like you, I was born in mainland China and immigrated to the States when I was 5. I have worked in Hong Kong and China, and found myself definitely more American than I was local Chinese. I was seen as the outsider, the American, an expat, someone who didn’t belong. However when I worked in Texas, I was the Asian. Blond haired blue eyed girls in cowboy boots and daisy dukes never game me a second look, despite all the oggling I did. Once again, someone who didn’t belong.

    I don’t fantasize about who I could have been. No point there haha, but I’d like to know, like to find a place, just where what I look like on the outside don’t matter, but I am who I am based on my experiences.

    Thanks again for your article. It’s always great to know you’re not alone.

    • Thank you for your comment. It is always comforting to know that your experiences are shared =)

      I share your desire to find a place where people focus on inner values instead of superficial qualities. I don’t think such a place exists but it is a world we must strive toward. The closest thing I’ve found is the loving arms of friends and family, and perhaps that’s enough.

      • You guys ever been to Vancouver? I’d be interested in what you think… Especially in the Richmond area there are more Chinese/Chinese-Canadians than there are Caucasian-Canadians.

        Of all the North American cities I’ve been to Vancouver felt the most different with regards to the identity of ethnically Chinese people.

        • Similar in stride..

          Tait, I actually have been to Vancouver, lived there for 5 years actually, though this was around 1995-2000, so while there was a large percentage of Asians, it’s not what it is today. But even then, I feel like their experience is different. To live somewhere where who you are, your experiences, your common background and hence the American Chinese (or in this case, Canadian Chinese) identity is the majority, is very different than living in say Beaumont Texas where you are the only Asian, not Chinese, but only Asian. And then being told you’re not Chinese, or
          Asian in China? The loss of identity and self conceptualization I feel is not felt at the same level in Vancouver.

          Your thoughts?

          I agree with others, this definitely is the best written article up so far.

          • Perhaps I’d feel a bit out of place living in a small Texas city/town too. Although I physically look like them, I bet they could pick me out as an outsider even faster than George was identified as non-Chinese while in China. :)

          • Tait, I haven’t been to Vancouver but everyone tells me that it’s like a bastion of Asian-ness in North America. I really want to see what it’s like.

            Similar in stride, you should write something about your experience as the only Asian in Beaumont. I’d like to know how it feels. The closest thing I’ve experienced was probably stopping at a roadside jerky store in the Sierra Nevadas. The way people looked at me, I thought I was going to be the victim of a hate crime.

      • Similar in stride..

        I think for me, maybe not even where I’m accepted for who I am on the inside, but rather, where I can find out and internalize for myself, who I am and be comfortable with that. Where I’m confident enough in who I am, not to be bothered by others who question who I am. That’d be nice. I know I’ll get there one day, taking a while though.

  • Snow

    Wow, I’ve experienced some really similar things in my life.

    When I traveled to China, I used my chinese name and I thought I would fit right in. But people immediately knew I was a foreigner.

    I managed hang out with some chinese high school / college students and they said I looked like I was korean or something. Something about the way I walked and that my pronunciation was too “perfect” at times.

    And sometimes, one of those street vendors would yell “Ice water, 1 yuan!” in chinese. But when I walked up, he would immediately say “Water, 2 yuan” in english. Of course, I would call him out.

    Though whenever someone asked me “你是中国人吗?”.
    I would respond: ethnicity: Chinese. nationality: American.

    • That’s a good way to do it. Nowadays I answer with a question: “What do you mean by ‘Chinese'”? I find that their answer can be quite elucidating.

      • snow

        I will definitely try that one out sometime.

        In regards to “你是中国人吗?”. I think one of the differences between Americans and Chinese is –

        To be American is to question and argue the law.
        If you say the police are corrupt – you aren’t being un-american. Your just anti-police.

        To be Chinese is to agree with the law / say things that are nationalistic. To say the police are corrupt – you are un-chinese.

        • anon

          I don’t think that holds up to scrutiny given how many Chinese regularly say the police are corrupt.

          • snow

            Is this the same “anon” who responded to my last comment?

            Uh – simple example:

            When I say. “The police is corrupt”
            The common comeback is: “Are you Chinese?”

            People don’t respond to: “The police is corrupt” with “Are you American?”

            I did specifically add “I think.” I have no proof, nor have I thought on this topic for more than 10 mins at most.
            It’s a conjecture at best.

          • anon

            Really? That doesn’t really correspond with my experience. Perhaps the response arouse not from the phrase you uttered but also from the context of the conversation or situation you were in?

            That response is one of those bullshit rhetorical insults that people throw out when they’re fed up with you. It’s in the same vein as maybe Tea Partiers questioning your patriotism or loyalty to America if you disagree with their political views. It’s garbage for sure, but I think there are reasons behind people using them other than them being nationalistic simpletons.

            Specific to the “are you Chinese” response, I know some overseas Chinese have gotten that response when the mainland Chinese they were talking to became defensive feeling the overseas Chinese person is being not just overly judgmental but also condescending. In these situations, the parties to the discussion or argument have already started identifying each other as being “Chinese” or (often) “American”, “us” or “them”. If they see you as someone who lords his foreignness over the natives (even if you’re not aware of you doing so), they’re going to be sensitive when they think you’re judging “them”, which includes their country, or the state of their country/society.

            Otherwise, and especially in conversations specifically about Chinese police corruption, Chinese people seem to be more than eager to express their general distrust and contempt for the police. Do you remember the Yang Jia scandal a few years back?

            Chinese people, like all people, are quite frank and forthcoming as long as they feel comfortable with the person they’re conversing with. But, again like all people, they can certainly adopt a defensive posture if they feel the person they’re conversing with is actually trying to force a sensitive issue on them, proselytize to them, or otherwise posture to them. It’s good to be self-aware of how we’re coming across, especially in these sort of cross-cultural situations.

            Don’t worry about the “I think”. I saw that. It’s just what you think is a difference doesn’t seem true for me so I’m suggesting maybe something other than that phrase is the reason they gave you that response. Anyway, I wasn’t there and you were so I just hope what I’ve said here might help you reconsider why they reacted that way.

          • Snow

            hmm. agreed “police are corrupt” was a bad example. And I have not heard that reply to that particular example.

            But, yes, I was trying to indicate a context without being verbose.

            However, I do not think the reason you gave – defensive towards a condescending foreigner was correct.
            I heard that response to many – not so judgmental / offensive statements. And from people who are my relatives and “elders” (older and far better educated). Particularly, considering that I heard said phrase most often when I was a teenager.

            The phrase does quite confuse me. And the most effective response I’ve had was: ethnicity: chinese. nationality: american.

  • Gabriele

    I still wonder about this persistent question of the “ethnicity”. When I’m asked where I’m from, I never think of saying “white ethnicity”, for 1) it would sound racist/racially proud, 2) it makes no sense to me to define myself in terms of my genes.

    Yet, Chinese people keep doing that, “yes I’m from the US but I’m ethnically Chinese”, as of justifying something in front of other Chinese people. I still think this is just reinforcing barriers and divisions, but whatever.

    Anyway one of the best articles up to now, great writing, it is obvious that you don’t define yourself through ethnicity and nationality, and that is a great thing that many should learn to do. And yes: even being 100% american and 100% white you can feel the same restlessness and non-belonging, so…

    • But don’t you hear white people say they’re “Irish” or “Ukrainian” or “Italian”? In my experience, even North Americans that have never been to these countries in their life will identify with those nationalities and other European nationalities.

      • Just John

        Um, no?

        While some people may say “My x ancestor came here from y country”, I do not tend to see many go around saying “Hey, I am a German American because my great-grandfather came from there”.

        Normally you see this association only if you tend to hang around specific areas that are more ethnic based (China town, Basque areas, immigrant areas), or if you are talking to racial minorities.

        I have never, to this day, had a single person tell me they were “British American”, “Irish American”, “German American”, etc…

        I think the whole ethnic/racial identification tends to play out more when you are a “Minority” group, because I have had people tell me they are “Latin American” and “African American”.

    • snow

      The problem is: When people ask where I am from: “America” is not the answer they want. – Even though I was born and raised in America.

      So when I say “ethnicity: Chinese” it means that my parents / ancestors came from China. For me, it is a purely biological word. Their maybe cultural implications – but not necessarily.

      When I think of the word “nationality”:
      On a one scale: the definition is purely of citizenship. If you have an American passport, you are an American.

      On another scale: It refers to common culture shared by a particular group. I believe that Americans have a common culture in that most are very accepting of differences.

      That is what I mean when Identify my ethnicity / nationality. To me, I don’t really think it reinforces barriers much at all.

    • Thanks for the kind words Gabriele.

      I think what everyone is talking is about how people choose to identify themselves. Some people go by their nationality, others by ethnicity. Snow has given the accepted definitions for both. Nationality and ethnicity are pretty clear cut. Tait has offered a comical example of how this manifests itself in American culture. We wouldn’t have Jersey Shore if it weren’t for people like that.

      But identity, as I try to point out in the piece, is more complex and should be thought about carefully.

  • 威廉

    Not one of the best, but the best article featured here thus far. An enjoyably read. Thanks.

    • Thank you for your kind words, I’m glad you enjoyed it.

  • JustABlackWoman

    Interesting between yours and the introvert article I think these are my favorites so far.

    • Thank you for your support. I’ve read your comments on the other articles and I’m sorry that some loser with a malfunctioning shift key seems to have a crush on you.

    • JustABlackWoman

      hahah tell me about it, thanks for your support

  • Chris

    Great writing as always, George. And nice picture as well. I’ve just started to realize that you’re not an ABC as Katie introduced to me so in the first place. Probably the fact that you were born in China & raised in the U.S. added a sense of complexity to your identity, but it never confused me whatsoever. I don’t try to remind myself that you’re an American, to me it’s more like you’re a Chinese guy who’s much cooler than your Chinese peers. I guess what matters is the inner quality. I do appreciate the fact that you’re now living in China and that also being able to speak truth about what you see in your life here in Beijing with a trenchant perspective not so easily acquired had you fallen victim to the Chinese educational system.

  • Nathan

    Liked your article. Whenever people ask me what nationality/ethnicity I am, my response is 美籍華人.

    • Mike

      I use that term too. :)

    • Thank you Nathan. I have settled on this term as well, as it seems to convey the necessary information without eliciting many follow-up questions.

  • someasiandude

    I really liked this article. I’m kind of stuck in the states for the medium term, so there’s not much to be done about that, but sometimes I wonder whether it would be better for me to move back to Asia, whether it would be better to be an ‘american’ in china/wherever or a chinaman in the US. Do you find yourself culturally incompatible with the people there?

    • Thanks for the comment. I always encourage my friends to at least try living in Beijing, if only to experience a different kind of life. I would say that if you can speak English and Chinese, China can afford many opportunities. There is a dearth of English-speakers (although that is changing) which affords you opportunities which would be virtually impossible in the States.

      And if we’re being honest, generally speaking, Westerners have a higher social status in China than Chinese do in America. This is especially true if you’re white. Of course this is a result of history and cultural preconceptions.

      I do not find myself culturally incompatible with people here, but truly integrating into Chinese culture is quite difficult. There are many parts of Chinese culture that I do not agree with and this has caused problems and arguments. Which is why many expats in China only hang out with expats. I think the best you can do is try to understand and respect the culture, but you don’t have to agree with it.

  • someasiandude

    Has your dating life improved since the move?

    • This is a really difficult question to answer. All I can say is that in my experience, it is not a reproductive advantage to be a svelte Chinese man in America. However (again, in my experience) it is a slight reproductive advantage to be a svelte American man in China. Similarly, being able to speak Chinese in America is not as much of an advantage as being able to speak English in China. Add to this a thousand cultural preconceptions and prejudices and clearly what I’m trying to say is yes, my dating life has improved tremendously.

  • asr

    Great article! Very interesting read for me because I can identify myself in many of the cases you’ve mentioned. I’m a chinese born in malaysia and raised in the netherlands. I have no true homeland, and like you’ve mentioned, even though we will have issues with our identity, our greatest gift is our perspective on the world.

  • Lulu

    Hi, George, I like your article. I’m Chinese. My fiance is born in the US. He shares some similar experience with you. The last part of your article is very encouraging: Your identity, like your future, is something you construct for yourself. We can choose who we want to be. For him, he chooses to be both, and I’m contributing to the Chinese part. :).. He would also love your article. Chinasmack is one of his favoriate sites. I’m just here trying to improve my English. haha
    BTW, there is someone out there who focuses on your inner values. Keep looking, you will find some, or the one. ^_^

    • Haha, I believe you Lulu. I am very glad readers are finding similar stories in their own lives.

  • Anon

    Just an American leaving a comment here, but married to a Chinese girl. Your situation about your home, and lack of muscular figure (Compared to some Americans?), and different culture at home, these are things even white Americans face in America. I had a few friends growing up that didn’t feel they ‘belonged’, different attitudes, different styles, ect. I feel this can happen to anyone regardless of culture. Just a thought.

    • I agree alienation can happen to anyone, it’s just a question of degree. It took me a long time to realize that though.

  • Yang Fang

    There is nationality, race, and culture. Nationality and race are fixed. Culture is flexible. Living in China probably shift you back toward culturally Chinese.

    I became officially an American when I was a teenager. But it doesn’t mean you feel like an American. Looking to become a real American, I join the Army. You will be surprised how many people in our situation are in the US army.

    Some people took the other path, and try to become more Chinese. A lot of them are working in China now(finance mostly and a few dentists). __

    • 孟恬

      I think you confuse nationality with ethnicity.

  • Just John

    I understand your sentiment.

    I came to Asia more because my personal views align more here then in the US.

    Sadly, since I am white, I don’t fit in, and in the US, I always felt like an outsider.

    Guess for some people, they just find themselves outside the normal society views, no matter where they are.

    I think it is just a matter of finding the place that feels the best for you, and don’t let the closed minded individuals who do not accept you put you off of seeking your happy and meaningful life.

    • I completely agree John =)

    • Patrick

      I mostly agree. I never fit in back in America. I had some good friends but never felt comfortable. Here in China I felt much more relaxed. After I had been here a couple months I shed 30 kg. Three months later I lost another 45 kg – then again that was a divorce. I remember when I got that divorce I stayed for one month in America, I have never felt homesick before that.

      Nevertheless, I have been much happier living in China than I ever did in America – does this make me American-Chinese? My wife swears I’m looking more Chinese all the time…

  • A very interesting read. Thank-you for sharing.

  • Alice

    Always a great pleasure to read or listen to your words.

    I guess people try to fit someone into cognition by their background, and when it is more complicated than that of the usual situation, they become confused, feeling unsettling due to uncontrollable variables.

    I have sort of the similar problem when people ask me about my ethnicity. My family is ethnically Mongolian, while my mother and my father’s mother are Han, who are the only two non-Mongolian daughters-in-law of this family in 200 years. Being the daughter of my father and the granddaughter of my grandfather, I am of course Mongolian on hukou. But growing up in a non-Mongolian region gives rise to questions that you will feel familiar with.

    “你是蒙古族?” (You are ethnically Mongolian?)
    “嗯是的。” (Yes.)
    “那你会说蒙语吗?” (Can you speak the Mongolian language?)
    “我不会。” (No, I can”t.)
    “那你会跳蒙古舞吗?” (Do you know Mongolian Dance?)
    “也不会。” (No.)
    “那你不算蒙古族。” (Then you are actually not.)

    I confess I often became angry with the last line. Who do they think they are to determine who I am? Yes, you may argue that I have more Han genes in me than the Mongolian ones, or that there’s nothing “cultural” in me to make me deserve the Mongolian origin. But if I have to attach a label on myself, which in fact hardly makes any sense, I would have to say I am perhaps Mongolian rather than Han, for the very specific reason that this is what I got when listening to my grandfather’s stories in childhood. I shared the family history. Isn’t this solid enough?

    Maybe not. All is too hard to say. But do we really have to begin with discussing this when we meet? Does it really matter? Is it really necessary to diagnose your friends or prospective friends in this widely accepted yet ridiculous way?

    My reply is no, no and no indeed. Because I am not a fan of such way of thinking that aims to find the difference and distinguish people from each other in the first place. We are all human, we are more the same than we are different, and that should be the basic conception of social relationships. All the differences are just things that are added on it.

    • anon

      A complicated situation indeed.

      But really, who cares what other people think? As far as I can tell you’re both Han and Mongolian. Nothing wrong with that…you’ve got in your blood the best of both worlds =).

      • Alice

        Thank you for the kind words, anon. Yes, exactly, we have all of them instead of struggling between them.=)

    • Thanks for sharing your story Alice. It must be even more frustrating to be in your own country and have people tell you what you are and what you are not.

      I think people ask those kinds of shallow questions not out of malice, but out of a lack of perspective. They are trying to dispel their confusion, as you say. It is our prerogative, as a result of our background, to show them that there is another way to think about identity. That we are all just human beings trying to live a happy life.

    • revoltingbrain

      Wow. Most full-blooded ethnic mongols I know in the PROC from inner mongolia won’t even identify with being mongol. You are a true minority.

  • NL

    How about an identity through shared history?

    I am CBC (canadian born chinese). Grew up and did undergrad in Canada, and I am now training in the UK. No idea where I’ll work in the future. Come to think of it.. I don’t have a strong tie of identity anywhere, not in Hong Kong where parents were from, Vancouver where I have spent most of my life up to now, and especially not in England where I’m currently living. There’s no place where I can say with pride and certainty I belong to.

    What grounds me is when I think of my ancestors. Father’s side from Xinhui, mother’s side from Yantai. My spine tingles at the thought that I am a descendant and a part, albeit a miniscule part, of rich Chinese history. Who knows? My ancestors might have had the fortune of serving under Yue Fei or of enjoying wine with Li Bai. Won’t ever know, but there’s always the possibility. I’m proud to be Chinese…I’ve come to learn that that’s the one certain thing I can hold on to in terms of identity, and that’s more than enough for me.

    • Alice

      I spent my life of 27 years in 7 cities, all in the same country though. As a result, it’s difficult to name my hometown. Sometimes I feel the same way as you said above about having no strong tie anywhere. But isn’t that cooler than growing up regularly?

      • NL

        I definitely feel same way you do. I love all the places I’ve lived and worked in (esp Vancouver). So fortunate for the experiences and the chance to gain different perspectives.

  • Erwin Sennett Wu

    Hey George!

    I am similar to you, yet so different. I am ABC…born in Los Angeles, and lived there for 27 years (parents are from Taiwan) before moving to Shanghai for the past 19 months and 2 weeks.

    I, too, find it hard to explain my identity to local Chinese. They just don’t get it.

    “I am American.”

    “But you don’t look American.”

    “I was born in America.”

    “So what are you?”


    “Your parents?”


    “So you’re Chinese.”


    I, too, attended Chinese school for 8 years as a child (every Saturday between 9 and 12). Between 10 and 11 was “activity” time…truly I only looked forward to that school for the basketball session. The only reason I kept graduating to the next grade? My mother was the vice-principal.

    Needless to say, I arrived in China (during the American economic meltdown) with zero comprehension of Chinese. I probably knew how to speak 20 words and understood 50. It has been much easier for me to pick up than the average Lao Wai, though, and there is very little semblance of an accent because of the exposure as a child. When I unwillingly strike up a conversation with a local here, I inevitably reach “Wo ting bu dong.”

    That’s like a white face in Los Angeles looking me straight in the eye, with an authentic American voice and saying “I don’t understand.” Their first reaction?

    “This asshole is mocking me.”

    My next response, “Wo shi han guo ren.” (I am Korean)

    Just like the locals, I’ve learned to cut corners.

    Erwin Sennett Wu

    • revoltingbrain

      Haha. Yeah man. People in Shanghai are not as cool as people in Arcadia or San Marino.

    • Thanks for the comment Erwin. It’s always fun to hear other people’s stories. I remember when I first came to Beijing and I couldn’t understand the ticket lady who was announcing the stops. I asked her to repeat herself two times and every time she got more angry and said the name of the stop more incoherently. I eventually consulted the placard on the wall with all the stops on it.

    • “I dont look American? Americans look like EVERYBODY. Asian, Middle Eastern, and Latin, Black, White, USA you make it happen.”

  • rollin wit 9’s

    Let me set the facts straight for you naive, paper-nationality individuals:
    1. If you ain’t black or a product of 400 fckn years of slavery.
    yo ass ain’t american.
    2. if you aint white and more than 10 generations deep from
    european ancestry i.e. your great grand dad’s dad and then
    some (you get the point) wasn’t born in the US. your ass
    ain’t american.
    3. ‘American’ is not a fuckin handout you need to earn that
    sh!t. And I no longer stand by the ‘if your born their your
    american’ b.s. If your 2nd, 3rd, 4th generation your just
    fortunate thats all. Get ur sh!t together and try and fit in.

    Point: Dont be fooled by the luxury afforded to you in the
    states. A white guy born in china that speaks better chinese than 80% of the people around him is still a guai loh. Cuz his face and skin color will never allow him to reach presidential
    status and you know im right!

    And let me point out, b4 all the b.s starts – im not racist. but i do believe after being overseas for a long time & seeing the basic sh!t other countries don’t give to foreigners that if ur ass wants to be ‘american’,
    im out!

    • Just John

      I have to wonder, are you from the deep south?

      Funny part is, while some will not accept you unless you meet your stated criteria, where I am from (west coast), you don’t need to fit those criteria to be “American”.

      What you type is essential BS. True, if you aren’t “white”, then there will always be pockets of discrimination, but the same applies to if you aren’t male.

      Also, discrimination follows a given pattern.
      In Arizona, you don’t see discrimination towards Asians as much, but you see it heavily oriented towards “Mexicans (Which happens to be the box you are placed in if you are from any Latin American or Central American country)”, because of illegal immigration.

      Guess you should roll to more areas in the US.

    • rollin wit 10’s

      How do you earn it then? You need to be more specific.

    • anon

      Indeed. While in the more mixed places, [insert nationality] can mean many different ethnicities. In most places nationality is inseparable from what you look like. People’s notion of what features belong to what national is determined at a young age. Kids growing up in a mixed group will think their nationality is a mixed group, and kids growing up in a single ethnicity environment will not.

      What background do you all think I have, after reading my post? White, Black, Asian, ABC, born-there-raised-here, what?

      If you decide to post insults, please do so only if they are hilarious.

  • Gelatin

    I was born in Pakistan [chapter 1], raised in the US [chapter 2] from 5-16, and lived in China [chapter 3] from 16-27, and now making arrangements to live in Germany [chapter 4] with my soon to be wife…
    Believe me George, I totally get you…
    I left Pakistan when I was 5, and went to Philadelphia. I had never seen snow before, not to mention been on a plane before, or had a real “american” burger…I remember as a kid, it all seems like a ride…
    I grew up in the states..all up and down the east coast…
    then my next “chapter”, as i like to call it, was CHINA.
    I lived in china since the age of 16 to 27, thats 9 years…and 9 quite important years. Years of learning what kind of person you are choosing to be, world ethics and professionalism, moral ground and how you view your future…these are all more and more imminent factors towards the late teens and early 20’s.
    I met the most amazing girl in China. A girl from the other side of the planet, a place i had never been before…Germany.
    Now I write this comment from Germany, where I am now with my girlfriend.
    We are to be married next week.

    I read your article, and well …I “get” you…
    I think there are more people in the world like “us” then we could imagine sometimes…
    The concept of race, religion, nationality, etc….its all solidified into definitions, simple because all those things have been “named”
    they have titles…

    someone who is born american, lived in america most of their life, has an american passport…well clearly we put him/her in the “american pile”

    but what about someone who is born in country A, grew up in country B and C, and now lives in country D….probably speaks 2-5 languages…..
    what’s the ‘title’ for that kind of person…
    can they ‘really’ ever swear allegiance to any 1 state?
    can they ‘really’ call themselves a 1 single ‘type’ of person…
    perhaps they could if they were living in a bubble.

    however i believe that people from mixed backgrounds (mixed parents, or 1 generation immigrants) is one thing, but to be a person with a mixed background and a salad of mixed cultural experiences of living and being raised in numerous countries around the world….thats like 10 to the power of 5….its not just a multiplication its a exponent of cultural influence.

    and for that, there is no title yet. there is no name.
    Im not saying there SHOULD be a title, Im just saying there isn’t.
    And most people who belong under generalized titles, which is most people (without their own fault), they tend to NEED all other people to ALSO be under a general title…

    I dont know about you, but i find is much more interesting when i can say “Ya, I met this dude yesterday, he’s a half chinese/australian, half dutch/Indonesian french mexican…..who like’s to ski”

    rather than : “ya, i met this canadian yesterday, who has the best weed around…”
    (p.s. I have nothing against canadians. Terrence and Phillip are canadian! i love you dudes)

    Anyway I guess my point is, a document saying you are american, doesnt mean anything really, except to the guy stamping it at customs. Or a document saying you are Pakistani shouldn’t mean anything, except to the guy reviewing your visa application.

    Like it or not we are still living in a world where we are judged on our ability to carry or show certain objects…
    National Status is one of them.
    And too bad that we not only put up these imaginary lines up in the first place, but we judge others and ourselves based on a paper that shows the different from one side of the line to the other.

    I say we keep talking and keep expressing…only then will we ourselves learn about ourselves…

    Good luck!

    • Daniel

      I’m part Chinese and born in Canada. I really enjoyed reading this article. Thanks Ding!

      • Thank you for reading Daniel. No one’s called me “Ding” since college, haha.

    • Thank you very much Gelatin for sharing your story, and congratulations to you for finding the woman of your dreams in China =)

      I agree with your point about labels and titles and I for one am glad to not just be one general title.

  • Jess

    How comes you gave up your passport? Doesn’t the USA or China allow dual citizenship?


    • Alice

      No, they don’t allow that.

    • I changed my citizenship to be eligible for college scholarships. A pragmatic reason to be sure, but at the time I didn’t really think about it. My mom led me into the office and before I knew it, it was done. As for dual citizenship, Alice is right, the Chinese government does not allow that. I would prefer dual citizenship if it were possible.

  • Ashley

    Holy…This is my life in a nutshell.

  • Chinky


  • suspended

    Dear Dr.

    Before I had the suspension last year, my studying went well, mybehavior
    had matured, and Ihad a few friends, especially senior friends, who have
    now graduated because they were seniors last year. What happened was, as
    you may recall, I had trouble interacting with peers in 9th grade due and
    those concerns were brought to you, Mr. , and my counselor Mrs.
    . After that meeting several years ago, my behavior improved and I
    was starting to make some friends, my study habits were very good, and life
    was going well. In essence, I was at a peak just before my junior year.
    However, I made the terrible mistake of cheating last year, and after that,
    people whom I thought were friends, who, prior to the cheating, treated me
    well and respected me, began to tease me and make fun of me. Myacademic
    career also almost fell apart, and I had to make up a lot of work. However,
    the academic situation cleared up much faster than the social situation.
    But, prior to my cheating, I used to remember how insert other dude hadtreated
    me well. After the cheating, he made fun of me, and the immature behaviors
    I had done in 9th grade resurfaced as they began to recall and dwell upon
    the negative side of me. It was pretty stressful, and all of these
    stressors truly were traumatic. As a result of these people making fun of
    me, you may recall the outbursts that occured last year and occasionally
    during the begining of this year. Also, as people made fun of me, I reacted
    and tried to act funny and strange. This only exacerbated my situation, to
    the point of having 9th graders on my bus and people in my gym class making
    fun of me. insert other dude also told me that you (Mr. ) called me
    “insane” when you talked to the people at my lunch table earlier this year.
    Truly, I felt that such a remark was uncalled for, especially
    consideringmy stressful
    situation and the circumstances that I had to face. Now, I’ve been behaving
    better and not reacting, and the tension between the students and me has
    eased. I realized that I should just ignore these kids, and not try to joke
    around with them and react, as doing so just makes everything worse.

    It truly is said that these kids associated the negative things I did due
    to immaturity in 9th grade with the cheating and combined these as a potent
    force to continue making fun of me. As stated before, I stopped having
    trouble getting along with others in 10th grade and the former part of 11th
    grade. I had been well-respected, and insert other dude had treated me well.
    However, afterwards, insert other dude called me insane and made fun of me and it really
    hurt myfeelings. Also, the situation in gym class is still bad, as dude
    ,who I feel should be talked to, kept on trying to exclude me from
    the basketball game the other day. He kept pinching me in areas I felt
    uncomfortable and he kept on harassing me. The gym teacher told him to stop
    after she caught him pinching me. Then, Mr. dude told me that if I told on
    him, he would say that I spat on the floor, ever though I didn’t. After
    this, he spat on the floor and then he and his teammates said that they
    would all team together and blame the spit on me as they act as “witnesses”
    even though dude had obviously did the spitting. Furthermore, they
    played “4 on 1” basketball in which dude and 3 other kids would all play
    against me. I lost that game. Then, they said that the loser must leave.
    However, after losing, I remained strong and didn’t leave. This was when
    the pinching increased in frequency as he did so on multiple occasions.
    Furthermore, I had to play with dude because the people on the
    other courts did not welcome me and excluded me as well. I had to play
    because I had to stay active during class; otherwise, I would’ve had
    points taken off. This is just another example of the cruelty that I have
    to witness on a daily basis.

    In summary, I just wanted to say that I had reached a peak before cheating
    and students respected me. After I was caught, they made fun of me, and I
    was traumatized. I behaved strangely and I had reverted to an earlier state
    of immaturity. After going through this situation, I have again matured,
    and feel that I have become a stronger person through these life-changing
    and harsh situations. I have matured further and learned many important
    lifelong lessons.

    In summary, I wish that you talk to dude . Despite his creulty, I
    don’t wish that yoususpend him. I feel that a serious talk would be

    Thank you,

  • chingy
  • Ming

    I was born in Urumqi, China, raised in Brazil (4-13), and moved to Canada (13-22). My parents are 100% Chinese, of course.

    Sometimes I have some serious identity crisis because I don’t feel like I belong to any group of people. My looks indicate I’m Chinese obviously, but the stuffing inside is all messed-up.

    I try to just “go with the flow” and be whatever people want me to be. If I’m hanging around a group of Chinese folks, I try to be more considerate to Chinese customs, when I’m hanging with Brazilians, be Brazilian, when in Rome, do as the Romans do. Although I have to admit there are slip-ups all the time. I end up doing something ‘werid’ in their perceptions, and I think that’s always distanced me from being considered as ‘one of them’.

    My relationships are mostly aloof. I don’t feel deep attachment or a sense of belonging as others whom have roots in a particular ethnicity do. Its kinda sad, but I kind of accepted it.

    Its always good to see Drifters like me hanging around. (I also want to coin that term, sounds cool lol). Cheers!

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