From Chinese-American Utopia to Being Different in Spain

Nancy Siwei Xiao.

It was 3:00 p.m. in Madrid. My plane had landed at 8:00 a.m., but the last students had just arrived. All 26 of us were now here, and I was the only Asian. This was utterly new for me, but allow me to clarify.

I’m from Arcadia, California; it’s Greek for “utopia” which is the perfect description for my city if you’re a homogeneity-seeking Chinese-American family. My parents love this place. The high school I attend is over 70% Asian, the majority being American-born Chinese kids like me. Walking along the streets, you’ll notice Asian people mulling about their business. Nothing out of the ordinary. You’ll say “hello, how are you?” (in ENGLISH); they’ll reply “fine, thanks” (in ENGLISH). Nothing out of the ordinary. Sitting in your Advanced Placement English Language and Composition class, you’ll find yourself surrounded by–you guessed it–Asians. Nothing out of the ordinary. But in the context of the United States (and the world), this is out of the ordinary. After living my entire life in this kind of setting, it has become mundane to me. I don’t expect people to question my ethnic identity because it’s usually the same as theirs.

But when I stepped foot in Madrid for a three-week long study-abroad program, I was stepping foot into unchartered territory. Being the only Asian person in a group was bound to garner me some unwarranted and untrue stereotypes. I wondered: How will this change my own perception of me? It already has, hasn’t it? In Arcadia, I don’t even think twice about what I am…because what I am is what everyone is. But here, I’m…


I spun around to see who’d said it. A blonde girl in aviator sunglasses smiled and replied, “You’re different, but it’s cool.”

Different. That’s the word. Back home, I see “different” in terms of personality traits: shy, extroverted, selfish, altruistic, fake, honest, quick-witted, dull. Those things make people different. And those things take time, conversations, and shared experiences to figure out. But here, my difference from the rest of the group was instantly apparent.

To my pleasant surprise, throughout the next three weeks, the 25 other students and I meshed perfectly. My difference didn’t mean exclusion or alienation, but rather distinction. My new friends thought it was awesome that I could speak Mandarin fluently. They found it amusing when a Spaniard tried to start a conversation with me by saying “Gonichiwa!” They were curious as to what “real Chinese food” was like, and what the best cities to visit in China were. Because of their interest in my heritage, I embraced my Chinese-ness like never before. In Arcadia, even though the majority of my friends share the same heritage, we’re all pretty apathetic towards it. Perhaps it’s because we all share the same heritage. Everyone has it, so why care? No one’s going to ask about it, so why know the details? And that’s the attitude I lived by.

My trip in Spain opened my eyes to the excitement of heritage. I had spent so much time surrounded by people with the same one, I had forgotten about the enormous world out there–a world of difference that I, too, was a part of.

One thing that I will never do is base my entire identity upon my ethnic identity. What I will do, and what I failed to do before, is combine my personality quirks and idiosyncrasies with the backdrop of my heritage. I’m still me; I’ve just discovered that there’s more to me than I thought.

Help us maintain a vibrant and dynamic discussion section that is accessible and enjoyable to the majority of our readers. Please review our Comment Policy »
  • revoltingbrain

    Glad there is some 626 representation here! I like how you recognize that your identity is not just based on your ethnicity. Nobody truly knows themselves as well as they think they do.

    Arcadia is a great place. The Chinese food out there is as authentic as it gets stateside and its clean. Jet Li owned a house in Arcadia at one time until he moved to Singapore. Chen Shuibian has a couple of houses out there. Arcadia is also one of the few places where Chinese parents fight over whether Traditional or Simplified Chinese should be taught to their kids in the Chinese schools. It used to be all Taiwanese, but now all the rich PROC folks are moving out there. Which one are you Nancy?

    • exoticgod

      After reading Nancy article and then i read your post. Does it matter whether she is based from the mainland or taiwan?

      I am mixed and i am tired from questions like this. We are all now born and raised in the states, though our bloods are Chinese but what is the point of dictating who is from mainland or taiwan?

      I personally believe a lot of the article from diaspora share the similarity of being open and not to judge someone. We are all now overseas Chinese. Political ideology aside, mainlanders or taiwanese, we all share the roots of being Chinese.

      • anon

        A lot of Taiwanese wouldn’t agree with you.

        • Just John

          I disagree with you.

          One of my best friends, who is Taiwanese, tended to spend more time with Chinese then with his college classmates.

          Why? It had nothing to do with China or Taiwan.
          They were all in foreign countries, where their language was not spoken.

          They shared a common language, where the main difference was more similar to accent then to meaning.
          They shared a common culture.

          Having been in both China and Taiwan, I can tell you that the main difference is political. Now, is that all you talk about in life, politics?

          • anon

            You’d be comparing the anecdote of your friend versus countless polls of Taiwanese and Taiwanese-Americans who see themselves as distinct from and adverse to being labeled as Chinese or Chinese-American.

            I’m not personally disagreeing with the idea that many Taiwanese and Chinese share common roots, or that both may share more in common with each other than with the natives when overseas in for example America. I am saying, however, that many Taiwanese do see a point in differentiating between being from Taiwan and being from the mainland, whether they are Taiwanese in Taiwan or Taiwanese-Americans.

            There are of course also many Taiwanese who consider themselves Chinese as well. Again, refer to those polls. I agree there is a shared common culture. I also agree the main difference can be described as political (though I think many Taiwanese see social and economic differences too, so much so that they’re starting to see themselves as inherently a class above mainlanders). I’m just saying that between the Taiwanese and Chinese, you’re going to hear a lot more Taiwanese taking issue with the differentiation between Taiwanese and Chinese.

            Anyone from Southern California should instantly know what I’m talking about.

    • Nancy Xiao

      Hi revoltingbrain (intriguing name, by the by),

      Are you from the SGV, too? You seem to know a lot about Arcadia. My mom’s side of the family is from Beijing and my father’s side is from Inner Mongolia, so I guess I’m part of “the rich PROC folks.” I have friends who are Taiwanese, and usually it’s not a big deal. We don’t talk about it much, unless someone asks where they’re from or someone assumes they’re Chinese. Most of them make a point to clarify that they are Taiwanese. Thanks for reading!

  • Lewis

    It’s great to read a diaspora story about someone who has a positive experience about being different in a strange land. If anything I think that your article is to short. What else have you traveled and what did you do there? I would like to have read more about Spain and maybe you could have included more pictures because you’recute!

    • Nancy Xiao

      Hi Lewis,

      I was in Spain for a study abroad program through Brown University. During the weekdays, we took classes at a local university in Segovia. On weekends, we usually traveled to other cities (Barcelona, Madrid, Seville, Cordoba). I definitely appreciated the classes and the beauty of Spain, but the social experience of bonding with the other kids from the US was definitely the most memorable part of my experience. Thank you for reading :)

  • Billy

    I thought it was going to be a story about being seen as different by the Spaniards which would have been quite interesting but by your own countrymen and women? I’m speechless!

    • Nancy Xiao

      Hi Billy,

      Haha :) Although I focused mainly on being seen as different by other Americans, my Spain experience was definitely packed with being seen as different by Spaniards. Many greeted me with “ni hao!” and glanced quizzically at me when I traveled with the group of American-looking Americans. While in the Prado Museum, an Asian tour guide (Korean, I think, by the sound of his language) thought I was straying from their tour group! Those instances were definitely interesting, but I think (and hope you find) that being seen as different by compatriots is a lot more worth exploring. Thank you for reading!

  • J

    “Utopia” is Greek for utopia. Just fyi.

    • anon

      LOL, that’s true. How ironic!

    • Nancy Xiao

      Hi J,

      I may have misused the term, but thank you for correcting me! I love words/idioms/slang and am always trying to expand my knowledge base. I guess I rely a bit too much on good ol’ Wikipedia.

      Thank you for reading!

  • Toni

    I hope you will enjoy my city (although I am scared not all will be wonderful for you)

    I believe being different is cool in this world that tries to alienate us

    • Nancy Xiao

      Hi Toni,

      I’m sure I will because I’ll have you to show me around :) Thanks for reading!

  • Soi

    You say you grew up in Arcadia? you only need go to Pasadena or Monrovia to see different heritages. Arcadia has no walls, you are free to leave.

    • Nancy Xiao

      Hi Soi,

      I agree that it’s easy to see different heritages in Pasadena or Monrovia, but it’s pretty rare to really interact with them in intimate settings. That’s why my Spain experience was so eye-opening. I truly never had anything like it before.

      Arcadia does have walls, especially for a teenager with little mobility. I’m ashamed to say it…but I failed my driving test a month ago, so I have yet to get behind the wheel alone. My friends are pretty much all from Arcadia. When I go to Pasadena or Monrovia (which I often do), it is always with my Arcadia friends.

      But you have a valid point. It’s not just my environment that made me so culturally sheltered. I wish I branched out more. At out school, there are non-Asian people. But there is an unspoken social code at our school. It’s not strictly divided by race, but the people who end up running in my circles are almost always Asian (not just Chinese or Taiwanese, but also Indian). I have….one “white” close friend in Arcadia, and she’s not even full white. She’s half white, a quarter black, and a quarter Vietnamese. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting her extended family, and it was a treat to see so much diversity and so much love in the same room. But it’s still different from what I went through in Spain.

      Thank you for reading! Do you live in the San Gabriel Valley?

      • Soi

        Sorry to hear about the Driving exam. Yes, I was born in Arcadia methodist and live in SGV. I’m older than you but younger than your parents so Ive seen,with my own eyes, the transformation of Arcadia from a predominately Anglo city to the demographic it is today not to mention Monterey Park, S.G and parts of San Marino. This why I find California so fascinating in respect to the cultural multitudes. From Korean to Brazilian, I’ve managed to enjoy and learn from so many different races. I wish I could add Vietnamese but never had the chance. A Korean friend of my told me something that isn’t very nice. His mother would say,” I would rather you bring home a black girl than a Vietnamese girl”. I was like, wow, why would she say that? So he told be. But anyway, I always hope to hang out with someone from Vietnam to make my own judgment.

        I’ve been to Spain, Barcelona, Pamplona, Madrid and Ibiza. Of all the cites, Madrid felt the most genuine in regards to feeling like I was living the life of a Spaniard. I’ll be in Tokyo on vacation next month, first time. I love it!

        When you graduate from AHS(if you haven’t already), You’ll have a much better chance to experience different people, especially if you live on campus. I know how parents can something dictate the path we choose when it comes to friends.
        Take care.

  • Jess

    What % is the Asian population in Arcadia, 70%?

    I like Asians, maybe I should move there!

  • Jing

    Join the club, I’m practically the only Asian at my college here in the Midwest.

  • Roger

    It sounds like you are beginning to see the real differences between your Asian values and those of various other Americans. I am frequently surprised by the competition that exists between siblings in Asian families and generally between Asians and each and coworkers, etc. My upbringing, being from a midwest, protestant background, tends to stress cooperation where my Asian friends, family members, coworkers, etc. would stress competition.

    When I have worked for Asian supervisors I have encountered prejudice in the form of favoritism toward my Asian colleagues. One supervisor told me he doesn’t like having Americans in his group because he can’t tell when they are lying to him, so he is more comfortable with Asians. I’ve been told by Asians that they wouldn’t buy American cars because Asians are smarter so would build them better.

    On the other hand, I have also had some very successful relationships with Asian coworkers that have brought me a great deal of satisfaction. There are a lot of factors that go into this, including the temperament of the individuals, where in Asia they are from, what their religious/cultural background is, etc. Most of the Asians I get along with would consider buying an American car – its not a requirement just an observation.

  • Kevin Zhang

    cya nerds

    • Nancy Xiao

      Hi Kevin,

      I enjoy prolaspses of my anoos as well

      • Nancy Xiao

        8========D ~~~~~ O: <- your mouth

Personals @ chinaSMACK - Meet people, make friends, find lovers? Don't be so serious!»