“So You’re Really Just Chinese”

Pauline Lai Heng

I’ve met many people from all around the world, and I found out how different, in many instances, frames and modes of thought are, simply due to entirely different upbringings. Once, on a school field trip to a garden I met a white woman in her forties and she made conversation with me. Eventually she asked, “So… What are you?” and I knew from her tone of voice what kind of answer she wanted. I’ve been asked this question many times and she probably expected me to say that I was Chinese, but I decided to indulge myself and give her a full answer, hoping she would understand.

I am ethnically Chinese and I was born and raised in America; but the story is much more complicated. My great-grandparents are from Shantou, China, but they immigrated to Cambodia. It’s in Cambodia that my grandparents were born, but they continued to marry other ethnically Chinese families within Cambodia. My ethnically Chinese parents were then also born and raised in Cambodia, married each other, and then because of the Khmer Rouge (the genocide in Cambodia) they eventually immigrated to the United States. So here I am now, still ethnically Chinese, culturally Cambodian, but also American because I was born and raised in Seattle.

I told her this story and then she pauses and tells me, “So you’re really just Chinese.” This attitude is one I get quite often, and it’s really infuriating. I just gave her my background so I could avoid the “You’re only American” or “You’re only Chinese” kind of answer. I know she didn’t mean anything by it, but I come across this kind of person all the time. Most non-Chinese Americans see me as Chinese first and foremost, while most Chinese people will see me as American first and foremost. Does the language I speak at home, the culture I abide by, or the fact I was born and raised in America not count for something? I’m not entirely either Chinese or American, but if I’m neither both then what I really am is nothing more than a blank state. It’s frustrating when someone you don’t know tries to steal a piece of your cultural identity.

My grandparents raised me to speak Chaozhou Chinese and it’s from them that I acquired many Chinese traditions, and keeping in mind that they and my parents were born and raised in Cambodia means that I also picked up many habits and traditions from Cambodian culture. There is much difficulty in maintaining cultural identity in America. Once I step outside home, it becomes an entire new world with an entire new set of rules. To say I’m Chinese is only part of the answer. The fact is that I grew up in a western society so the way I think and act is obviously influenced by western values and my English is better than when I speak Khmer or Chaozhou.

As a small child I went through many phases trying to deal with my identity crisis, for a while I attempted rejecting American culture altogether, then attempted rejecting Chinese culture, and then rejecting Cambodian culture. I lived in constant paranoia. I tried hard to be one or the other, my whole life to fit into a mold that I never would be able to fit into. Then out of the blue people like the woman at the garden come and label me however they like, forcing me to realize I’m not entirely Chinese or American but because of my face I’m still held to Chinese standards. My grandparents always pressured me to be Chinese and that being American and adopting American views is shameful, while outside home, it was implied I should assimilate into American culture so I would “fit in”. The conflicting views pressed upon me were painfully stressful.

Then in high school I began studying Mandarin Chinese through OneWorldNow (an afterschool program that teaches Chinese or Arabic) and I was introduced to the culture in an entirely new way. I studied really hard and I can now hold conversations in Mandarin. When I graduated high school I got a scholarship to study abroad in Shanghai, and it was in China where I really realized both how American and how Chinese I really am. It was an amazing and wonderful experience, and frustrating too. Whenever I traveled with my other American friends, locals assumed I was a tour guide and spoke to me first. When I was with Chinese friends, I received disparaging comments on how poor my Mandarin was, despite having only studied for 2 years. Having living my entire life in America and then going to study in China was exactly what I needed to solidify who I am.

I am the product of when East meets West – a living example of cultural dispersal. I’ve learned to stop looking for other people’s approval of my identity and to try creating an identity unique to me in which nationality and ethnicity are not the foremost parts of my identity. My identity is my own and I decide who I want to be, and yes, the fact I am Chinese or Cambodian or American is just a small part of who I am and no one can change that.

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  • Jay K.


    1. these type of diaspora stories are becoming cliche (not that I think your writing or you yourself are a problem, it’s not)

    2. a little bit of everything from all these stories i can understand I am after all mixed blooded

    3. can we get some more exciting stories of dating, relationships, fighting, you know the entertaining stories of a more raunchy attitude with debauchery and the holds no bar “better luck tomorrow” attitude.


    • Ish

      Yes, we expect to hear stories designed to entertain us! Who cares about what members of the Chinese diaspora *want* to write about, and whether their writing tends to hit on common and well-worn themes. Nope, it’s about the sensationalism that we, the audience expect.

      • Jay K.

        wow somebody is sensitive, or bleeding profusely in a certain time period.

        joking aside, something that’s not or less predictable would be considered fresh air in the field of writings for the chinese diaspora.

        like i said no need to hate; i guess as a person who is mixed blooded(asian blood ties, and that jew blood in me which keeps my jew fro shiny and awesome) and going through the beginning stages of a mid life crisis (am i?) ive just heard it all. entertaining yes, but the cliches are quickly making my attention span fade.

        example of fine literature would be (im going to write it from what my friend told me few months back) a beijing guy i knew ended up hooking up with this white girl for the first time, he thought she was hot (but knowing he was drunk, and his first whitey, i couldn’t say much british chicks in the most stereotypical view and that was she). next day “哥们, she almost broke my dick” the details are vague and hazy but i meant it as a short story.

        • Ish

          I was being half-sarcastic. In any case, my point was that wouldn’t it be great if every person with identity issues had a special and unique story about their experience to tell. Alas, we are a society of individuals, and the identity-related themes that individuals like to hit on tend to be more-or-less the same. Unlike chinaSMACK’s main site, this site details very personal details about individuals, and the sensationalism present is up to the contributors.

          The story you told is fun, and a nice one to share over drinks with fellow interested folks, but it has little to do with being a “diaspora”.

  • red_five

    I agree with Jay K. While I certainly believe every one has a story worth telling, identity-themed essays are becoming rather predictable,

    Personally, I would like to read more about every day experiences living outside of China. Experiences with political, social, environmental activism, perspectives on Western lifestyles, critiques, even mundane things like learning to drive in Yellowknife, dating in Berlin, interactions with neighbors and dozens of other topics. Having spent a considerable time reading fellow westerner’s blogs about life in Big Red, I’m exicted to read about their Chinese contemporaries experiences abroad.

  • TAKE5

    Not everyone cares about where your from or what your mixture is. At some point the guys I ran with in California stop being “Asian” and where just guys I ran with.

  • Dawei

    LOL she goes on at length about how ethnic Chinese she is and how her grandparents we most particular to keep the Chinese blood pure to the old white bird only to be shocked that she reply’s “So you’re really just Chinese.”. Doh!!!

    Most Americans add identity monickers to their persona I am Irish American, Swedish American blah blah. No one in these countries considers them anything but American.

    I agree with the other posters, most of these articles except a few are navel gazing identity search 101.

    • someasiandude

      Navel gazing identity search only sounds self-indulgent until you do it yourself…

      • Dawei

        True, but I don’t write long winded essays on the subject.

        • anon

          She did it for a t-shirt. Come on, leave her alone. Let people write about what they care about. You extend yourself the same courtesy, extend it to others.

          • Dawei

            I am not telling her to stop writing. I was expressing my own opinion on not just what she wrote but what others have. Comments should be disabled if we follow your reasoning.

  • Ish

    Since I’ve already made two comments that don’t pertain to the story, I might as well make a relevant comment.

    IMO, you don’t need to accept those people that say flat out “oh, you’re just…”. I get that all the time, and those people simply cannot conceive of ethnicity in any more than one dimension. I’m Jewish and last year I went to a reform synagogue in a different city. The rabbi and I were probably the only ones in the whole schul singing in Hebrew. Afterward, some yuppie came up to me and in a slow voice asked me where I am “from”, am I orthodox Jewish, etc. I told her that I was born and lived my whole life in the US, and simply grew up going to a reform shul where we learned the prayers in Hebrew. It totally went over her head, and she followed up with, “So are you from Israel?”. So nu.

    Oftentimes, doing and saying nothing is an expedient and preferable choice, but I don’t think one needs to let another person off the hook for their ignorance. It just is.

  • Just John


    True, some people are only comfortable with people in their little boxes. I guess your box is “Chinese” for this woman.

    Many others realize we do not fit the nice tupperware containers.

    I believe every person is unique, a universe unto themselves.

    Don’t let them box you in. Remember, no matter your race, ethnicity, culture, language, etc, you are you, and a beautiful person for it.

    Let her keep her boxes, those truly worth your time will be more interested in your story.

  • Jay K.

    Star Trek Utopia society needs to come quickly, so everyone just interbreds

    I personally want to try a Klingon lady, according to Star Trek Lore the female klingons have a voracious sexual appetite

    Porking a Vulcan would be pointless though, that’s probably one of those rare cases of shooting your load and then using logic to calculate the percentage you didn’t knock her up.

    • anon

      According to Star Trek lore, they also tend to break bones. Even if you can handle that, would you want to? I mean, is that what gets you off? Pain?

      Aren’t Vulcans supposed to be quite feral when mating? Pon Farr and all that? I think they drop the logic when they’re in heat.

  • WTF

    Chinasmack sucks. stop posting these lame stories and cover the good stories it used to cover… for example, I don’t see blogs on the high speed train crash in china. I thought chinasmack was the place to get the sensational perspectives, but now we have to settle for these lame stories, which aren’t all that important anyway. C’MON!!!! RESTORE CHINASMACK TO ITS PAST GLORY!!!

    • anon

      WTF is wrong with you? There are no less than 5 posts on the Wenzhou train disaster. Learn to navigate a website and don’t make yourself out to be an ass. What possessed you to bitch about a website you get to enjoy for free, that you don’t pay for?

      • WTF

        you pay for websites? loser….

        • anon

          No, but you’re complaining about something you have no real right to complain about. chinaSMACK provides all of this content to you for free. You’re behaving like a self-entitled prick. The day you pay Fauna and everyone at chinaSMACK for the time and effort they spend translating or writing what they do is the day you are in a position to make demands of them. Until then, please behave like a decent human being.

  • WTF

    post some hot stories… chinasmack is getting stupid and lame.
    where are the chinese blogs on the recent train crash? dig it out!! c’mon! restore chinasmack to it’s prior glory!!!

    • You’re on the wrong page. This is the Diaspora section. Go to the main chinaSMACK page. Fauna has done an excellent job covering Chinese blogs on the train crash.

      • WTF

        oh, thanks! wtf is disaporia, is it just another word for narcissism, inferiority complex, or masterbation?

  • revoltingbrain

    It’s interesting how Chinasmack decided to delve into the topic of overseas chinese identity. It tells me that someone in charge at Chinasmack is an overseas chinese him/herself. Multiculturalism doesn’t mean anything to most people in the world. People don’t understand that culture is always changing and that an individual’s identity is always moving along a continuum.

  • jos

    so do you say you go to china or return to china?

  • The comments are so meaningful.!!!

    I dare not to leave a word!

  • soul83

    Don’t be discouraged by all the negative comments on here. Having just married a mainlander and getting ready for our migration to my home country in a month’s time, I found this article particularly relevant to my circumstances. Because cultural identity is going to be an important aspect my future children’s life.

    I appreciate reading articles like these. Keep it up.

  • William

    You have a rich and diverse cultural heritage. It’s good that you have accepted that you are a unique person, with unique gifts to share.

  • Rene Donaldson

    Juggling 3 different nationalities at one time. I wish I could do that. I’m just American. Nothing cool like having parents with 3 nationalistic identities.

  • Dana

    Just read your article, and coming from an ABC, parents straight from China. I came to China myself (Guangdong) to see how it was like, and I guarantee to you, I am more American than I knew. American, I think is what you might call a mixture of cultures, East and West. I think it’s great to have this ability to feel both sides, but to be honest, it’s really up to the individual what they consider themselves. Culture does have an influence on how you identify yourself perhaps –such as Chinese American, but I say that as others have mentioned it is all a fluid concept.

  • Nicole

    You should say, ‘My parents came from Cambodia.’ No one can tell the difference between Asiatics anyhow. And everyone loves Cambodia, right?

  • Andre Leonard

    Wow, what a rich and diverse culture you have. An amazing social and culture set to bring to a relationship. Your grasp and understanding of a bigger picture is good.

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