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Where Are You From, Really?

Foreigners of Chinese decent struggle to define themselves living in China


When Victor Zheng was a freshman in high school, he found out his grandmother who lived in China had cancer. Zheng traveled to China to visit her. As a Chinese American who had grown up in Virginia, when he arrived, he discovered that he couldn’t communicate. “I had no way to talk to her because before I went to college, my Chinese wasn’t good enough. Afterwards, I had an endless feeling of regret.” Zheng promised himself that he would one day return to China to perfect his Chinese and get acquainted with his roots.


After graduating from the University of Virginia in 2016, Zheng attended a Chinese-language program at Tsinghua University. There, he met another exchange student named Dylan Lynch. “I found out he was into music. I like music, too, so we had a couple of jam-sessions.” The pair put together a video to launch on Weibo. Calling themselves, “A Pile of Laowai” where they played covers of Chinese songs, and eventually attracted the attention of a Chinese media company called The Foreigners Research Association. With their help, the duo ended up getting 3.9 million views on one of their Weibo videos. Everything seemed to be going well until the company informed Zheng that he was fired. According to Zheng, “They just said, ‘You’re not a good investment. You have a Chinese face.’”


For many foreigners with Chinese ancestry or huayi, as they are known in Chinese, living as an expat in China comes with a unique set of challenges. Unlike those whose features and skin color announce the fact that they are from someplace else, huayi often face exceedingly high linguistic and cultural expectations. Many feel that they are assumed to speak flawless Chinese, have a perfect understanding of Chinese culture, and share the political loyalties of locals. At the same time, for many huayi coming to China can be an incredibly rewarding personal journey. Several of the people we spoke to told us that coming here helped them to discover who they were, and helped determine where they fit in within two very different worlds.



One of Us

Before being fired, the media company Zheng worked for asked that he refer to himself online as simply Chinese - not Chinese American. Zheng refused. In response, he says that the company “explained to me the internet’s hatred for people who are ethnically Chinese but don’t identify themselves as Chinese.”


Zheng believes what the media company told him. He says he’s had a lot of negative reactions when identifying himself as a Chinese American—both in person and online. “I’m very strategic when I introduce myself to the average Chinese person because I have many personal anecdotes of when I introduce myself as a Chinese American it causes profoundly negative reactions. They often say things like “How can you say that!? Where are your roots? Your home is China; your ancestors are Chinese!”              


Zheng believes his identity as a Chinese American is seen as a political statement. He regularly encounters the question: “If there were a war between China and the U.S., which side would you fight for?”


Zheng has continued his media career and writes articles about these experiences on Chinese social media. He says his articles often receive angry comments. Some accuse him of being a traitor while others argue that identifying as both Chinese and American is “like having two wives. It’s like having two girlfriends.”



Zheng clarifies that he cannot speak for all 1.4 billion Chinese people, but he argues that in the minds of many, ethnicity and nationality are linked. According to Zheng, he encounters a pervasive view that “If you have Han blood you must be able to speak perfect Chinese. You must love Chinese culture. You must be loyal to China.”


John (alias), a Chinese American who teaches at an international high school in China, believes the fact that he has a Chinese face but doesn’t act Chinese often makes people uncomfortable. “You talk to me for five minutes, and you can tell I’m pretty American,” he says. To deal with that discomfort, he says people often laugh. “If I can get theoretical for a moment,” he tells us, “my identity, who I am, threatens a sense of Chinese identity grounded in ethnic nationalism. I’m a threat simply because I’m a strange sort of exception. And they have to laugh at it because otherwise, it’s really frightening because it breaks down their group identity.”


Both Zheng and John acknowledge that not everyone in China thinks this way. We asked Chinese friends and colleagues how they view huayi. While some did argue that huayi are Chinese and should identify themselves as such, others disagreed. Echo Ma (alias), a Beijinger in her thirties who works in PR, told us, “I would identify them the way that they want to be identified. It depends on what they feel they are on the inside; outer appearances are not important.” Wu Kaijie, a university student at Beijing Information Science and Technology University, brought up NBA star Jeremy Lin, saying, “I don’t think he is Chinese because he’s never lived with us. But we don’t hate him for that. I don’t think nationality is important to young people. On the other hand, people can choose their identity. So if he loves China, he can be Chinese!”



Zheng insists that he is only trying to represent himself accurately. “This might be idealistic and cliché, but I think it’s really important to be true to yourself. I think it’s really important to be objective and self-aware of who you are regardless.”


Since setting out on his own media career, he has devoted much of his efforts to address issues of prejudice within both Chinese and huayi communities. In June, he posted his short documentary on the Chinese website Bilibili, Our Prejudice—A Documentary About the Relationship Between Overseas Chinese and Chinese People.


Not all the huayi we spoke to say they experience pushback against their identity. Some, like Francis Miller, an American of half Chinese descent, say they’ve only experienced confusion. When people ask him where he’s from, he says the United States. According to Miller, conversations often proceed like this: “’But you’re not completely American, right? You’re a little bit Chinese?’ And I say: ‘Oh yeah—my mom—her parents are from Shanghai originally. And then they’re like, ‘Oh! So you’re Chinese!’ And I say, ‘No, no, no….’”



But Miller doesn’t mind this line of questioning. In fact, he enjoys it. “People are just very confused. But it’s actually very pleasant. People are curious. A lot of foreigners—this is my opinion—get kind of put off when people say, ‘Oh! Your Chinese is good!’ or ‘Your Chinese is bad!’ or they get lots of comments, and people ask them questions. I think a lot of foreigners treat it as a nuisance. But people here are really curious and open to learning. I think that’s awesome.”


For Miller, coming to China has also meant reuniting with an extended family he had never known. “I’m so blessed to know them. They take really, really, wonderful care of me whenever I’m there. They are really incredibly open about their lives, and what their family has been through in the decades since my grandparents left China.” Learning Chinese has allowed him to communicate with those in his family who don’t speak any English, and learn more about his family’s past.



Where do I fit? 

Xiao Jingjing was born in Beijing, but she moved with her family to the U.S. when she was just seven years old. She speaks Chinese well enough that most people can’t tell she grew up outside of China, but she still makes some mistakes. These mistakes are more confusing because people don’t understand why she is making them. When addressing someone, for example, she isn’t always sure whether to use the more formal “you” or the regular “you.” “Usually it’s better to go more formal unless the person you’re talking to is a lady, in which case you might be calling her ‘old.’ So usually in those cases, I’m assumed not to be a foreigner still learning Chinese, but just to be an incompetent and rude Chinese person.”


Vanessa Meng is used to feeling like an outsider, even in the city she grew up in. Meng was born in the U.S., but she and her family left when she was only two years old, moving to Hong Kong. When she was ten, her family moved again, this time to Beijing. Because she grew up attending an international school, she feels more confident speaking English than Chinese. To add another layer of complexity, Meng’s parents are from Taiwan, so she speaks Chinese with a Taiwanese accent. “So whenever I’m out and about people always ask: ‘Where are you from?’ And I’m like, ‘I actually grew up here.’… And it’s a whole conversation.” She says that many people don’t believe that she actually grew up in Beijing.



Even though she was raised here, Meng feels she grew up learning more about America than China. She blames this on society’s glorification of everything Western. “Growing up as an outsider in China has always been a source of pride. As a child, I’d walk around and be like, ‘Hey, I’m not really the same as everyone else here. I’m from America,’— which kind of meant, ‘I’m from somewhere else that’s better.’” As a result, she was never encouraged to improve her Chinese language ability or learn much about her cultural heritage. “I feel that my parent’s generation, and the generation before them, have gone through a lot of the turmoils of Chinese history. They’ve worked very hard to separate my life from that and to give me a life that is almost completely separated, both culturally and linguistically, from their background. Just because they think it’s a better life.”


Meng says that only as an adult, has she discovered the importance of learning about China and her cultural roots. “I think I’ve just grown up learning how to zone out some things and thinking they weren’t important enough to learn. But they are, and I think that’s probably why I’m very ashamed that I didn’t learn them well when I was a kid.” Meng is now attending Swarthmore College in the U.S., but she has taken a semester off to come back to Beijing and learn more about her heritage. She is taking courses in Chinese language and history but is also learning from her family. They are teaching her things they learned as children, such as calligraphy. “And my grandma’s actually a painter, so I got to learn a lot about that. There’s a lot of knowledge that I feel like was not passed down, because of that idea that I was supposed to go to America and so didn’t need it.”



Celebrating a mixed identity

Despite the difficulties, many huayi cherish their multiple cultural backgrounds. Zheng wrote in his article, 2 million Second Generation Chinese Americans, Why Aren’t They Eager to Come to China to Study or Travel? “As a person of Chinese ethnicity growing up in America, my parents always told me that I was lucky to inherit two great cultures—Chinese and American culture. I always thought that my Chinese American identity was a gift.”


Meng tells us: “I think because I am not tied down by any one community, or any one culture, I feel that sometimes I can be more fluid in understanding other people.” In college, she often throws parties in which she invites all different kinds of people. “I think I find the most comfort in communities that are extremely diverse, where everyone is from different places.”


As for Xiao, there are things she misses about the U.S.—blue skies and Western food being two of them—but she recognizes that when she leaves China, she will also miss a lot. “That’s something about being from multiple cultures—there will always be something you miss. But it’s good that you’ve experienced something lovely and different enough to miss it.”

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