Story and Photo by Larry Cai, Study Abroad
In the Chinese language, there is no phrase for “Chinese-American.” The closest term is hua yi mei guo ren (华裔美国人), which means “Chinese descended American,” but I chose to use the term mei guo hua qiao (美国华侨). While this typically translates as “American Overseas Chinese,” its literal translation means “cultural bridge to America.” Hua refers to China as a culture, qiao refers to Overseas Chinese, but is written similarly and pronounced the same as “bridge,” and mei guo of course refers to the United States. As someone who has the ability to assimilate into both countries, I also believe the phrase illustrates the role I am both encouraged and privileged to play. Nowhere did I learn more about this role than in Hong Kong.
I chose to go to Hong Kong in Fall 2017 to study and experience what I had long believed to be the bridge between East and West. I quickly found out that I was not only a patron of this bridge; I was apparently socially expected to help maintain it. In other words, I was now part of the bridge. As such, I found myself constantly switching between languages and customs both inside and outside the classroom, and being treated as both an exchange student and a local. I like to believe that the cultural bridge between the East and West exists. My interactions with the University of Hong Kong, its faculty, the city, the local students, and my fellow exchange students proved that I was on both ends and the middle.
My dual cultural identity was turbocharged in Hong Kong. Exchange students asked me if I was a local, until they heard my accent. Local students thought I was a local, even after hearing my accent. My ability to speak and read Mandarin, my maternal native language, was respected by those who knew I was an American. In the same city, my inability to speak Cantonese, Hong Kong’s local dialect, or Hokkien, my paternal native language, were a source of curiosity. This means, incredibly, I was often expected to know four languages. Back in my hometown, which is 55% ethnic Chinese, my bilingual abilities were respected. Now, in Hong Kong, my bilingual abilities could be argued to only be half of what was expected of me. This was, of course, a tremendous compliment, as it meant I was held to the same standards as a college educated Hongkonger. Few Hongkongers expect Americans to know anything other than English, and their linguistic expectations of me proved I was not considered an outsider. I had never felt out of place in either culture, and it was nice to know I did indeed have a place within each culture.
The HKU administration inaccurately listed my Chinese name as my legal name, and my legal name was ignored, as it was believed to have been a nickname. My American professor assumed I was a Hongkonger who had a private education (How else could I speak English so well?), and my Hongkonger professor used Chinese teaching etiquette to counter my very American personality. In other words, I got roasted a lot. Of course, this was a compliment, as it actually made it clear I was welcome, since a Hongkonger or Chinese professor poking fun at me signified he viewed me no differently than he viewed the native students, and took ownership over my presence in his class.
When traveling and asked where I was from, I soon realized I had three identities to claim: American, Chinese, or Hongkonger. In Thailand, I once asked a hawker how much I owed him in English. He responded in Mandarin, correctly assuming that I knew the language. In Shanghai, I noticed a British couple lost at a train station. I asked them in English if they needed assistance, figuring they would appreciate a fellow Anglophone’s presence. The man responded in fluent Mandarin, and we parted ways without them ever knowing I was an American. The list of tales would go on for some time.
Being privileged with two identities meant I was given a responsibility to represent and connect both of them. In Beijing, I was asked to help watch over a tour group while the guide, the only other person present who spoke both English and Mandarin, went to go get tickets. Across Asia, I was a constant translator and primary source. I was asked relevant, albeit controversial questions about both countries, such as the police brutality and gun culture in America, and the civil rights and elitism in China. In the classroom, I was once asked to compare Chinese and American literature, and another time asked to compare Chinese and American governance. A British professor once called on me to answer a question regarding the differences between Chinese and American geography with full assumption that I would know the answer, even though I had not raised my hand. I did indeed know the answer, and quickly learned to answer these questions thoughtfully and objectively, knowing I could change someone’s opinion regarding hundreds of millions of people. These were all responsibilities I did not think I would inherit, but I gladly accepted them, knowing I was not born into two cultures just to sit passively in two different manners.
Having now lived on both sides of the metaphorical bridge between the East and West, I’ve been given life experiences I could not imagine replicating in any other fashion. I have grown used to crossing and strengthening the bridge I represent, and to this day, I understand the importance of not just viewing it without fear, but helping others cross it. Of course, I do not plan on exiting this bridge any time soon.
The story is featured in VOL 5 ISSUE 2 Fall 2020 (Print Edition)