Who is "Chinese"?

In graduate school, one of my roommates had studied many years of Japanese and lived in Japan. But he was rather ambivalent about the experience, largely because he felt he would always be viewed as an outsider, no matter how well he spoke Japanese or how long he lived there. To the Japanese, you cannot be “Japanese” unless you were born to biologically Japanese parents.

That’s probably true in China too. But being biologically Chinese does not — in many people’s minds — make you “Chinese.”

In this interesting article on expat family life in Beijing, the author’s 4-year-old son illustrates the slipperiness of the concept of “Chinese-ness.” Is it racial? Is it based on birthplace? Is it based on where one is living? Chinese themselves can’t agree:

[Can] expat children, dragged around the world after their parents – “privileged refugees”, a friend calls them – really know who they are? My four-year-old daughter reckons she’s from New Zealand (the first place she remembers living) while her brother always raises a laugh by informing people he’s “Indian” – the country of his birth. Perhaps for now, I can say only that we are a family, wherever we are, and leave it at that.

Their upbringing certainly breeds an enviable racial blindness. My son was playing with a Chinese boy in the playground last week and noticed that a friend of ours, an Australian-born Chinese woman married to an Italian, was watching him.

“He’s my friend, he’s Chinese,” he said, gauchely.

“I can see that,” she replied.

He stopped, puzzled for a moment, then asked: “How did you know?”

She thought for a second. “Well, he looks like me and I’m Chinese.”

Billy looked back at her in incomprehension. “No you’re not,” he said, before running off to play.

Posted by James on Thursday, August 19, 2010