A phrase that often weasels its way into conversations with strangers for me is, ‘Wow, your Chinese is so good!’ Although the deliverer of the phrase is presenting it as a compliment, it is always difficult for me to suppress the instinctual clenching of teeth and a flood of irritation that follows.
I often find myself having to explain to the astonished looks on peoples’ faces that I am, in fact, mixed and can express myself in both English and Chinese to an adequate degree of fluency. As an Australian passport holder having spent my whole life in Beijing, you could say that I’ve grown up with some level of confusion over what my true nationality is.
It is extremely rare that anyone can ever accurately guess where I am from. Here in China, people seem certain that I am European, while on my travels outside of Asia (namely to Australia) I have discovered more confusion about my nationality – my slightly Asian features seem to stand out to non-Chinese people, setting me apart from them. With people in my own country not considering me one of their own, how am I supposed to figure out where I belong?
On my numerous trips back to Australia during the year, while indeed having enjoyable experiences, it is also not uncommon for me to feel slightly out of place in a setting where everything seems so foreign and different. I feel somewhat unconnected to my country, and it’s disheartening that I should think that, considering it’s supposed to be my home. My mind tells me that I should be comfortable and at ease with everything around me, as is expected when you’re returning home, but I can never repress the feeling that I am in actuality a lost tourist traveling to a new destination that I’ve never been to before.
When I spend time with my family in Australia, I’m often at a loss as to what to say to them. All my other cousins band together, hanging out and chatting animatedly over topics of which I know nothing. Whenever they try to engage me in conversation with their strange, thick Australian accents rolling off their tongues, I am always momentarily bereft of speech as my brain desperately searches for a suitable response in return. It’s saddening that I’m so detached from my own culture that I even struggle with finding something to say to my family.
I often wish I could be less ill at ease and more like my dad, who seems to revert back to his Australian mode and act like one of the locals minutes after stepping off the plane. I wish I understood the frenzy that all Australians get into whenever they see their favorite teams playing Rugby League or Australian Rules Football. But most of all, I wish I could look down at my navy blue Australian passport and have that genuine connection to my country that so many other people seem to possess.
Don’t get me wrong, I think Australia is a great country, but I lack the familiarity with it that I find here in China. Even with going back there every single year, I always feel at a distance from the place. Then again, I would never be able to consider myself a real Chinese person. Aside from the fact I am now quite reluctant to speak the language in front of strangers due to their inevitable reaction of shock and the barrage of questions that are sure to follow, I also don’t even have a proper Chinese name (aside from an immensely embarrassing nickname as a child).
Strangely, when I am in Australia, I feel a strong pull towards my Chinese heritage, as it provides me comfort knowing that despite my inability to fit into the country, there is always another place that I can belong to. However, frustratingly, as soon as I return to China, I am made to feel like an outsider once again due to my different looks and my preference to speak in English. As a child, I was so afraid to not be accepted as Chinese that I actually refused to speak a word of English until the age of four, hoping that by speaking the native tongue I would be recognized as a member of the Chinese society.
At school, I again face the vexatious reminder of my inability to fit in due to my cultural differences. I would say my school is a generally welcoming community, but there are some rather obvious divisions between the Chinese and non-Chinese students. Similarly to the situation in Australia, I again find myself having difficulty finding common topics to discuss with the Chinese kids, once more struggling to keep up with their talk of trending topics on Chinese social media that I am ignorant of.
My experience isn’t unique, and I personally know lots of other kids who face the same predicament – growing up mixed-blooded and not really knowing which culture they belong to. A close friend of mine told me that despite considering China as her true home, she still felt ‘rejected by the girls at school due to cultural differences.’
Lacking a sense of belonging to your country is an unpleasant and perplexing situation, and I envy other people with their patriotism and unwavering allegiance to their homeland. Sometimes I wonder if I am doomed to be an outsider forever, if I will never discover that sense of acceptance and attachment to one’s own country that so many people take for granted.
I don’t mean to sound ungrateful – I am indeed conscious of how fortunate I am to be raised in a household where I get to experience two vastly different cultures every day. It has provided me with a different outlook on society and shaped me into a more broad-minded person. Being influenced by both Eastern and Western culture has allowed me to become more accepting and open to all different kinds of people, so despite the loneliness and sense of disjointedness where my roots aren’t fluently connected to each other that sometimes bring about, I still appreciate the lessons it has taught me.
Photos: Adobe Creative Cloud
This article appeared on p6-7 of the beijingkids September 2018 Teen Takeover issue.