Last week’s column

This one has spurred some interesting discussions in my in my forum.

I only barely knew what deep waters I was wading into here.

Expats of Chinese Ethnicity Face
Double Standards Living in China

July 5, 2007

Expats of Chinese ethnicity face a unique set of issues while living in China. They sometimes call themselves bananas — yellow on the outside, white on the inside — and their ability to blend in can be both a blessing and a curse.

“If I go to a touristy area, I’ll let my obviously foreign friend walk in front of me and have the [street] hawkers assault him to buy things,” Yew-Liang, a Chinese Malaysian who works in Beijing for a European company, told me. “But I think you are lucky in many ways to be unmistakably foreign … and white. You get pretty different treatment — most of it good.”

Because he feels expats are treated much better than local hires in the workplace, he makes sure to address co-workers in English when meeting them. “Starting with English announces that you’re foreign and thus probably in some senior position — at least it gets you noticed” he explains. He also has his own language barriers to contend with. Yew-Liang grew up speaking Cantonese and English, but not Mandarin, which he only learned for two years in nursery school. His Mandarin skills still lag behind, which often confuses locals.

“Because I don’t look different, people assume I know Mandarin,” he says. “Sometimes they just can’t get it.”

But he says he is rarely hassled about this lack of language skills. This is in sharp contrast to a Chinese-American friend who is also fluent in Cantonese and learning Mandarin, and who tells me she has been harangued so many times by cab drivers and others for not knowing her “native tongue” that she has taken to telling them she is Korean. That was only after repeated attempts to explain that she was American were met with “No, you’re Chinese.”

Her Chinese is, in fact, far better than mine, yet I often get copious praise for uttering simple phrases. While many Chinese are pleased to hear a Caucasian’s fumbling attempt to speak their language, they seem to expect nothing more than full fluency from someone who looks like them.

Yew-Liang says that he and his wife are also often subject to parental lecturing, particularly from grandmothers and ayis (nannies) in public parks.

“The way they raise kids is very different — they tend to be very overprotective,” he says. “They hold their kids’ hands or stand right next to them while they are on slides or other equipment and can’t understand why we let our daughter run around free. And, in the winter, forget it. They have their kids bundled up like they are going to the arctic and can’t understand why we don’t.”

Yew-Liang mostly hangs out at work with several colleagues in a similar situation — ethnically Chinese expats from Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia. “It’s easier for us to relate to each other,” he says. “We have both a language and a cultural barrier between us and the Chinese. Just one example is the local guys don’t seem to tease each other, joke around or talk about girls casually the way we do.”

He says he relates more easily to his European and American colleagues than to mainland Chinese. “I think you and I are about 70% the same, culturally,” he tells me. “We’re pretty alike except for what sissies you are about what you eat.”

My friend Nancy Choy is second/third generation American. She grew up in San Francisco with a strong awareness of her ethnicity. She visited her grandmothers in their Chinatown homes, ate dim sum for lunch every Sunday, regularly visited her grandfather’s grave to burn incense and ate mooncakes in October (a Chinese tradition). She sometimes visited traditional Chinese medicine doctors and Cantonese was regularly spoken inside her grandmothers’ house.

Still, she all but laughed at me when I asked if she had a sense of returning to the homeland when she first visited China.

“None at all,” she says. “It never loomed that large to me and to the extent it did; it was my grandmother’s village in southern China. I had seen pictures of it and always imagined China as a stand-alone building surrounded by fields. Beijing was so, so different that it barely even registered as being the same place.”

She too says that locals are often surprised when she can’t speak to them, but it hasn’t caused her any major problems.

“The first phrase I learned was ‘I don’t speak Chinese’ and people usually accept it even if they are confused,” Nancy says. “They will often start speaking to me very quickly, but they generally back off when I say that.”

Nancy’s husband is also Chinese American, so their three daughters are ethnically pure Chinese — and totally American. It can cause some confusion.

“I don’t know if it’s because we have three kids, or three girls, or three girls speaking English but a lot of people seem to stare at us,” Nancy tells me.

At least it seemed like a lot of staring until she visited a museum with a German friend with three strikingly blond children. There she saw what my family often experiences — hordes of people wanting to touch, talk to and photograph the blond family.

“It made me appreciate blending in more,” Nancy says.

Interestingly, overseas Chinese who have lived here most of their lives don’t seem to have any issues with their status — other than explaining it to people in America and elsewhere. I caught up with four such college and high school students last week as they played cards in a Beijing Starbucks. They had all attended the International School of Beijing together and their families had been here for eight to 15 years.

They all say that they had very little friction or discomfort growing up as overseas Chinese expats in China. “The only time people notice us as being different is sometimes when we start speaking English to each other,” says Emily Yin, a student at the University of California, San Diego. “They may ask where we’re from and why we’re not speaking Chinese, but that’s about it.”

At their universities in the U.S. and Australia, however, they’ve found that things aren’t always as simple and that their fellow students don’t quite know what to make of them. They hear they are from Beijing and are shocked by their unaccented American English.

“People always ask me why I speak English so well,” says Alex Cheng, a junior at Washington University of St. Louis. “They just can’t understand how I can be a Chinese-American from Beijing.”

“People ask me why I speak with an American accent,” adds Huiling Koh, a Chinese Australian who attends the University of Melbourne.

All four also say that their fellow students often ask them about China, assuming it to be a primitive country. “They think I grew up in a hut in a rice field,” says Emily with a smile. “A lot of people don’t know what an expat is. When I explain they say, ‘What kind of job would be in China?'”

Write to Alan Paul at

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