Wai guo ren: reflections on being a halfie
When people learn that I am half-Chinese the reaction is like watching someone figure out that math problem they had been stuck on: some mixture of a new revelation and old knowledge that they finally combined. It’s as if my race is some ambiguous thing to be discovered. I’m exotic looking, vaguely ethnic, somehow different — I’m not quite white.
With this, in the years I spent in majority white institutions I got the full spectrum of Asian jokes and stereotypes.
“Well, of course you got an A.”
“But your mom made you take SAT prep courses didn’t she?”
“You’re a woman and Asian? You must be the worst driver on the road.”
“You know, I’ve never been with an Asian girl before.”
When I was younger this was strange to me. I lived my first nine years in America, how was I not fully American? Everyone around me was white, my dad was white, my grandparents were: I didn’t quite understand what it meant to be Chinese.
At age 6 I visited China for the first time. My mom’s family lived in a small town called Kangbao, where my 奶奶 and 爷爷 lived in a small mud-brick house. There was one large bed that we all shared and the pillows were hard and filled with beans. My 爷爷 was a traditional Chinese doctor, though he was forced to stop practicing during the Cultural Revolution. My uncle raised sheep, which he let us chase around with the dogs. My grandparents didn’t have internet, so my sisters and I passed time watching “Mei Hou Wang” or Chinese “Tom and Jerry.”
In that small town, I was a celebrity. One day my sister and I attempted to sit in on a day of classes at the local school, but eventually were asked to leave, as we were a novelty deemed too distracting to the students, who refused to do class work in lieu of staring at us. Later, some of the students would track us down and ask for pieces of our hair to keep to remember us.
Walking down the street people would stare and shout:
Wai guo ren!
By the time I was a teenager, I had grown used to my Chinese identity, and understood what that meant in the mostly-white suburbs of Michigan. I was not white. Here I was the Chinese girl, and that was fine.
At age 15, my move to China should have felt like a move home — it was anything but. Suddenly I was surrounded by people who were more Chinese than me. Despite being at an international school, I had many American-born Chinese, Taiwanese and Hong Kongese peers. To them I was one of the “white kids” and with that there was an ingrained social hierarchy.
The white kids were the popular ones. They went to bars and clubs on the weekends (foreigners are never asked for ID, even if they look 15). They didn’t try very hard in school. They took fewer AP classes. They went to less prestigious universities.
The Asian kids were the intellectually superior ones. They took SAT prep courses on the weekends. They participated in a variety of clubs and did charity work on the side. They aimed for the Ivy leagues.
I hovered in the middle. Not white, not Asian.
Among my white friends I was one of the “smartest” in the friend group. I went out with them less often in order to prepare for exams or the SATs. With my Asian friends, I was more of a slacker. I applied to Michigan with the intent to attend, not as a dreaded safety school.
In both groups, I existed on the margins. Drifting in between, with friends on both sides, but never really feeling at home in either.
At home, my family jokes that I am the “whitest” daughter. My Mandarin is the worst (I am functionally illiterate and scarcely conversational), I don’t eat meat, excluding me from a variety of traditional foods, and most of all I “act white” — something hard to define, but easily recognizable when you understand it.
Ironically, I am also the most “Asian” looking of my sisters. When alone or with just my mother, people often assume that I am simply Chinese. In Shanghai, people would always immediately speak to me in Mandarin and consequently look disappointed in my grammatically horrific response. My family often remarks at how similar I look to my mother when she was this age.
At the University of Michigan and across the country, racial tensions are high. Hatred and bigotry walk the streets unafraid of consequences. People of color need support now more than ever.
In the Ford School of Public Policy, there is a group specifically for students of color, but I’m not sure if I should join. Despite knowing my own identity as an Asian woman, I and others don’t always see me as a person of color.
In discussions of diversity, I’m often overlooked. Last week, when someone I work with was criticizing low diversity numbers in leadership in our organization, she counted out two women of color — notably excluding me. However, at other times, I have been told that I am obviously a person of color. I had a friend who told me that I would always be identified first as Chinese before anything else because my minority identification would always hinder me.
My face is ambiguous — vaguely ethnic, somehow different. People are unsure where to categorize me — hell, sometimes neither do I. Most forms only allow you to choose one option when it comes to race, so every time I must choose between those two boxes I must choose how I want to identity myself: white or Asian?
At times, I also cannot relate to the same experiences as some other people of color. I generally do not face discrimination based on my appearance or encounter racism on a daily basis. Because of this, I feel like I cannot always fully identify with other students of color, and it causes me to fear that they do not fully accept me as a person of color.
With every discussion of diversity and every group for students of color, I face anxiety and uncertainty over whether or not others will see me as a person of color. Despite knowing my own experiences and interacting with my Chinese culture everyday, this fear of not being respected as a person of color is something I still struggle with.
My identity as half-Chinese (or halfie or Wasain) is something I am incredibly grateful for, as my family life and cultural experiences have been so much richer because of it. Despite the challenges I enumerated, China and my heritage are incredibly important parts of my life that I would not change for the world.