What kind of Chinese am I?

What kind of Chinese are you?" my aunt asked me angrily over the phone when I told her I was celebrating the victory of the pro-independence candidate - Chen Shui-bian - in last week's Taiwan elections.

My aunt was born in Shanghai - one of the wealthiest, most progressive cities in China. She survived China's modern political upheavals to become a successful Hong Kong stockbroker. But her love of America is limited to the movies and Wall Street, and my support for Taiwan's independence from China was a hot button. To her, Taiwan is officially a part of China, and war is the only way China will be able to reclaim the territory it's entitled to.

"Read up on your Chinese history," she snapped at me. "What kind of Chinese are you? You're ashamed to be Chinese. Well in America you're simply a dog on a leash." Then she hung up.

I returned home to New York from Hong Kong last summer with three years of memories and a lot of new, unanswered questions about my identity as a Chinese-American.

In cramped Hong Kong, I was surrounded by people who looked like me, but in that predominantly Chinese city, I was seen as a foreigner. I was too talkative, too opinionated - the locals could tell that I was American. And they called me a "gwei moi" (ghost girl). They charged me double for speaking my mother tongue of English instead of the local Cantonese dialect. The locals reminded me of who I am and who I am not. I'd gone to Hong Kong hoping to fit in - I eventually realized I wasn't going to, at least not as a Chinese.

After the phone call with my aunt, I opened some of my Hong Kong journals, searching for what I loved and hated about being in a place that reminded me of how Westernized I am.

Several entries involve my father's repeated efforts to get me off Chinese territory, away from the roots I was seeking and that he'd left more than 30 years ago. His nervous admonishments included urging me to change all my money into US dollars in case of a currency collapse in the uncertainty of the handover of Hong Kong to China and the Asian economic crisis. He told me not to eat chicken - a bird disease had caused a major health crisis there in 1998. He warned me to stay away from Chinese men who would see me as a walking passport.

I used to fight back and ask him if he had forgotten his roots. But he seemed unsentimental. His love of his native country starts with Bruce Lee flicks and ends with dim sum - he refuses to look back.

But for me, there's a division that's always palpable between my Chinese and American selves. Sometimes I want to be Chinese; to speak Chinese, to trace the meaning of Hsiao-Mei, my Chinese name sandwiched between my English name and last name on my passport; to be accepted in China as if I were at home.

On the other hand, there are aspects of China that leave me understanding some of my father's negativity. In Shanghai, at dinners with relatives there, I felt like a wannabe player on the sidelines of their culture, history, and beliefs. They joked about Mao's sayings, made Chinese puns, and told tales about the Cultural Revolution. And I see how prosperity has made young Chinese overly materialistic. I see the desperate line-cutting, the ubiquitous smoking, and public spitting (a habit that the Chinese are infamous for).

Sometimes I wish I could just be more American. But I remember how hard that was: In my New York fourth grade, a boy told me to go back to my own country because I looked different and had a different name.

"This is my home, this is my country," I told him.

I wasn't American enough for him. Now I'm not Chinese enough for my aunt or for the Asian cities I've lived in or traveled through.

As a first-generation Chinese-American I think I'll always be a divided person.

And there's no escaping the in-between, that place where you can see both sides.

When protesters threw paint and bricks at the US Embassy in Beijing last May after the bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, my friends in the US demanded to know whose side I was on. My Chinese relatives badgered me for my outlook.

And when I returned to the States last July, my colleagues here continued to turn to me as they debated human rights and the Chinese government's arrests of members of the Falun Gong religious group. They were curious to know my view - after three years in Hong Kong would I be pro-China or pro-US?

I learned that changing the subject did not help - in the end I had to face myself, and I can say I didn't have answers.

Last week after the Taiwan elections, my father's Taiwanese wife was lamenting the defeat of the long-ruling Nationalist Party that made Taiwan the success it is today. This time I kept my mouth shut because I'm no longer so certain of my own view.

When I heard a New York-area radio commentator blathering last week about impending war between China and Taiwan, I was angry for a second, wondering what he knew about China.

But in the end, I wonder just how much I really know and - as my aunt points out - how much I really understand.

*Amy Wu, a financial journalist in New York City, worked as a journalist in Hong Kong from 1996 to 1999.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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