Passing the cultural identity test
NEW YORK — A good and respectable Chinese girl doesn't laugh with her mouth open, my godmother scolded me.
It was one of my first dates in Hong Kong, where I lived for five years, and the beginning of my trial-by-fire quest for identity - am I American, Chinese, or both?
I had gone on a blind date with a young man she'd found through our real estate agent. He drove a Mercedes and made a million dollars a year. My godmother, a native Shanghainese, had herself made a million in the stock market.
Over afternoon tea, I did most of the talking, shooting questions at the young man as if he were my interview subject: Did he prefer Hong Kong or London? Tennis or soccer? Slacks or sweats? I laughed at my own jokes while he remained silent. "It's over," my godmother said.
But it wasn't. He called back and asked me out again and again. A few weeks later, the real estate agent asked him what he saw in me, an atypical Chinese girl. "I like her because she's different," he said.
For five years I was different, neither American nor Chinese, neither black nor white, yin nor yang. It bothered me for a while, for the Chinese couldn't figure me out, and the expatriates didn't want to figure me out. Who was I?
For the first few years in Hong Kong, I thought I had it all figured out. I was Chinese, of course. I was reminded of this identity whenever I looked in the mirror or wrote my name. In 1997, at the height of the hand-over frenzy, I wore clothes with Chinese buttons, told everyone to call me by my Chinese name (a name that I sometimes forgot how to write). I jogged around the park humming China's National Anthem: "Get up, comrades, this is your country, salute."
I set foot in Beijing for the first time in 1997. Within a year my Mandarin had improved, my Cantonese was passable, and I preferred tofu and rice over bread. And then one autumn, when I was 23, I spent a month in Shanghai and realized that I was still a foreigner. I did not choose this identity; it was placed on me like a heavy hand.
"Shush, don't say a word," my cousin told me when we went to the markets. She'd do all the bargaining while I played mute, because if I opened my mouth they'd charge me double. At the museums and parks, I continued to play mute until my cousin nudged me. "You can talk now."
I was neither here nor there. I did not get the jokes thrown at the dinner table, did not understand the roots of the conversation. I went to McDonald's and ordered a hamburger - not because I liked hamburgers, but because I had no idea how to say "fish fillet" or "chicken McNuggets" in Chinese. One young cashier understood and pulled out the picture menu reserved for foreigners. "What do you want?" she asked me in near perfect English. I pointed to the McFlurry. No, I wasn't Chinese - at least not as Chinese as the girl behind the counter. I was born in Philadelphia, City of Brotherly Love and the Liberty Bell - my passport proved it.
Three years later, I returned to Beijing and was stunned at how Western the young people had become. Not just the baggy jeans and Britney Spears tops, but the kids from Tsinghua and Beida universities had impeccable English, and even knew where semicolons should be inserted.
And the foreigners were becoming more Chinese. One lawyer at a multinational law firm could recite Tang poetry and do xiang sheng, a kind of word play. He was born in Boston, as white as Wonderbread, and glared at me when I stumbled over Chinese. I knew what he was thinking: "Another Chinese-American coming here to search for her so-called roots."
I did come here on a search, or perhaps with the expectation that I would leave with an identity. I never did find one. However, being neither this nor that, has left me asking why, how, what, when, forever searching for an answer for stories and experiences that perhaps have no answer.
Recently, someone asked me where I come from. It was such a broad question that I was tempted to leave it blank. "I'm from New York," I said. "No, I mean where are you originally from?" Pause. "Where are your parents from?" "Shanghai, Taiwan," I said. "Oh, so you're from China?" "I guess you could say that," I said.
What difference did it make if I was from China, Taiwan, Philadelphia, or New York? In the end, I was much more than a passport, much more than a nationality, much more than a Chinese-American. Perhaps my godmother simply assumed that all-American girls laughed with their mouths open and asked a lot of questions. But this was me - my childhood, my upbringing contributing as much to who I am as my skin tone and name. The very thought of this brought me comfort and closure.
Slowly but surely, I was discovering that acquiring an identity proved to be simple. It was finding meaning behind that identity that would take a lifetime.
• Amy Wu, a freelance writer in New York City, worked as a journalist in Hong Kong from 1996 to 2001.