Video by Amy Yang
“Shanghai, China,” I answered cheerfully whenever someone asked me where I’m from during orientation. It was the most natural answer – I lived in the same city, the same apartment for 15 years. I don’t know another home.
When people know your origin, they form certain expectations about you. I, however, did not grow up in the same culture as most other Chinese international students who were born and raised in the country. My family holds American passports. I spoke English throughout high school and among friends. I can rarely join in the rapid-fire conversations peppered with slang between other students from China, and rarely do I feel at home among them.
“I’m from Shanghai, but I was born in the Bay Area,” I started to tell people, hinting that I’m not as culturally distant as they might otherwise imagine. I’ve been to the Bay Area a few times since my family moved away when I was three. I have relatives there. If I have a second home, that must be it.
On the other hand, my answer reminds me of the pregnant Chinese women who travel to California to give birth to U.S. citizens. These children then grow up in China without much contact with American culture. Unlike them, I am the child of immigrants. My parents’ story, in addition to the American education that I received, forms a significant part of my cultural identity. America is more to me than merely a birthplace.
“I’m originally from California, but I grew up in Shanghai.” I changed my answer once again during the Chinese Student Association social, feeling particularly self-conscious due to how “American” everyone seemed. (The organization is divided into “dynasties,” which sounds very Chinese until one realizes they’re dynasties from Avatar: The Last Airbender.) My answer was in no way false. I am originally from California. I did grow up in Shanghai. Why, then, do I feel dishonest? My accent is American enough for me to pass as “just another Chinese American from California,” and I suppose my new answer gives that impression.
So where am I really from? The truth is, for me, this question is irrelevant. People are not defined by their geographic locations, past or present. I have friends who went to school in the U.S. but remain more in touch with their Chinese background than I do. I also know people who spent nearly all their life in China but remain ignorant of the culture around them. Instead, my cultural identity is shaped by the people and ideas surrounding me. I associated myself with Chinese culture a lot more five years ago, before transferring to an American international school in Shanghai. Then, the texts that I read and the friends that I made added American elements to my identity. At college, I have an even bigger pool of cultural environments to choose from – I even started learning German!
My father likes to talk about roots. “At the end of the day, you are Chinese,” he declares. I disagree. At the end of the day, I am whoever I want to be. I just have to find out who that is.