Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Midwesterner in the Middle Kingdom // The Outsider

I’m on a bullet train from Beijing to Shanghai and the guy behind me is watching / loudly listening to some epic Chinese war movie (truly the best kind of movie) and I’ve got about an hour on my laptop battery and it’s 106 miles to Chicago and I got a full tank of gas and half a pack of cigarettes and it’s dark and I’m wearing sunglasses so I’ll do what I do: write.

I’ve spent the past couple days speaking in pretty much nothing but Cantonese, as one of my Hong Konger uncles, a talkative retired elementary school teacher, was in town. Cantonese was my first language, a fact I always forget (as a baby, I taught myself English by watching Sesame Street, and because of that, I will always love you, television), but Mandarin is Chinese and Chinese is Mandarin, and I don’t speak or understand it at all. Yet here I am. What follows, then, is a reflection on language, on identity, on identity crises, on the diasporal disconnect and angst of first-generation Americans, and on vague pronouns.

In Beijing's 798 Art Zone. Photo by Andrew Scheineson, 2012.

I am a true outsider.

But allow me to start from the beginning.

Or, at least, Saturday, my first full day in Beijing.

I’d reunited with an old friend from college for the first time since graduation. He’s living in Shenyang and had hopped onto a train to Beijing—a 5-hour-long ride—to see me …and because he’s turning into That Guy who disappears on the weekends to kick it in a big city where there’s grass (this is not a euphemism) and where coffee shop owners aren’t baffled when you ask them if you can use their “community bulletin boards” to post your handmade flyers for an improv group you’re starting (apparently DIY culture is nonexistent in Shenyang).

We’d made good use of the beautiful day, wandering around the 798 Art Zone; lazing on a lawn while catching up on each other’s lives and then getting yelled at by men in golf carts to get off said lawn; drinking too much sweet tea; eating great food, at one point alongside Buddhist monks donning designer sunglasses and sneakers; succumbing to our weaknesses for Communist kitsch (come on, who can resist adorable plush pigs in Red Guard uniforms?); playing China Bingo (“ah, there’s another middle-aged man with his shirt pulled up over his paunch”); and being bemused by the number of young women wearing cat ears (a fashion / style trend that hopefully will not catch on in the West).

Later on we met up with his expat friends and friends of friends for dinner (at a Uyghur restaurant) and drinking (everywhere).

Guided by the supermoon, it was, overall, a wonderfully crazy night that ended up with us crashing a Canadian expat bachelor party van [with overly friendly Frenchmen] that took us to a seedy nightclub with Russian whores and hookah and gold-plated toilets (my friend and a friend of his and I bounced within five minutes and instead opted for the great American staple of searching for drunk food—we kind of succeeded). And they were / are all lovely people. But…

And now I shall switch tenses. (And inconsistently switch between first and second person. It’s my blog! I do what I want!)

In Beijing's 798 Art Zone. Photo by Andrew Scheineson, 2012.

Every single one of them is fluent in Mandarin, and every single one of them is white. They laugh over puns based on Chinese homonyms, over Chinese politics and public figures. They know how to navigate the city by bike, by cab, by train, by foot. They can converse effortlessly with the locals. I, meanwhile, am an ABC and speak not a word of Chinese. As I sit with the group, white kids joking in Chinese, the irony is not lost on me. (In fact, it oppressively hangs above me like a Russian stripper nightclub hookah cloud.)

“In China we don’t talk about anything other than China,” they explain good-humoredly to try to include me in the conversation when I haven’t chimed in for an achingly awkward amount of time. (Suddenly it’s like an undergraduate seminar all over again; the less you speak, the more profound you’re expected to sound.) To have these white American expats know more about your motherland than you do, know your motherland more than you do… Really, you’ve come to realize, you don’t know your motherland at all.

But even though you somewhat, sort of, maybe feel more at home in America, you are an outsider there as well. To most Americans, you look like a foreigner, even though you were born there and have lived there your entire life and most likely have a better grasp of the English language than they do. They ask you where you’re from, no where are you really from, no you know what I mean. They ask you what you “are” (human? about to run away from you? trying really hard not to kick you in the face?).

Here and now, in China, the people look like me. They are, essentially, “my people.” Shouldn’t there be solidarity? Shouldn’t we be brothers and sisters? Shouldn’t there be tearful hugs and clasps of the hands? “Right? We built their fucking railroads, the ungrateful bastards.” But instead, I sheepishly shake my head and dig out a typed page of Chinese phrases while they smile confusedly and apologize.

This is no Lost in Translation understated overrated nepotistic Coppola emo old fart pink wigged PYT Othered Asians as the backdrop hipster bullshit. I don’t want to hear it, Bill and ScarJo. Bitches, you’re white. You don’t need to say or do anything. You’re a walking “HELP ME” sign. Me? I have to endure a painful exchange of broken communication and broken expectations before they come to the realization that I am Not One Of Them.

Here, my difference is invisible. In America, where I will always be labeled a foreigner, my sameness is invisible. In this sense, Asian-Americans aren’t the invisible minority; our faces scream without sound. Invisible are the real and imagined identities we struggle with every moment of our waking lives.

Such is the inner anguish of the outsider.

No matter where you go, you don’t belong, and you never will.

But because you don’t belong anywhere, you are untethered. Because you are alone, you answer to no one. Because you have no place to call home, no place calls for you. You are free. You can roam. You can drift like a seed from the hero tree.

Perhaps you belong everywhere.

You are a child of the world.


  1. I feel ya, sister.

  2. this is a fantastic little essay; thanks for sharing it!

    1. You're most welcome! Thanks for reading and replying!

  3. You know I am a white middle class American living in Chicago and I kinda feel like you do now when I visit places like Little Rock, Arkansas...

    1. Ha! Can't say I've ever been there [and now I don't think that will change anytime soon].

  4. Believe it or not, many people have experienced this. My family moved frequently while I was growing up and thus I never really belonged. Every few years, I was learning a new local culture. Things changed for me when I looked inside and decided for myself who I am. It is not something others can give me.

    It does get better. In many ways you are lucky if you can look at it from a different perspective. Try seeing it as half full rather than half empty. Rather than not accepted in either culture, try looking at it as having one foot in both cultures. You will always run into some jerks, but try not to let them discourage you. It takes some time.

  5. The beauty of travelling and seeing the world is feeling your identity being challenged. How you see yourself and how others see you in not a constant even if you don't leave your own country. It takes you out of your comfort zone. I'm also Chinese-American (born in HK, lived in SF, NY, London, Italy) I have recently came back from a 17 days trip in China. I can sense that they know I'm from "somewhere else" as my clothing and my demeanor are different. I am flattered that they speak Chinese to me. Locals asked me where I was from, they only wanted to make a connection, that's all.

  6. Jenny, I am a 40-something white guy from CA who does biz in China and I can relate to this too. Your essay is great. Keep sharing. If you need a dose of American culture while in Beijing, and you drink
    We are in the 2nd ring, Chaoyang District in the Utown Mall, 3rd floor. Connected to the Crowne Plaza. John


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