Sometimes I think my students are more interested in learning about the United States than about English grammar and vocabulary. They appear more excited when we talk about university life in the United States than when we discuss the correct usage of the present perfect tense. They ask more questions when I bring up the topic of life as an American teenager than when I try to explain gerunds. Even though my students worked very hard to get a good score on the Band 4 exam, I think they would have preferred to discuss a movie like Forrest Gump or The Truman Show.
Like many foreign English teachers I know, I begin every semester by instructing each student to ask me something, anything. I tell them that I'll answer almost every question. Then I wait. Without fail, one of the first questions I am always asked is, "Are you Chinese? You look Chinese."
I don't mind being asked this question, and I always answer in the same way: "I'm American," I say. This usually draws objections from the students. Someone will usually ask me why I don't say that I am an overseas Chinese. To this, I reply that I was born and raised in the US. My life has been firmly located in the US and "overseas" in Europe. More hands will go up, and others will ask, "Why do you look Chinese?"Or, "If you're American, how come you don't look American?", and "Why did you come back to China?" To the last question I usually respond, "I didn't come back to China. I've never been to China before, so I couldn't have 'come back' at all."
My purpose in coming to China was simple: I wanted to learn Chinese and believed that living here would be the best way to do so. My Chinese-born parents tried to teach me Mandarin when I was a child, but I resisted their efforts and could only speak very brokenly. I never learned to read or write any characters except those in my name. When I was about ten years old, I was sent to a Chinese school on Saturday mornings.I hated it - I never did the homework and didn't pay attention in class. Eventually my parents let me drop out of the school. I think they knew I would want to learn Chinese again later in life and decided just to wait until I chose to learn it for myself.
Many people of Chinese ancestry come to China insgroupsto find "their" roots, to learn about "their" history, and to experience "their" culture. This phenomenon is not unique to China or the Chinese; many people of European heritage travel to Germany or Ireland or Russia to do the same. They study Swedish or Italian because their grandparents or great-grandparents came from these countries. The same goes for people of all ethnic backgrounds. We are just trying to figure out who we are and what that means. Oftentimes this search becomes a quest for tradition, for an understanding of the past insgroupsto explain our present situation.
Although I have relatives who live in Beijing and throughout China, I do not believe I will find myself or better understand myself simply because I have lived in China. To me, China is a foreign country and I am a foreigner here. There are advantages and disadvantages to "looking" Chinese in China - sometimes I am able to get a lower price than other foreigners when I am bargaining, and I find that many Chinese are more comfortable talking to me because I look Chinese. On the other hand, I have met a few people who would not believe my English is as good as that of other, non-Chinese-looking foreigners. Once, on a train, the conductor asked me if I had passed the Band Six exam. When I explained to him that in the US students don't take the band examinations, he asked me what my TOEFL score was. I said that English was my first language, so there was no need for me to take the TOEFL.
It does not bother me when people ask such questions. Curiosity is a sign of the desire to understand the world around us better. As a Chinese-American living in China, I know I have the responsibility to answer in a thoughtful manner. I am just as proud of my American upbringing as I am of my Chinese appearance. I am also lucky that my parents were raised in a different culture so that they could teach me a little about a place far away from my home in California. What matters the most to me is the ability to communicate with others, regardless of nationality or cultural background; we can learn a lot from each other and that is the main reason I came to live in Beijing.