Sunday, November 22, 2009

In Search of Chinese-Chinese

One day last week I went to a private clinic in Beijing. As usual the clinic was quiet and only a few clients—half of them foreign expats—sat around waiting. A tall Scandinavian-looking guy came and sat in the couch next to me. We stroke up a conversation about the newspaper story I was reading. Then he asked,

“Are you Chinese Chinese?”

Reflexively I explained that I had lived and worked in the US for many years. The Scandinavian guy then nodded, seemingly satisfied. “You don’t look very Chinese to me,” he said.

It was not the first time that I was asked that question, which made me wonder – what makes me looking not very Chinese Chinese? Surely there are other Chinese who gel their hair, wear Zara and work out in the gym.

My Chinese staff at work said it is not my appearance, but some je-ne-sais-quoi “-ness” that gives me away. I laugh and speak my mind at will at work. I tell them not to call me “boss” but address me by my first name. In return, they make fun of my poor memory of Chinese idioms. And every so often, they would patiently counsel me the “right” way to do business in China.

Then what is this “Chinese Chinese”-ness that I am so obviously poor at grasping?

The question did not used to bug me. In fact, it fanned my ego that my high-school friends called me “half-American,” for raising my hands and asking questions in class, for directing plays and organizing dance parties, and for not shying away from any opportunity to be different. I used to be flattered by other Americans’ questions if I had grown up in the US, back in the days when I desired very much to be something other than the stale, conservative and order-following Chinese stereotype in my mind.

Then after spending 12 years in the US, I knew I would never be a full-blown American. So I moved back, partly to understand whether there is such a thing as Chinese Chinese?

The longer I have lived in Beijing, however, the less certain I am of what a true Chinese Chinese would be. For every (3?) money-chasing Chinese, I could find a Chinese content with his routine life. For every (5?) Chinese who give up their dreams for desk jobs, I could find an entrepreneur risking it all to strike it rich. And for every (10?) Chinese who go ga-ga over Gucci and Prada, I could find a young kid dead serious about art or environment causes.

Of course, statistically, most Han Chinese in prosperous regions of China are very focused on making their lives better off, their kids better educated, and their families and friends proud of their achievements. But any statistical definition of the “Chinese Chinese”-ness sounds a bit too vulgar. Isn’t there any big word(s) that could be claimed shared by all true Chinese, like Confucianism, materialism, individualism, conformism, or entrepreneurialism?

I remembered my trip along the ancient Silk Road, from Xi’an to Kashgar, a few years ago. I saw the ruins of Tang Dynasty grandeur and Han Dynasty border expansion. I met many ethnicities of languages and customs different from us Han. I found, at the many Buddhist grottoes along the Silk Road, how Buddhism had migrated to and been modified by China. I remember realizing then that what we considered to be “Chineseness” now must have been different from that in Tang Dynasty, in Han Dynasty, and in the tribal periods of our legendary forefathers.

So any romantic concept of deep-rooted “Chinese Chinese”-ness appears to be a myth – we as a people now are very different from those living in the 1960s, the Republic era, the end of Qing Dynasty, or any period prior. Of course there exists a continuation from generation to generation, but this continuation itself has always been changing, via interaction with the outside, fighting among the internal factions and competition of different schools of thoughts for domination.

Or so I hope – that the true “Chinese Chinese”-ness is our ability to absorb, to learn and to grow, which would make me feel more “Chinese Chinese” despite what others might say.


Jinni said...

it is hard to understand Chinese these days. The so called Chinese-Chinese seem to refer to the stereotyped nationalists who have forgotten how to logic, and shout out government lines during any sensible conversations. Sadly, these people are not minority. The Big Brother has done a great job.

Stu 陶明瀚 said...

apparently I've had the pleasure of stumbling upon another soul searching for identity in this crazy fast changing world.

Just wanted to say I enjoyed the post, and plan to keep reading.

@sjs_stef said...


Juchechosunmanse said...

Great post.

Jinni, that is your stereotype and you should get over with it. "Chinese Chinese" are way too diverse to be defined by one single label, no matter what the label says. And who is to say those nationalists are always wrong? It would be equally silly, if not more, for anyone to totally embrace the position of, for example, the FLG, TGIE or that of the RFA.

Joyce Hor-Chung Lau said...

There are many things that would mark me as "non-Chinese," even though I am ethnicly Chinese. I speak Cantonese, not Mandarin (or at least bad Mandarin) and I grew up in the West, with all the forwardness and mannerisms you describe.

Once, I got into a Beijing cab and he asked me where I was from.
"Hong Kong," I said.
"Ah. I knew you were not from around here."
I asked him what ticked him off. (Surely, I thought it was my accent.)
"Your shoes!" he said. "Those are not Chinese shoes!"
HAhahaha. They were plain, black, leather boots, the kind sold at Hong Kong and Chinese malls anywhere!

Another time, I was having a coffee with my tall, blonde, perfect-Putonghua-speaking friend. The waiter came over (ignored me) and asked her, wide eyed, "Ni shi Zhongguo ren, ma?"

Yamabuki said...

This is very good point you bring up. Though I think the same thing is true in US. For one thing China is too big to be Chinese-Chinese. even if Han Chinese, Shanghai Chinese are different from Beijing Chinese. local culture varies throughout China. Not to mention the fact that The last dynasty of Emperors of China were really Manchurian. China is a republic of states with different character. This is one of China's strengths and challenges.

Anonymous said...

"Or so I hope – that the true “Chinese Chinese”-ness is our ability to absorb, to learn and to grow, which would make me feel more “Chinese Chinese” despite what others might say."

That is exactly what Indians say about themselves too. Cultural assimilation has been the basis of their civilization.

Beijing Loafer said...

The funny thing about identity is that people really like to label, regardless if any statistical basis exists for such label.

My solution to this big labeling mess is to label it myself. If I label myself Chinese-Chinese according to my labeling criterion, who could say I'm not right?

DutchImmigrant said...

I must say I agree with Jinni. That is how I have come to understand the nature of "chinese chinese" based on my interactions with my Chinese and non-Chinese friends.

Beijing Loafer said...

Don't forget the silent (or not obvious) majority (or minority)!

Anonymous said...

i am puzzled - why does this still bother you and provoke this much reaction in you - after spending these many years living in US, and apparently now living primarily among expat, and not the real Chinese people. is not it natural that you do not share much with the Chinese in China - and i do not mean just the mannerism, appearance or social presumptinos etc. - things might even be on the offensive to many - that you might be really less inclinded to associate with Chinese, because you really feel they are less creative, less direct, more evasive, and even physically less attractive than the tall and blond European descendants - and on a level of general preference by experience/exposure, and not by deliberate acting - and just like an American Chinese, who has always been living among the white- so to speak - who may find a particular affinifty for a Chinese individual, some aspect of Chinese culture - but essential indifferent to things Chinese - and i think that is also fairly natural - or it is still that you would never, and should never become something else other than what your skin color - ethnicity in physical dimension, or historical dimension - confines you to -?

Jinni said...

To Juchechosunmanse: I'm against nationalism. I have no statistics to support my theory, but it's depressing when dozens of your close friends try to convince you with a government line when they realized you're sympathetic to the situation in Tibet. Nationalism seems wrong because it's extreme and the only reason holds nationalists together seem to be that they happen to be born in the same country, not that they have similar education background, similar values or any other intellectual connections. It's territorial and animal-like.

Another point I want to add: From an outsider's point of view(there’s no point in discussion if we start from Chinese perspective, we all agree that we are all very different), there are two types of Chinese. Chinese Chinese, or westernized Chinese. It's too harsh to ask everyone who comes from half way around the globe to not stereotype Chinese. Westerners find westernized Chinese easier to talk to, more open to discussions about the evilness of our country and share similar mannerism.

Of course, it is unfair and wrong to be suggesting the westernized is the better way. But there're qualities of the western society that we all agree, identify with and sometimes picked up on. Among those, freedom of expression is one of the most important values I identify with. Chinese-Chinese, I believe, is mostly used by my western friends to describe those who’s lack of such value, through no fault of their own but our authoritarian government.

No freedom of expression, hence the opinion-less public, or the silent majority, hence the Chinese-Chinese.

Anonymous said...

a follow up -

the point is that you have a mixed identity - for lack of better word
- your many years of living in the English speaking culture may or may not have undone your Chinese upbringing- to whatever extend, depending on how much you have ventured into the other culture while you were living there, and the groups you were associated with - and how much in your nature you echo with and value your Chinese character -

it is probably a very uncomfortable zone to live in - but hey, you made your choice -
and thought your very experience would have taken you beyond this "label" mentality, and to be able to see people, yourself as reflected by their actions, characters - and color of skin ought have faded in your eyes, and word of blank nationaility rings empty in your ears -

- and a tall blond scandinavian who asks if you are chinese chinese really is not all that intelligent on this narrow point - does he know what he is asking, i.e. Chinese Chinese means?

of course, that question bears so much meaning for you - regardless of the questioner's intent -

so - thanks for an interesting posting

Beijing Loafer said...

Hey Anonymous,

"that you might be really less inclinded to associate with Chinese, because you really feel they are less creative, less direct, more evasive, and even physically less attractive than the tall and blond European descendants"

Funny how you could make that assumption. I hang out with Chinese 98% of the time (unless you don't think the 10% spent with Taiwanese is Chinese worthy enough). I want my kid to be Chinese (perhaps not the "Chinese Chinese" in your mind). And I think I'm perfectly Chinese as those "Chinese Chinese" are.

It's really interesting that this small post is generating more than the average number of replied on my blog. I myself am not immune from labeling others. But I categorically consider anyone stupid who think they behold the truth just because they can wave a label confidently in their hand.

And I categorically reject the notion that there's a core immutable "identity" for any race or culture. The May 4th youth were a lot more radical and West-embracing than I am, but I don't see anyone calling them un-Chinese.

Juchechosunmanse said...


No offense, but that's a lot of bull. There are many positions that one can take on issues such as Tibet, the two extreme being completely toeing the lines of the Chinese government and those of the TGIE and its sympathizers. Can you say one extreme is better than the other? One can be "sympathetic to the situation in Tibet" but at the same time rejecting TGIE propaganda. It would be extremely naive to discredit anything associated with the Chinese government or the TGIE.

Nationalism is not all bad and there are different shades of nationalists. I agree those xenophobic ones we can live without. Those who genuinely believe that his/her country's interests are above almost everything else (however not necessarily at the expense of others), those who try their very best to see that happen might or might not be bad. Where do you think the line falls between nationalism and patriotism? What bugs me is that the west often associates nationalism with sentiments in non-western developing countries and patriotism is almost exclusively reserved for the west as if nationalism doesn't exist in the west. That is bull.

I don't know what outsiders that you have talked to, in my humble opinion it is not only childish but also insulting to categorize the Chinese into two groups. Westernized Chinese? Come on, those values you take so much pride in are not necessarily western values. And who are you to say any Chinese who embraces "freedom of expression" must be westernized?

Once again, it is your own (and perhaps those of your self-righteous, assertive "western friends" ') prejudice and stereotype to label those Chinese who don't see eye to eye with you and your "western friends" as "Chinese Chinese". Please, the world doesn't evolve around the west. Feel free to call a spade a spade, no matter what your beliefs are. Feel free to call them "uninformed Chinese" or something like that, just don't call them "yet-to-be-westernized Chinese". How many Chinese want to be westernized? Very few.

Hey, how about I start calling them "typical westerners (as in "ugly Americans")"? Does that do them any justice?

Anonymous said...

I am not doubting your genuine desire to preserve your Chinese identity -afterall you chose to return to China

But just playing devil's advocate -
assuming that you really do not feel very Chinese, or you are in the midland of nowhere - can you embrace it, being un-Chinese and un-American( maybe once upon a time you have wanted to become an all-american, but you realized that you could never become completely American- on what basis I do not know)

and what would you think of such a person, would he/she be really alien to you,with a Chinese look and Chinese upbringing, would you feel rather adverse to him/her

so - is it really so bad if I expect you just say that no, i am not very Chinese, I do not even write in Chinese( i am sure you do though)and i am fairly ok whith my hybrid nature?

from what you wrote, it follows that it does not matter - it is just uncomfortable and uncertain-

so that is why you are so very eager to label yourself Chinese, choosine between Chinese/Western, does it reflect more of yourself, or it is safer, it is more acceptable, it is easier to maintain?

nothing accusatory of you - just thoughts general

Beijing Loafer said...

Hey Anonymous,

As much as I find devil's advocate tending to waste everyone's time, here are short answers to your questions:

1. (un-)Chinese and (un-)American are labels that i find tiring and unproductive. Everyone is shaped by his/her unique upbringing. One might have more stereotypical "Chinese" cultural traits, or "American" ones, or "Japanese" ones, or "Tibetan" ones. Most often it's a mixture of many different traits that makes us. Everyone is a hybrid, just to different degrees, so no point in feeling inferior or superior.

2. I'm very comfortable with my own unique-ness, being not stereotypically Chinese or American or anything. Out of respect to where I come from, I label myself "Chinese."

3. Why would I feel adverse to other Chinese? That kind of sentiment belongs to young people who dont' know better.

The thing about identity, in my mind, is to stop choosing, or gloating, or self-pitying. Just follow the Buddha -- everything is emtpy. Why bother? Get on with life.

Anonymous said...

I found it pretty ironic that a guy who prefers private clinic labels himself Chinese-Chinese. However eagerly you categorize yourself Chinese, in essence, you are too westernized and just another expat living in China.

Beijing Loafer said...

Ok, according to your logic, anyone in China who drives BMW, uses gym or uses LV bags shouldn't be Chinese Chinese either...

Chris said...

@ Anonymous

Why should Chinese-Chinese have to suffer with the unacceptable standards of quality at the typical Chinese hospital? I think Chinese-Chinese deserve medical treatment that is as good or better than that found in developed countries.

@ BeijingLoafer

Nice post. I find your blog really interesting. Your point about Chinese identity being constantly changing hit it on the nail. This is probably the main reason that I find it so hard to talk about history and politics with educated Chinese people. There is a perception of cultural destiny and anachronistic nationalism that is (mis)read into Chinese history.

Leolux said...

great site! greetings from Spain.