“If China and the United States were to go to war with each other, whose side would you fight on?”
As a Chinese-American, this is a question I am asked frequently by Chinese people of all backgrounds.
Maybe I’m asked these questions as some sort of joke, but this is reflective of certain attitudes and expectations for anyone who is ethnically Chinese. In a culturally homogenous place like China, I am caught in perhaps one of the most awkward places in terms of identity and finding my own place.
I primarily grew up in the Northern Virginia area, but at the same time, I am so fortunate to have had the opportunity to spend parts of my youth in other parts of the globe. My father’s work allowed me to spend time in China and the Philippines during my elementary and middle school years. I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to experience life in multiple different places with unique stories and different personalities. As I grew older, I also became more enchanted with my Chinese roots. My studies and family dynamic naturally attracted me to Chinese culture, her history, her languages, and the fact that whenever I felt that I understood China more, it made me feel that I was making strides in understanding my own family and myself.
When I began my undergrad career, I took several opportunities to go back to China to strengthen both my linguistic and cultural fluency. My experiences growing up in multiple environments and my study abroad opportunities in China inspired me to return to the Middle Kingdom for full-time work after graduation, incredibly eager to spend my first year or two out of college in a place that has always meant so much to me.
After graduating from the University of Virginia in 2016 with a double major in History and Chinese, I moved to Beijing to begin working at an educational firm in Beijing. It was later through chance, curiosity, and happenstance that I began getting involved in the world of we-media, or in Chinese; zi mei ti (自媒体).
I have been doing “we-media” (自媒体) for almost a year now. So, what does that mean exactly?
It really depends on the individual, and what that individual chooses to do with their media platforms. For me, it means that I have been involving myself in an odd variety of projects including music videos, social commentaries, and mini-documentaries. I simply began publishing content on Weibo and Bilibili for the sake of sharing what I wanted to share, in the hopes of facilitating meaningful cultural interaction. The goal of my we-media platform is to serve as one of many platforms to follow where subscribers in China can gain a better understanding of the world outside of China through the eyes of a Chinese-American — at the same time, also establishing an avenue that people outside of China can use to procure clearer insight into this country. I simply want people to have an opportunity to strengthen their mutual understanding, and I am always very eager to be a part of that process.
I enjoy the rewards of seeing how Chinese netizens respond to my pieces and sharing of ideas. I felt that with my limited resources of just an online account and some recording equipment, I was prepared to do my best to put my ideas and experiences out there for the whole internet to gaze at.
I would only discover later that this would be the beginning of a complicated struggle to maintain my own character and identity in the face of several obstacles.
The initial realization hit me hardest when I released a video explaining how people react to Huayi, a non-Chinese citizen of Chinese ancestry. The video’s goal was simply to discuss a few basic cultural misunderstandings and quirks that Huayi generally experience in China and abroad.
The reaction to the video was strong, and it was not positive. My Chinese-American identity was frequently attacked. I was accused of coming to China to dredge for money, and was even scolded for being a “traitor.”
It was not only that particular piece that was attacked. Any video, article, or any sort of published content with my appearance always resulted in comments and visible frustrations about my Chinese-American background. My observations were further compounded by many personal interactions and experiences that I’ve had with local people in China.
“You’re Chinese! You can’t be both Chinese and American! That’s like having two wives!” said one person I met at the gym here in Beijing after he heard me introduce myself as a Chinese-American.
Even state-owned media such as the Global Times vaguely threatened me with a lawsuit if I continued to release content regarding Huayi
“How can you call yourself that!” said someone else upon hearing my self-introduction. “Your parents are Chinese! So you are Chinese! Are you trying to make yourself exceptional?”
There are far too many personal anecdotes to share where I have made people upset because of the fact that I am an ethnic Chinese person that does not introduce himself as purely “Chinese”. Even state-owned media such as the Global Times vaguely threatened me with a lawsuit if I continued to release content regarding Huayi.
In one instance, an intern from a popular Weibo account, The Foreigners Research Institute (歪果仁研究协会), found my personal contact information, called me, scolded me for being a “banana” (香蕉人; a derogatory phrase implying that I am overly American on the inside with a Chinese appearance), and pleaded with me to stop my work.
Another independent reporter also asked me to meet for dinner in order to encourage me to stop doing media work in China, telling me that my work is meaningless and ungrounded, though she was kind enough to treat me to that meal. All of these interactions struck me hard, and encouraged me to dig deeper about why there seems to be particularly strong reactions towards Huayi in China.