I ‘Went Back to China’ — and Felt More American Than Ever
BYOCTOBER 21, 2016 / ForeignPolicy.com
Oct. 9, New York Times metro reporter Michael Luo revealed that he and his family had been subject to a racist outburst on the streets of New York City’s posh Upper East Side. Readers, especially of Asian descent, were quick to volunteer their own stories in the aftermath, showing that while racism against Asians is not always in the U.S. public eye, it is widespread. I’d like to address this article to the woman who told the U.S.-born Luo — and to all those who may have harbored similar sentiments at one point or another — to “go back to China.”
My parents left China in the wake of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution to seek refuge in American higher education in the 1970s, eventually becoming entrepreneurs. I was born in Ohio, raised in Nebraska and California, and attended Yale University in Connecticut. Six years before that woman on the streets of New York told Luo to go back to China, I had already done so. After graduating college, I moved to Hong Kong, a port city that has been the West’s gateway to China since the mid-1800s.
I believed the city, a place brutalized and molded by colonial forces before its return to China in 1997, was somehow like me: an East-meets-West pastiche. I also believed that Hong Kong, more multicultural, global, and outward-looking than any mainland city, was likely to be the most racially enlightened. But after more than six years of living and working there, I would learn just how racially progressive the United States was by comparison. It’s not just because anyone can speak up and defend themselves, but because doing so is embedded in our culture.
Growing up in Nebraska, I was “ching-chong’d” in school and asked why my eyes were so small. Later on, popular kids would compel me to do their homework with overtures of friendship, only to ignore me at recess. Even in relatively liberal California, I was bullied and shut out by the girls in my all-white Girl Scout troop. My early life in white, Christian America impressed upon me the notion that my real home, my real friends, was where my parents had left it — back in China.
In college, I devoted myself to the notion. I holed myself up exclusively in Asian cultural clubs and worked to beef up my half-hearted, lisping Mandarin Chinese. I took classes in Chinese philosophy, sociology, and politics. Internships in Beijing and Shanghai and travels around the mainland gave me a glimpse of what my new home would be like. After graduation, I secured a job in Hong Kong.
My mother, who had moved from Shanghai to Hong Kong to the United States, was distraught: “Why do you want to go back there?”
But much, I insisted, had changed. The mainland wasn’t the Mao-era hot mess she’d left behind; the 2008 Beijing Olympics painted a glorious image of a new Middle Kingdom, and Lehman Brothers’ collapse that same summer foretold an ominous future for the United States. Out in the dizzying economic rise of the Wild Wild East, opportunities abounded for those willing to work in a globalizing China, particularly in Hong Kong, which billed itself as “Asia’s world city” and was also deepening ties with the mainland.
What I didn’t tell my mother was that my desire to leave was primarily motivated by the possibility of escaping the unfriendly U.S. racial climate. In Asia, I wouldn’t have to deal with being “Asian.” I wouldn’t be a minority, much less a model one. For once, I was certain, my race wouldn’t matter.
I moved to Hong Kong in 2010 to work for a multinational education company and cast myself with a privileged lot of expatriates, or huayi — ethnic Chinese who have grown up abroad. It was deeply comforting to be surrounded by people who looked like me. And because I spoke perfect English and had attended an Ivy League university, my social currency in status-conscious Hong Kong went further than most. I was not just able to “blend in” — I was privileged. I was heard, respected, and invited to glittering parties. Those first years in Hong Kong were beautiful and easy. Read more…