It's a typical Friday: I leave work, get on the subway and check WeChat to figure out where to meet my friends for dinner. My friend's not in the mood to type, though, so I get a phone call a couple minutes later.
"Hello?" I answer, trying to make myself heard over the background noise, a combination of mechanical churning and conversation.
As I'm talking, I notice everyone on my car slowly turning around to look at me--but that's expected, right? I'm a foreigner--in theory, I look and talk differently from the majority of people around me. But up until this point, there was no indication that I was foreign, because I'm Asian American. In other words, I look like everyone else until I open my mouth.
I look Chinese because my family was Chinese two generations ago. My grandfather lived in Xiamen but left the country in his early 20s for the Philippines, where he died when my mother was a teenager. My mother left for the United States in her 20s, and I've come to China in my 20s. Crossing oceans runs in my family, it seems.
Multi-culture households also run in my family. Like my mother, I grew up in a house with parents from two different cultural backgrounds and practice a combination of American, Chinese and Filipino traditions. To that end, I've found comfort in the past few months in China, despite being foreign. It's nice to see the foods that I can only buy in specialty grocery stores in the United States being sold on almost every street corner. Eating with chopsticks just feels like I'm eating with my family in the United States. I find that other parts of life here in China have informed practices I've seen my family do but have never thought to ask them to explain. As a child, I spent days with my grandmother, and she'd always have me heat up water for her before she drank it in the morning. I'd always attributed this to one of her personal quirks and not her culture.
On the other hand, I feel like I'm catching a mere glimpse at a part of my family's history that I will never fully understand. I never knew my Chinese grandfather, and my mother's family's knowledge of his life in China is limited. I don't expect that I'll learn any more about him by being here, though I find it ironic that I'm still learning things about my family and myself even though there's an ocean between us.
I'm barely entering my fourth month in Beijing, so I'm sure I have a lot to learn, but my experience isn't any better or worse than that of other foreigners. I think my experience is certainly unique, though. For every time I get to walk down the street without someone pointing at me, there's a time when someone approaches me for directions, and I'm met with a look of confusion when I tell them that I don't understand what they're saying (I wouldn't be much help if I did--even with GPS, I still have no idea where I'm going most of the time). When a group of foreigners I'm with meet locals, even if we're talking in a group, I notice that the locals look at me when they talk to us. They expect me to be able to converse with them more easily than the people around me (usually, it's the other way around, because most of my friends have been here much longer than I have).
Receiving different treatment on the basis of my appearance is nothing new to me--being mixed-race in the United States means that I often get asked about my parents' backgrounds. Everyone looks different in the United States, but people tend to like to be able to pinpoint where exactly your ancestors came from, even if it was Russia three generations ago.
I like to think that my particular background here enriches my experience as a foreigner in China. I experience people's first impressions of me as a Chinese citizen and then a second perspective as a foreigner. It's a perspective that's unique, and it's one that I'd like to share.
The author is an American living in China