Identity in 3-D

“Nishi zhong guo ren ma?” (“Are you a Chinese person?”)

Several dozen people asked me this question during my five weeks in China after evaluating my black hair, yellow skin and almond eyes, which contrasted with my mainly Caucasian classmates.

I found it surprisingly hard to answer. On the one hand, it seems such a straightforward question; on the other hand, there’s no easy response.

Literally translated, the question means, “Are you Chinese?” On a more significant level, however, the words can infer political connotations.

“Zhongguo,” or “Middle Kingdom,” is an old traditional name for China. After the People’s Republic of China was established in 1949, the Chinese Communist Party used “zhong guo” to refer to the People’s Republic of China and the territories it associates with the PRC. (Official documents that reference a “Taiwanese” nationality, for instance, are not accepted in China.)

Therefore, the use of the phrase “zhong guo ren,” rather than the more politically neutral “hua ren”, which refers to ethnic Chinese origin, can call an individual’s nationalism into question. And at a time when relations between China, Taiwan and the United States are very delicate, adopting one cultural identity may deeply offend those who subscribe to another.

An old saying, “Know the future through the mirror of the past,” aptly sums up the Chinese mentality toward cultural identity. The Chinese traditionally identify themselves first by their ancestral province of origin, in official documentation as well as colloquial conversation. By this rule, my paternal grandfather makes me a “fujian ren” (a pereson hailing from Fujian province), even though my father was born in Taiwan and I was born in the States.

Taiwanese identity evolved in a slightly different direction. After the Democratic People’s Party came to power in Taiwan in 1989, the government in Taipei restructured the system so that origin referenced a person’s actual birth place, and not the traditional ancestral home. In this way, my grandparents would be Chinese, my parents would be Taiwanese and I would be American, thus decreasing the number of people China could claim its own.

These subtle yet significant cultural differences are difficult enough to explain in the abstract. In the context of my own identity as a Taiwanese-American ethnic Chinese visiting “the [grand]motherland” for the first time, I often had no idea what my best answer would be to the question: Are you Chinese?

Occasionally, I would answer by referencing my connection with Taiwan. Not only were my parents born and raised in Taiwan, I spent my teenage years there, so most of my exposure to Chinese culture took place at that time.

“You Taiwanese are the ones with the [authentic] culture!” said Chang Xumin, a taxi driver from Beijing, in a complimentary tone. He was referring to how traditional Chinese characters are still used in written language in Taiwan, in contrast to the simplified character system the CCP implemented after it took control of China in 1949.

Mike Li, our guide on a tour of the Forbidden City in Bejing, seemed to share Chang’s sentiment – with a very different attitude. “When Chiang Kai-shek left China with the Kuomintang in 1949, he took a lot of the artifacts from the Forbidden City and kept them in Taiwan,” Li said. His words and tone left no question that he felt Taiwan should return the items to what Li considered their rightful home.

And one time, I inadvertently responded to The Question by saying, “I’m from Taiwan,” no qualifiers attached. The Beijing shopkeeper I was talking to immediately blew up. “So? What of it? Isn’t that the same thing?” he said loudly as everyone turned to look at me. “We’re all the same people.”

I thought about telling him that many people in Taiwan disagree, both politically and ethnically. However, I didn’t feel like that argument was mine to make since I am, after all, ethnically Chinese.

The younger generation Chinese, those nearer my age tended to respond more favorably to references to Taiwan. “I love Taiwan!” exclaimed Jarry Rin, a sophomore English-language major at the Xian Institute of Physical Education. “To visit there is my dream.”

The notion that American-born Chinese have a better life than those who stay in their country of origin is a fairly widespread one in China and Taiwan – and in some aspects it may be true in areas of international education or career opportunities.

“I wish my grandfather had left China [like yours],” said Xu Chao wistfully, a senior at the Zhejiang Institute of Technology in Hangzhou. “He was part of the KMT movement [defeated by the Communists in 1949], and after [the Communists] took control, life was very hard for my family. Perhaps if our family had gone to Taiwan, I might have had the chance to grow up in America as well.”

Wu Qiong, a translator for CET Academic Programs and a Beijing native, asked some of my classmates about me because she had a hard time understanding how I could be at once Chinese and American. “She wondered if you felt different from the rest of [us students],” said a classmate, Rebecca Davis. “She said, ‘I was surprised to see someone who looked Asian like me in your group.’”

The American melting-pot culture emphasizes identity as a fluid construct left to individual preference. With that definition in mind, I sometimes responded by saying that I was an “ABC” – slang for American-born Chinese.

Even now, at the end of my China tour, I'm still not sure how best to describe myself. Sometimes, I just smile and say, "Yes" for the sake of brevity.

And in a way, that answer is also true.