Comparing China experiences between foreigners and ethnic Chinese

While studying my degree at the Sun Yat-Sen University I’ve met many ethnic Chinese who have lived abroad and have a foreign passport. I have noticed that both me and them can fail to decide are they Chinese or foreigners. Or is it even necessary to put these people in to boxes?

There are those whose family are from the Guangdong province, but they were born and raised in the USA. Some were born in China but moved abroad, to Japan for example, when they were kids. Then there are a lot of ethnic Chinese whose family have been living in Indonesia for generations. Even south american ethnic Chinese have found their way to Sun Yat-Sen University.

Making friends and studying together with ethnic Chinese have taught me a lot. Some are very critical with China and compare it with their home country. Some are very protective of China and see criticism as unpatriotic. Others have a completely foreign life style, others live their life almost like common Chinese folk.

When asked where they are from they might answer America, Japan, Indonesia.. or they can answer Henan, Guangdong or any other Chinese province. For a completely 100% foreigner as me, it’s interesting to observe how these young adults are dealing with their double identity. Local people regard them as Chinese nationals and only bad languages skills can give them away, if that’s even possible, most of them have excellent Mandarin, or Cantonese might be one of their native languages.

Sometimes I envy these girls and boys because many aspects of learning Chinese seem so easy for them. Why my parents don’t speak Mandarin/Cantonese with me? Why I didn’t study characters in primary school? It would be so much easier! But then again it’s hard for an ethnic Chinese to impress anyone with their language skills (even when it’s impressive), and I get compliments every time I open my mouth. People understand if I make mistakes and can be more patient, but they can get even angry when a Chinese looking foreigner can’t speak proper putonghua.

Some of you know already that I’m made in China (yeah, you read correctly, sorry Mom!) so I kind of have this special connection with China. I had Chinese food even before I was born! But hearing Chinese spoken when still in my mom’s tummy didn’t really help me at all 20 years later when I really started learning Chinese. (And yeas I was born in Finland and didn’t come to China until 2010.)

One big plus size of not having Chinese roots, Finland not having lots of immigrants from China and not having China Towns is that living in China is a much bigger adventure! Xiguan area with its architecture is so much more interesting when I don’t have the same buildings back home, as my Indonesian friends do. Tasting Chinese dishes is more exotic when I haven’t grown up eating it.

This whole China experience (which is turning into China life) seems to be so different for me and for my ethnic Chinese friends. That’s why I hope to learn more about how different kind of expats/foreigners/ethnic Chinese think about their life in China. Please share your experiences and ideas in the comments!

  • Jerry

    haha, I couldn’t help but laughing so hard when I read the part that “you are made in China” .. Well, I used to study in Canada for 6 years, and I remember I came cross the same questions as you are having now ,”Why my parents don’t speak English with me? Why I didn’t study English in primary school? It would be so much easier!” However, after around 4 or 5 years of study in Canada, I matered the language pretty well, these question stopped bothering me … Sara! You have only been living in China for 2 and a half years, no one could mater a language in such a short period of time, be more patient, I am sure you will be satisfied with your Chinese after 2 more years…JIA YOU

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  • Ordinary Malaysian

    Even though I am an ethnic Chinese Malaysian, my fellow Chinese Malaysians and even my own siblings call my “banana” , that is, yellow on the outside but white in the inside, simply because I was mostly English educated and my command of Mandarin is not as good as theirs! Haha. Funny. But in a sense quite sad but true. But today, because of the education system here, most of us can speak three languages, except the majority Malays who mostly still focus only on their Malay language. Luckily too for us, we can also speak at least one other dialect apart from our own. I think in that regard, we Malaysian Chinese are better off than out brothers and sisters in China. Haha again! Maybe the affinity you feel for China is because in a past life you were a Chinese princess? Maybe there is an invisible red thread connecting you to China? Have you heard of the Chinese believe in the red thread? Interesting post, Sara!

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    Sara Jaaksola Reply:

    When I was 17 I attended a summer course at my high school where we learned a bit of Chinese and Taiji. There was an older man and once in the dinner table with us classmates he shared a story how he went to one place in South America for the first time and instantly felt like home. I think now I know what he was talking about.

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  • Guest

    I think Chinese will always have trouble to categorize those “other” Chinese.  For ethnic Chinese, they either choose to fully adopt their Chinese identity or rebel. I don’t see too many can really live both. Being in China to get back to their root and heritage is personal.  You as a foreigner won’t feel being stuck in the middle.  It is easier when you don’t have the expectation to be recognized as Chinese or labeled as such.  Better leave it that way.   The advantage of being ethnic is the ability to blend in when needed.  When you go back to Finland, you would feel like an hidden immigrant can related to some of the experience your Chinese friends in China.   If the choice to be in China is made by ethnic Chinese themselves, they will have more positive experiences over all.  

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