Passing the Cultural Identity Test

Article excerpt

A good and respectable Chinese girl doesn't laugh with her mouth open, my godmother scolded me.

It was one of my first dates in Hong Kong, where I lived for five years, and the beginning of my trial-by-fire quest for identity - am I American, Chinese, or both?

I had gone on a blind date with a young man she'd found through our real estate agent. He drove a Mercedes and made a million dollars a year. My godmother, a native Shanghainese, had herself made a million in the stock market.

Over afternoon tea, I did most of the talking, shooting questions at the young man as if he were my interview subject: Did he prefer Hong Kong or London? Tennis or soccer? Slacks or sweats? I laughed at my own jokes while he remained silent. "It's over," my godmother said.

But it wasn't. He called back and asked me out again and again. A few weeks later, the real estate agent asked him what he saw in me, an atypical Chinese girl. "I like her because she's different," he said.

For five years I was different, neither American nor Chinese, neither black nor white, yin nor yang. It bothered me for a while, for the Chinese couldn't figure me out, and the expatriates didn't want to figure me out. Who was I?

For the first few years in Hong Kong, I thought I had it all figured out. I was Chinese, of course. I was reminded of this identity whenever I looked in the mirror or wrote my name. In 1997, at the height of the hand-over frenzy, I wore clothes with Chinese buttons, told everyone to call me by my Chinese name (a name that I sometimes forgot how to write). I jogged around the park humming China's National Anthem: "Get up, comrades, this is your country, salute."

I set foot in Beijing for the first time in 1997. Within a year my Mandarin had improved, my Cantonese was passable, and I preferred tofu and rice over bread. And then one autumn, when I was 23, I spent a month in Shanghai and realized that I was still a foreigner. I did not choose this identity; it was placed on me like a heavy hand.

"Shush, don't say a word," my cousin told me when we went to the markets. She'd do all the bargaining while I played mute, because if I opened my mouth they'd charge me double. At the museums and parks, I continued to play mute until my cousin nudged me. "You can talk now."

I was neither here nor there. I did not get the jokes thrown at the dinner table, did not understand the roots of the conversation. I went to McDonald's and ordered a hamburger - not because I liked hamburgers, but because I had no idea how to say "fish fillet" or "chicken McNuggets" in Chinese. …