The Differing Challenges of Being Chinese in America and American in China

Photography: 罗二

by Angelo Ngai

In the course of going to college, studying in Harbin and living in China over the past two years, I have noticed that the respective challenges American and Chinese students face abroad are quite different. Younger Chinese may be under the impression that “foreigners have a better time in China,” but I think the bigger picture is somewhat more complicated. The issues of being a foreigner in America or China often play out like the fable of 塞翁失马, advantages can turn out to be disadvantages, disadvantages can turn out to be blessings, and no one knows for sure how things will ultimately play out in the long haul.

Learning English and Learning Chinese are Hard for Different Reasons

Language-learning is a good starting point to illustrate this cycle of goods and ills. I have never studied English as a second-language (and thus, cannot speak confidently about the struggles of Chinese students learning English) but I strongly believe that Chinese is the more difficult language to master. The combination of tones, characters and idiosyncratic grammar makes Chinese mind-numbingly hard, and it only becomes harder the more advanced one’s level of study becomes. Every non-native Mandarin speaker I have met who believed “Chinese is easy” simply lacked the language-ability to hear their own errors.

The point isn’t that learning English is easy for Chinese students; learning any foreign language with any degree of fluency is hard. But for non-native Chinese learners it is especially hard. The existence of Dashan is a testament to this: It is laughable to think of a foreigner in the U.S. becoming famous for their ability to “speak perfect English.”

However, if we compare American students going to China to Chinese students coming to America, it is important to note that American students have a very important advantage: Chinese people are far more willing to help them practice. Polite Americans with only elementary Chinese language skills can easily find people willing to spend time and energy having meaningful conversations with them. Chinese English-Language learners rarely find Americans to be so forgiving.

This contrast only became clear to me after I got back to Haverford from Harbin. While studying in Harbin, everyone, from our Chinese dorm-mates to the college security guards, was extremely friendly and more than willing to help us practice our spoken Chinese. Meals, weekend outings and hallway conversations all were excellent opportunities to converse and make friends. Upon coming back to the U.S. I hoped to reciprocate the patience and helpfulness our classmates showed us abroad, it seemed only right to try and be equally welcoming to Chinese students in the States.

But in my newfound attentiveness, I was surprised to realize just how dismissive and negligent many American students were when interacting with the Chinese study-abroad students on campus. The dominant attitude seemed to be that “if their [Chinese students] language skills aren’t up to par, I have no obligation to spend my time helping them, or to hold them to an easier standard in judging their language ability.” Far from the warm welcome we received in Harbin, the most common “welcome” Chinese students received was casual indifference. For Chinese students eager to make American friends, I’m sure this was probably very hurtful, and no small part of the reason that all the Chinese students tended to sit together in the cafeteria.

Americans are less Forgiving because they hold Chinese Students to a Higher Standard of Cultural Assimilation

This difference largely stems from the fact that Chinese people (from the mainland at least) and Americans tend to orient to “foreigners” with very different attitudes and expectations. For one thing, Chinese people in general are exceptionally friendly and hospitable (at least when there are no conflicts of interest). Additionally, many Chinese people have an overwhelmingly positive image of the U.S., but little concrete information or experience to let them know how true this image actually is. This leads to curiosity, which in turn leads to a willingness to interact and converse with Americans (even if the conversation can only occur in stunted, broken sentences).

But most importantly, Chinese people think that “Chinese is hard” and that a serious attempt by a foreigner to learn Chinese should be applauded and assisted. Americans in contrast have no such perception about English. If someone’s English is sub-par, Americans view it as a deficiency on the part of the speaker, not a consequence of the English language being too difficult.

Contrary to what some Chinese students might believe, I do not feel that Americans in general “dislike” Chinese students, but it is true that they view the struggle of language-learning to be the responsibility of “the foreigner.” American students do not feel like they have an obligation to be supportive of another student’s language-learning if doing so requires an extra investment of time and energy on their part.

The essential difference is that Chinese people hold foreigners to a more lenient standard than the one they use to judge other Chinese people, while Americans hold foreigners to the same standard that they use for other Americans.

This is no small part of the reason why so many foreigners love being in China. Paradoxically, it is also one of the biggest obstacles for Americans seeking to gain a deeper understanding of Chinese culture and society.

The Leniency that Americans receive in China prevents them from ever truly Assimilating

Americans in China may share the same space with Chinese people, eat the same food and breath the same air, but for all intents and purposes the vast majority of them (myself included) live in a completely different social dimension. Most foreigners in China work or teach in situations where they are heavily insulated from the twisted webs of interests and relationships that define life for so many Chinese people. They don’t need to worry about sending gifts or paying bribes, because their financial security isn’t dependent upon staying on good terms with one influential person. They don’t need to worry about cultivating guanxi, because there is nothing they need to ask for that requires someone to bend (or break) the rules on their behalf (usually). This means that foreigners, for better or worse, never really experience life in China the way it is experienced by Chinese people.

In my opinion, even foreigners who have embedded themselves deeper in Chinese society through business or marriage don’t truly experience life in China the way Chinese people do, precisely because Chinese people will continuously hold them to a more lenient standard. A Chinese person who doesn’t give another Chinese person “mianzi” at a dinner might create a grudge, but a foreigner who does the same thing will be perceived as ignorant instead of disrespectful. A Chinese boss might request that Chinese employees do demeaning things like pour tea or stay late for no reason, but they will rarely request Western employees to do the same. The pettiest, harshest aspects of Chinese culture seem to be exclusively reserved for Chinese people.

This means that Americans can live quite comfortably in China, but they are ultimately living in a bubble. An odd bubble that prevents them from ever truly assimilating into Chinese society, even as it simultaneously shields them from the uglier, more complicated aspects of life in China.

The challenge of being Chinese in America is “learning how to be American” so that other Americans will accept you. The challenge of being American in China is learning how to look past the “special treatment” you are given, and to do your best to understand what life is like for ordinary Chinese people.

When Chinese students in the U.S. are hurt by the disregard of Americans, it is best that they remember this: within such rejection lies the promise of inclusivity. Americans are holding them to the same standard that they hold themselves, and come the day that the Chinese student can meet this standard, Americans will no longer orient to them as “foreigners” but as “Americans born in a different country.” In contrast, the “special treatment” given to Americans ensures that they will forever be “outsiders,” even if being an “outsider” in China is more comfortable than being Chinese.