In New York I always struggled with the identity of being a Chinese American. Even though I was born in Lower Manhattan, my Asian face always led people to believe that I was a “foreigner.” Throughout my schooling, classmates, teachers, and professors would constantly assume that I was a non-native English speaker. It always infuriated me that people would have that assumption especially in institutions of higher learning. I do have to admit that I did assume the guise whenever I wanted to ignore random strangers making passes or those who threw inane comments at me.
Now that I’m living in Taichung — where I can neither read traditional Chinese, nor speak Taiwanese/Mandarin — I find myself relishing in living in anonymity. Unless I have to relay the fact that I don’t possess a VIP supermarket card to store clerks, I don’t say boo. I finally “blend in” with the masses — that is until I open my mouth and English specked Cantonese or American English comes out. This Taichung experience is one of the few times in my life where I’m not out right labeled as a foreigner in the eyes of others. It’s a feeling that I closely guard and savor. I even feel reluctant to let English-speaking foreigners in on my secret as I walk past them pretending not to understand their conversations. It’s equally amusing to me when I speak only in Cantonese or English to Mandarin speakers, who immediately turn to talk to others about me, not knowing that I can translate bits and pieces of their conversations due to the proximity between Mandarin and Cantonese.
Eventually I will squash this newly formed habit. I’ve enrolled myself in Mandarin-speaking classes at a local university, and I’ve been trying to fully immerse myself in the local language to retain everything — I say this with high aspirations as I have made many belly flops and blunders along the way. I do have friendly shopkeepers around my apartment who delight in my attempts to converse with them in a mix of Mandarin, Cantonese, and English. Hopefully, I can get to know them better as time comes along.