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What Does it Mean to 'Be American' as a Chinese Student?

I’m Chinese, but kinda American.

Since August 16, 2008, the day I arrived in the United States, I have been asked thousands of times, “Where are you from?” For most Chinese students studying abroad, the automatic answer would be, “Yea, China of course!” However, for some, it is not as simple as the nationality presented on their red, Chinese passports.

This summer, a Chinese friend of mine from Syracuse University visited me in Beijing after spending a semester studying abroad in Europe with a few American students. “I enjoyed my stay in Spain so much last semester,” she told me, speaking in Mandarin Chinese interspersed with some English terms. She showed me pictures of various parties with other American students, and said, “The American culture I adopted last semester was more than what I had tried for the past three years. I feel I’m so American right now and I nearly forgot how to speak Chinese when I just came back to China from Spain.”

I felt happy for her for feeling comfortable “being so American.” However, her words left me in deep thought as well; do we, Chinese students studying in the US, have to “act like Americans” in order to live comfortably in this country?

My freshman year, I had a culture clash with my American roommate and felt very isolated from the American students in the dorm. The reason was simple: I didn’t party with them, nor did I talk to them often.

Oh my gosh you look so American...

Yet, how I perceived and adapted to American culture began to change after I studied abroad in Hong Kong and Israel with some American students from my college. In order not to be isolated again, I forced myself to learn how to dress up, to go to parties, how to drink and to dance like everyone else in the group. Slowly, as “efforts” began paying off, I began to hear people saying, “You sound so American,” or “Oh my gosh, you look so American in this picture!”

Waking from an alcoholic stupor after a party and walking in 5-inch-heels with my friends in the empty streets of Hong Kong at 3:00 am, I kept asking myself again and again, “Is this the life you want? If yes, why did you feel uncomfortable? If no, why do you have to continue this lifestyle you don’t actually enjoy?”

I was not able to come up with the answer until this summer when I went to Hong Kong again to attend the 2011 World Youth Leaders Forum.

During the farewell dinner on the last day of the forum, a student from China came over to me, and asked in English, "Are you ABC (American-born Chinese)?" "Why?" I asked back, surprised.

She explained that during my presentation, she had not only heard a slightly American accent, but also thought that the way I included humor in the presentation and used a lot of gestures when I spoke was very "American." In addition, I had talked about my plan to travel to India and Africa after graduation, and she said she knew Americans who had taken time off to travel after school, but not a single Chinese college student who had done it.
You’re born an original, don’t die a copy!

During the past three and half years, I thought “being American” means “going out to parties, bars, and clubs to have fun, being able to dance, drink and do crazy things, and so on.” However, at that moment, I suddenly recognized how I had been holding onto an incorrect concept of “being American.” I realized what I really have learned and gained from the past three and half years studying in the United States is that “the American dream” refers to being independent and determined - knowing what you want and insisting on it until you achieve your dreams.

I still remember that on August 16, 2008, I, a 17-year-old, arrived at the JFK airport in New York City, carrying three overweight luggage cases. Now, I am a 21-year-old adult who will graduate from college in half a year. I believe, however, what I gain is far more than a degree certificate. In China, parents usually play an important role to secure their children good schools or good jobs. However, as an international student whose parents are on the other side of the earth, all I have is myself. And I believe that’s how I have been practicing the concept of “the American dream,” and that’s how to “be American,” in a good way.

At 3:00 am last Sunday, I finished some readings and walked through an area of Washington D.C. populated by many bars. I had to pick up my roommate who had gone to a party but needed someone to walk her home. The temperature was low, but the street was busy. I saw some Chinese-looking girls dressed up nicely at a corner bar, drinking beers, and talking and laughing loudly. I didn't know whether anyone among them was facing a similar dilemma as the one I had previously faced, but had there been such a person, I would have liked to share a quote with her from John Mason: “You’re born an original, don’t die a copy!”