An "ABC" moves to China — and realizes just how American he is

I moved to Shanghai in July to become a copywriter for a bilingual magazine — despite the fact that I could not speak Mandarin or Shanghainese. Halfway around the world, I had been offered a huge start to my career in a big bustling city. I thought being both Chinese and American would help me socially and professionally: I could relate to the Chinese locals, and live it up with the Western business class.

Oh boy, was I wrong.

A subway platform in Shanghai | Photos by Paul Wong

Among the first lessons a visitor to Shanghai learns is the distinction between "laowai" (foreigner) and "huaren" (ethnic Chinese).  My thick black hair, almond-shaped eyes, and buckteeth are enough to prove to most people that I am ethnically Chinese.

With my huaren looks, I got to enjoy privileges like paying the local (as opposed to foreigner) price for things. Old Chinese ladies were a lot friendlier to me at the fish market. On three separate occasions, little kids latched onto me after losing their parents on the subway.

But my inner laowai’s inability to speak Mandarin constantly blew my cover. Chinese people generally were not as friendly; and vendors became fiercer when bargaining after they discovered I was an American undercover.

I felt guilty that my face was so misleading.

Joining my mainland Chinese coworkers for lunch was a reminder of how truly “un-Chinese” I was. These were wonderful meals where I sat quietly in front of a hot pot, listening to four Chinese colleagues contort their vocal cords to pronounce deep, loogie-hawking “huh”s immediately after short, sharp “loo”s. Once in a while, I understood what they were saying and managed to blurt out a few observations in Mandarin — maybe even a joke — in an accent so broken that I felt an impressive and immediate shame.

At this point, everyone would switch to Shanghainese dialect while I buried my face in a spoonful of pork livers.

Even when I directly presented myself as a foreigner, I couldn’t simply jump from being “one of us” to “one of them.” Being a laowai afforded me no additional social perks with my English, Australian, and  white American colleagues in management. On the rare occasions when I joined them at the pub, I became the Brick Tamland of the group: I had the suit, I had the hair, but nothing I said made sense to them.

Unlike what seemed like every other Westerner in China, I did not raid Shanghai’s glitter-bombed clubs stuffed with bored Asian escorts and sweaty men sipping ¥ 80 ($12) drinks. Westerner or not, I was making a local’s pay.

I tried to get a second job teaching business English to Chinese professionals, a job almost every expat pursues in China. English tutors can make the equivalent of $33 an hour with no qualifications. That is, of course, they were the right kind of expat. 

“I’m going to be honest, not being white and not speaking fluent Chinese is going to make it hard to market yourself,” Jamie Mason, a coworker from England, pale as snow and fluent in Mandarin, broke the news to me gently.

I eventually found a gig as a voice actor on a Western art history audiobook. The project of a Chinese grad student who attended Columbia University, the audiobook featured a chorus of European and American voices describing Western art. Note the key phrase: “American voices”. My voice.

“You were born in Los Angeles," Wei Yao, the Chinese native grad student behind the project says to me during my interview, "that means you’re full ABC." American-born Chinese are hard to find in Shanghai, yet "ABC" is a pretty well known term even among those who know little else in English. Talking with Wei was the first time in three months that I had heard the term applied without a sneer, and did not feel like I had disappointed yet another person by being a particularly un-Chinese Chinese American.

I met fewer than a dozen ABCs in Shanghai — most of them were on their way out after a few weeks of teaching English and crazed tourism. Just one appeared to be sticking in Shanghai for good: a Mark Keppel (class of 2005) and UC Irvine (class of 2009) graduate working at the Princeton Review.

I met my ABC counterpart while waiting for drinks at a bar, and it was like talking to an alternate universe version of me. We grew up in the same city, went to the same high school, and shared the same bland ABC name algorithm (Western first name and single syllable Chinese last name, i.e. Paul Wong). But unlike me, he was acknowledged as both Chinese and Western.

Sharing a drink with a version of me that made all the right choices was a) depressing and b) a reminder that I was not fit for Shanghai. Bizarro Paul was so much like everyone else in Shanghai: he wore brand name clothes, was fluent in Mandarin, stayed close to his family in China, and jumped into a profitable, expat-friendly career in education. Actual Paul was an English-only vagrant with a job as a journalist in a country that reviles people who ask too many questions. I was proud of my thrift-shop clothes and hated barbecue pork buns. Almond-shaped eyes and black hair be damned, I just wasn’t Chinese enough for China.

Photo: Paul Wong

In October, I returned to the United States with a broken heart, empty pockets, and a resume that is impressive to no one. Being an ABC in China was a harsh experience, but it taught me that although “Chinese American" was an easy title to wear in my sleepy San Gabriel Valley neighborhood — where just eating fish cheeks and mooncakes was enough to vouch for my Chinese identity. In China, being “Chinese American” was a title that I had to earn by, as I saw it, speaking Mandarin and English, making a lot of money, and working with locals.

I didn’t earn that title while in Shanghai. But after my time as a Chinese and a foreigner, I know that I am welcome to go back and try again.

8 thoughts on “An "ABC" moves to China — and realizes just how American he is”

  1. Have you watched the movie “Shanghai Calling”? It’s a romantic comedy about an ABC (Daniel Henney) who got sent on a business trip to Shanghai, and doesn’t speak a single word of Chinese. The main character experiences all the trials and tribulations of being a Chinese laowai in Shanghai. It’s basically the story of your life! This movie will definitely resonate with you.

  2. Again, let me reiterate how complicated it is to be Chinese American. We are a population composed of 5 main immigration waves and each one was completely different from the next in terms of language, education, and socio-economic status. Compare this to other Asian groups who have 1-2 waves.

    So basically, ABC’s are divided. If you’re 4th generation Toisan ABC, that is a completely different experience from being 2nd generation ABC from Taiwan, HK, or Shanghai.

    It’s very strange and it’s also one of the main reasons ABC’s struggle to find any common link to each other and often end up going for an idealistic but weak Pan-Asian identity.

  3. Excellent read and humorous insight into the confusion of being ABC in China. I’m still chuckling………

  4. Welcome home Paul and thanks for the report. Don’t listen to Sinosoul: No parent in their right mind would want their children to breath the air of Beijing for a month, much less a year! Shanghai’s air is OK since it’s near the sea, but inland? Even the wealthy Chinese are fleeing to give their kids clean air and safe food.

    You’ve described an experience that ABC have been facing for generations: You can’t really go “home” again. Our family left four generations ago (pre-1900), long before Chinese nationals all spoke Mandarin or brand name clothing even existed. Visiting China today is a surreal experience. Yes, we all “look Chinese,” but nobody speaks a word of village Cantonese, much less Mandarin. Bilingualism died off with my grandparents.

    So we are all left being Strangers in a Strange Land: Not fully accepted as “Americans” here (even though our family has been here the same length of time as most Europeans), but complete strangers to China. There’s not much we can do but accept this. For future trips, take a little Mandarin at city college. It will make future trips more enjoyable, just as it helps to speak a little Spanish in Spain or French in France.

  5. Aaaah yes, the non-defined ABC identity.

    There is no all-encompassing Chinese American narrative, unlike Korean, Japanese, or even Vietnamese. We have no real shared values or experiences other than being cheap.

    We are a group far too large, diverse, and dispersed.

    This leads to identity issues far more complex (notice I did not say difficult) than the identity crises of other Asian groups.

  6. Michael: Thank you! You might just be my only fan on the Source.

    SinoSoul: Please, please–and I cannot stress this enough–PLEASE don't beat your kids. If you're being sarcastic, terrific; but the last thing I want my article doing is circuitously inciting a parent to violence.

  7. Note to self: make sure all the kids speak Chinese, even if you have to beat them. This is so, SO depressing. You should be mad at your parents. In fact, maybe it’s time to send the infant to Beijing for a year or so.

  8. Welcome back Pual and thanks for the interesting take on returning to the mother land. Very good read. Shaun's illlustration for your article is terrrific.

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