Caught in between: The difficulties of being Chinese-American in China

By Maggie Cai

“I saw you over there and you were the same color as us so I thought you were Chinese,” said one of the students to me. I thought, “What does she mean? No one has ever said such a thing to me in my 19 years.

It isn’t easy visiting China as a Chinese-American, especially as a Cantonese speaker. What’s so frustrating is that I’m in a place where I am expected to know the language just because of the way I look.

I face a variety of assumptions on the part of the Mainland Chinese, or Da Lu, as they are known. When I walk into a store or a restaurant, the Chinese assume I’m either one of them or an interpreter for my American university study abroad group. The Da Lu, don’t realize there are a variety of Chinese people in the world just as there are different dialects in Chinese provinces.

Sure, the official spoken language of China is Mandarin, but many people of Guangzhou in the Pearl River basin of southern China still speak Cantonese. These are the Chinese who first immigrated to America to build the transcontinental railroads in the late 1800s. Yet here on the Northeastern coast of China, the ancient Han heartland, few speak Cantonese, the dialect I learned growing up in Sunset Park in Brooklyn. It’s so frustrating.

Typically, Mandarin speakers don’t understand Cantonese and vice versa. I’ve learned that I am an exception to this. I know how to understand some Mandarin but understanding and not being able to respond just makes it worse.

This understanding of Mandarin is not typical of an average Cantonese person. I’ve become extremely fluent at saying “Neng jiang Guangdong hua ma?” and “Wo de pu tong hua shuo de bu hao” ever since I arrived in China. Yet I still find myself staring blankly back at the lady asking me if I want another can of soda at the restaurant and avoiding eye contact at all times.

The bus attendant on our way to Chaoyang Park in Beijing assumed I was not part of the group when we paid and wanted to charge me separately. The manager of the hotel asked me to translate for one of my peers. The waitresses at restaurants talk to me in Mandarin.

“But you’re Chinese right?” Every place we visit I get this question at least once when I don’t respond to a Mandarin speaker. Yes, I’m Chinese – just because I don’t know your dialect of Chinese doesn’t make me any less Chinese. There are “err” sounds in Beijing’s dialect of Mandarin that is not used in Cantonese – or any other dialect.

Eventually I end up having to explain that I’m a Chinese-American and my family is from Guangdong, China where they speak Cantonese.

Not every Chinese person speaks Mandarin, but yes I’m still Chinese.

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