October 23, 2019

YANG | Not All Chinese Here Are Americans (Obviously) and That’s Fine

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I remember my palpable disappointment when I first watched the movie “Crazy Rich Asians.” It turns out that most of my fellow international Chinese friends also judged this film that way, as well as the general public in China. The movie flopped in China, both in the box office and in reviews. The aggregated score from 83,054 public reviews on Douban (豆瓣), the Chinese equivalent of IMDb, is a mere 6.1 out of 10. A common thread of criticism toward the film is a lack of authenticity, with many Chinese moviegoers begrudgingly calling it “General Tsao’s Chicken,” a particularly cruel title if you realize that this famous and delicious Chinese food is actually an invention linked more to America.

So, you can perhaps imagine my bewilderment at first when I realized that “Crazy Rich Asians” is actually a cultural phenomenon in America, having a deep impact on the Chinese-American community in particular. A common feat attributed to the film is how it broke the glass ceiling of an all-Asian cast not being able to achieve box office success and the movie brought a true representation of Chinese-Americans to the American public. This is perhaps the first time I realized how important the difference is between International Chinese students and Chinese-American students: Ultimately, not everyone who is Chinese in America is American.

What does this really mean? What does it entail? The first thing to recognize is that this difference exists. International Chinese students are not Chinese-Americans simply based on the fact that many of Chinese students may very well not consider or wish ourselves to be American. For many of us, being “Chinese” comes with an entire set of baggage: not only in the culture, but the geography, the politics and the social fabrics. That last one may very well explain why so many of us International Chinese students may not be able to fully grasp the importance of representation and public presence to Chinese-Americans. Most of us International Chinese Students are ethnically Han, the majority ethnic group in China that makes up 90 percent, and it is just hard for us to fully understand the frustration that comes with living under a cultural environment where “Chinese” faces aren’t common to the general public. The appreciation for the difference can only happen when an International Chinese student can fully accept that America is their home with no back-up option, and that is often when an International Chinese  becomes a Chinese-American.

Beyond recognizing the fact that there is a difference, a true difficulty lies within accepting such difference between us. In an environment that has undoubtedly become more and more hostile towards immigrants and ethnic minorities, especially Chinese-Americans, it is important for both groups to understand that such differences do not entail conflicts of interest. For too long there exists a mutual overrepresentation between us. When Chinese-American see us International Chinese as “Fresh Off the Boat,” there is the notion that we are all on a linear journey to become Chinese-American, that our current status are merely intermediary. On the other hand, Chinese from the motherland can often belittle Chinese abroad, including Chinese-Americans, as if their Americanness made them less “Chinese.” For the first misunderstanding, of course, us International Chinese can become American. But we can also choose not to become an American, and in a university that prizes an international approach, with its motto as “Any Person, Any Study,” there certainly should be no doubt. It is not a question of “whether International Chinese students want to eventually become Americans,” it is the assumption that “we are all eventually going to be” that has become increasingly outdated and contentious. To become an American after full maturity is an important choice that is neither obvious nor simple. It demands sacrifices that have no turning back, like all adult decisions, and likewise, need not be made in college with only one right answer.

Likewise, International Chinese should also not demean Chinese-Americans for their Americanness, having a myopic view that we alone have the right to define what it takes to be a Chinese. As the Chinese diaspora grows larger and larger by the day, we too have to recognize that being ethnically Chinese does not automatically restrict them to the image we conform them to be. Like General Tsao’s Chicken: so long as it is good chicken invented by Chinese people, popular in Chinese restaurants worldwide, who cares if it is invented in China? It may not be a typical Hunanese dish, you may not even like it. But will a pepper-hating Chinese deem the spicy-as-hell Sichuan food as not authentically Chinese? I think not.

Thus, when I am going to watch “Farewell,” another Chinese American film that has recently garnered great praise among movie critics in America, I am facing it with newfound optimism, for this time, even if I and the many International Chinese may not like the film, I can still appreciate it for what it’s worth. I hope fellow Chinese-Americans can also extend the same understanding to me, too.

Weifeng Yang is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at weifengyang@cornellsun.com. Poplar Sovereignty runs every other Wednesday this semester.