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Society & Culture

Immigrants vs. Expats

Mar 03, 2016

In the past, when I thought of the Chinese “immigrant experience” in the United States, I thought of The Joy Luck Club. I thought of parents who face cultural divides with their children, of language barriers, of tight communities who bind together to combat prejudice and support each other in an alien environment. It never occurred to me that I might have anything in common with such communities. I am, after all, part of the dominant culture in the U.S.

But about a year ago the internet became abuzz with controversy over the terms “expat” and “immigrant.” Some argued that the term “expat” reinforces white privilege because, though its meaning is essentially the same as “immigrant,” it is reserved only for white people. As an American living in China, I had always considered myself an expat. After reading these articles however, I began to wonder: how much did I have in common with immigrant communities in the US? What did I share, if anything, with Chinese immigrants—the people who had gone the other way?

Living in China as a foreigner is not easy. There are everyday practical issues, but much more significantly there are deep cultural challenges. I am living in a society imbued with a completely different value system than the one I came from, a society that does not necessarily recognize my core beliefs as valid. It’s an environment that can make you question your identity. It occurred that this was not so different from what the characters face in The Joy Luck Club.

When I went home to Los Angeles for a long break, I decided to interview Chinese immigrants to find out what their experiences were like. Most had been in the U.S. for many years. They had gotten married, either to Americans or other immigrants, had had children, opened businesses, and started careers. All of them spoke English incredibly well.

I asked them what challenges they faced in the U.S. How much racism did they encounter? What American values or habits bothered them? Did they struggle with their identity as American or Chinese? Did they worry about their children losing touch with their heritage?

Most of the people I talked to came as part of the second large wave of Chinese migration to the U.S., which started after China’s opening in 1978. Unlike the first wave of immigrants who came in the late 19th century to build the first transcontinental railroad and mine for gold during the California Gold Rush, recent Chinese immigrants tend to be highly skilled and educated. Now, median incomes and education levels surpass both other immigrant groups and non-immigrants alike. They are more likely than other immigrant groups to obtain citizenship.

The immigrants I spoke to seemed to be doing quite well. At least in terms of what they were willing to tell me, there were no epic trials of identity, no Joy Luck Club-esque cultural barriers. One girl I spoke to, Sophie Fan, who was studying abroad, told me that nothing about the U.S. really surprised her. “Sometimes I don’t even feel like I’m living in a foreign country,” she said. Helana Zhang, who had also spent time in France, responded to my question regarding her national identity with, “I consider myself a citizen of the world.” And Choi, who owns a hair Salon, said she had American friends of all different races and nationalities. “I like all kinds of people,” she said. “It doesn’t matter. I can be friends [sic] with anyone.”

There were a few complaints. Ma Xiu Ling, an acupuncturist who has a practice on Los Angeles’ West Side, said she was shocked when one of her older clients paid for her own treatment, despite the fact that her adult son was with her. Han Wei, a nurse who is married to an American with two kids, told me that a former coworker of hers had been very cold to her for no apparent reason. “That’s the first time I thought that this,” she said, pointing to her skin, “might mean something.”

But for the most part, not much seemed to bother them. It should be said that I was only able to speak to a handful of individuals. There are over 2 million Chinese immigrants currently living in the U.S., and over 2 million unique stories and experiences. I am sure that there are those who hate living in the U.S., and some who never learn English. And yet, for the people I did talk to, they seemed to assimilate much more easily than any Americans I know in China. If you ask my foreign friends in Beijing what they don’t like, they will rattle off a list a mile long.

So what’s the difference?

I think part of it has to do with the fact that the United States is a country of immigrants. According to my Asian-American friends in China, they are often not believed when they tell people that they are American. Sometimes they are asked incredulously why their Chinese is so poor, or even told that they are “bad Chinese” for having left “their” country.

At the same time, I have a strong sense that no matter how good my Chinese gets or how much I understand the culture, I will never be completely accepted because of how I look. In China, ethnicity and nationality are strongly linked. This is very different than the United States, which has a tradition of immigrants becoming American citizens. But I can never become Chinese, not legally or in people’s minds. In China foreigners are always laowai, “old outsiders.”

It seems misguided to make this claim at a time when fear of immigrants appears to be on the rise in the U.S. As the current presidential campaign shows, the United States is certainly not always welcoming of the outsider. The first wave of Chinese immigration ended in 1882 with the Chinese Exclusion Act, which bared Chinese labor migration to the U.S. for the next sixty years. We certainly have our bouts of xenophobia. I don’t mean to minimize our faults, but I do believe, generally speaking, that we are more accepting than many other places.

Another reason I think that Chinese immigrants assimilate better than Americans is the nature of American privilege. Whereas there are real economic incentives to assimilate in the U.S. by learning the language and culture, there are less so in China. The entirety of China’s youth is desperately trying to learn English so that they will be able to communicate with the world, including Americans. In big cities, a large part of the native population speaks some English. Most Americans come to teach English, or because they have a specific job lined up that doesn’t require Chinese ability. Thus, if someone doesn’t want to assimilate, they don’t really have to.

Because of our cultural differences and American privilege, American “expats” and Chinese “immigrants” have fundamentally different experiences when they travel abroad. But, aside from the socioeconomic factors, there is also the important aspect of attitude. I spoke with an American, Jim Gradoville, who has been a resident of Beijing for fifteen years. His Chinese is still limited, but he has adopted two Chinese daughters, and his wife is Chinese. When I asked him what bothered him about China, he had to think hard to come up with anything. “I’ve been very lucky,” he said. He told me had been a torch-bearer in the Olympics. As he talked, I couldn’t help but think that he seemed incredibly positive and optimistic.

He reminded me of the Chinese-Americans I talked to, especially the one who described herself as a “citizen of the world.” I’m convinced that these are the people who ultimately make it. They are so flexible and accepting, that you could really put them anywhere and they would thrive. They are the ones who stay, who don’t just pack up after a few years and go home. They inspired me. I too want to be at home wherever I am. I want to be an immigrant.

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