Who is Chinese?
12 Jun 2003
“Who is Chinese?” This is what I wrote on the board for my class last night. The Chinese concept of what exactly it is to be “Chinese” is really interesting. Speaking to Chinese people, you can’t help but come into contact with the issue. Over a year ago, Wilson and I were co-teaching American Society and Culture to English majors. Once I asked the class, “is Wilson Chinese?” NO! was the emphatic reply. A few even went so far as to assert that Wilson is “more American” than me. (This is to say that Wilson, the quintessential Californian, better fit their Hollywood image of what an American “should” be.)
This example aside, however, I find that Chinese people tend to be rather inclusive when deciding who is “Chinese.” I mean “inclusive” in that they often include people in this “Chinese” group that a Westerner might not expect would be included. (This contrasts sharply with the Japanese island mentality, in that not only can outsiders never be “Japanese,” but even the Japanese themselves cease to be real “Japanese” if they’re away for too long.) The Chinese tend to regard people of Chinese descent as “Chinese” even if they speak no Chinese in any form and have spent no time at all in China. Interestingly, it seems that this generous bestowment of Chineseness can be revoked when actual experience with the “Chinese” people in question comes into play. [See Flying Chair for a recent entry along similar lines.]
So after writing “Who is Chinese?” on the board, I proceeded to ask my class a series of questions. It’s significant to note that Wilson taught my class one time (for 2 1/2 hours). Here’s a paraphrase of the ensuing dialogue.
Me: All of you are Chinese. But who else is Chinese? Is Wilson Chinese?
[Some confusion ensues. I force them to vote. The result is about 6:2 against.] Me: Why isn’t he Chinese?
Student: He’s American. He doesn’t speak fluent Chinese, and he doesn’t have the same culture as us.
Me: Oh, I see. So language and culture are the most important. So I guess DaShan is Chinese then?
[Laughter] Student: Of course not! He can never be Chinese!
Me: Why not? He speaks fluent Chinese and he understands your culture. I think he might even have Chinese citizenship.
Student: But he doesn’t have Chinese blood!
Me: Oh, I see, Chinese blood is also important. So how about Fei Xiang [a famous half-Chinese half-white star] then? Is he Chinese?
[More confusion. A vote once again shows a split.] Me: Why isn’t he Chinese? He speaks fluent Chinese, he understands your culture, and he has Chinese blood.
Student: But he only has half Chinese blood.
Me: OK, so what if Fei Xiang had a child with a Chinese woman and they lived in China. Would that child be Chinese?
[Those who had said no to Fei Xiang appear a bit confused, but one student is adamant.] Student: No!
Me: OK, what about a person who is 7/8 Chinese? Is that person Chinese?
Me: OK, how about 31/32 Chinese?
[The other students are laughing.] Student: No, he’s not pure Chinese!
Me: Not even 1,048,575/1,048,576???
[More laughter. The one student is thinking. The point is finally sinking in.] Me: Do you think your Chinese heritage is that pure? If even one of your ancestors wasn’t 100% Chinese, then neither are you.
[I proceed to draw a tree illustrating how many people are involved.] Me: Do you really think any of you are that Chinese?
[Lots of head scratching.]
Oh yes, I love my job.