What brought you to Shanghai?
I initially came to China to learn Chinese, not having ever spoken it growing up as a third-generation Chinese American. After a year-long scholarship in Nanjing, I felt there was more I wanted to accomplish in China and decided to move to Shanghai. Every year I keep saying 'one more year', and now it's been five years total.
What made you want to participate in Unravel?
Every month Unravel presents an opportunity to consider the story theme within your own life, whether you're an audience member or a speaker. In crafting my stories, I've been able to revisit and reassess relevant memories I hadn't thought of in years.
How would you describe Unravel?
I tell people that Unravel is like a curated open mic. You're never sure what you'll get from the storytellers, but you know that [the founder] Clara [Davis] has vetted everyone to make sure there's a flow and a balance to the evening.
Tell me a story...
I’m Chinese American. Living in Shanghai, people's first impressions of me are usually that I am from here, but I receive a variety of reactions from Chinese people when they hear me speak imperfect Chinese. It ranges from a mild disappointment – the kind I used to get from my Chinese immigrant grandparents – to raw, sometimes painful questions like 'Why didn't your parents teach you?' or 'What's wrong with your parents that they didn't raise you properly?'
I was thinking about this when eating at a restaurant, I saw a Caucasian man applauded by his Chinese colleagues for using chopsticks.
Standards are different for me and for him because he has a foreign face – what I refer to as the 'foreign passport.' He carries it around with him all the time. We were probably both raised in Western households, but based on first impressions, he routinely receives more sympathy than me. He could have a full interaction in English and top it off with 'xie xie', and many Chinese people would be impressed with him.
The first time I came to China in 2008, I came alone and I didn't speak Chinese at all. My dad asked me how I felt finally being in the land of my forebears, and I told him I felt more foreign than ever.
There were some really difficult moments living here – all foreigners have probably had 'Why China?' moments – but when it was hardest, I’d always end up thinking of my grandparents. They came to America alone, not knowing anybody. They didn’t speak the language. I’m sure they had moments that they felt ostracised or alone where they just wanted to check out and go home, and it wasn’t possible for them the way that it’s easy for me to just call on Skype or book a plane ticket home. They stayed and they built a life for their family in America. As a kid in New York, that’s something I took for granted but here in China, I think I get it.
It used to really bother me that foreigners would say 'xie xie' when they didn't speak any other Chinese at all. But that guy just wants to connect; he feels foreign too and that is his way of reaching out.
Having lived in Shanghai for five years, I feel really lucky to have two cultures; I understand now I can be informed by both instead of having to choose just one. During that time I’ve made Chinese friends and friends from all over the world, I’ve worked at very local and very international companies here. At this point I've picked up enough Chinese to have conversations with people and to adjust people's perceptions of me. In the process, I think I figured out how to adjust my perception of me, too.