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Can you be an expat in your own country?

My mother never forced me to speak Cantonese.

Despite spending the bulk of my childhood in Seattle and then Texas, my mother feared for my English. While she continued to speak to me in Cantonese (imparting me with a nearly fluent ear but woefully clumsy tongue), responding in English became accepted, then encouraged.

“You don’t want Louise to speak Chinese at home, and English at school,” my mother’s brother warned her; he himself taking the same precautions with his American-born daughters. “She’ll end up speaking English with a Chinese accent, and people here will look down on her; see her as different. She needs to speak English like an American.”

My uncle’s “words of wisdom”, spoken to my mother shortly after we immigrated from Hong Kong, colored my entire American childhood. Be Chinese, but not too Chinese. Don’t just be American, be the best American who ever Americaned. Much of the ego I cultivated as a teenager sprung from comparing myself to other Asian American teens who I saw as less adept at immersing themselves in white American culture than I was.

I beamed when my white friends would say, “It’s like you’re not even Asian!”

But wasn’t that the goal? Be as unobtrusively Asian as possible, in the hopes that my peers would be able to see beyond my immigrant background? I certainly believed so.

My social status as a Chinese American was contingent upon the fact that my American side overshadowed my Chinese side.There was no balance in my identity growing up, and that was on purpose; a carefully calculated plan of self-advancement. If I wanted to be successful in America, I had to find a way to compensate for the fact that I wasn’t born there. Or so I believed.

I cultivated the persona of being an exceptionally “normal” American teenager. My grades were OK, not great — a point I often used in my defense of why I wasn’t a “stereotypical Asian”. I avoided other Asian American teenagers lest I be lumped in with the “Asian Mob”, as the clique of Asian students were called at my high school. I rejected all things Chinese, from language to emphasizing that I was “part English and Irish!” whenever somebody asked about my family background.

My heart sank every time some used “that Asian girl” as the primary way to describe me.

But a trap of being a minority immigrant in America is being viewed as “other than”, no matter how carefully cultivated your American persona is. Even if an immigrant appears to meet all the impossible expectations for being a model American, they may still just be considered a “model minority”.

For most of my life, I accepted that this was the way immigrant life worked. Your status is gauged by how thoroughly assimilated into a culture you are.

Then I moved to Hong Kong.

After over 30 years absence, I moved back to my birthplace unsure of how my husband and I would adjust to being immigrants in an Asia. I was surprised, even a little embarrassed at how simple it has been for us.

When my husband has trouble with the Cantonese language at the market, with repair technicians, with professionals in his field, there is always a person cheerfully available to help him with translation; or the individual speaking with him simply switches to English. This may be Hong Kong hospitality at work, but he is rarely treated with any disdain. More often than not, if the person with whom he is speaking with speaks only limited English, they apologize to him.

Let me reiterate: the Cantonese-speaking person in HONG KONG apologizes for their lack of English skills, to the white American guy who cannot yet speak the dominant local language.

I’ve had people in banks or shops soften their curt demeanor to me once they hear me speak English the way I do.

It takes some time for the absurdity of this situation to sink in. As Americans — as people accustomed to the pervasiveness of white, western culture — this might seem more normal than not. When I was living in Japan, how many times did friends in America ask me, “But everybody speaks English right? You can get by without speaking Japanese, can’t you?”

In America my family and I were “immigrants”, with all the stigmas attached. In Hong Kong my husband and I are “expats”, with all the benefits thereof. Technically, the words are nearly identical — both mean a person or persons who have chosen to live in a foreign country. However, from a social standpoint, the words could not be more different.

Though I’ve heard people of from such places as Japan, Africa, or Pakistan referred to as “immigrants” in Hong Kong, people from Europe, Australia, America — western cultures — are “expats”.

With the term “expat” comes status, a status that is not earned but just is. To put it plainly “expat” has evolved in modern culture to become a racially charged term associated with superiority and white, western privilege. Though the term is tossed around rather casually in Hong Kong, there is no mistaking who is an “expat” and who is a “migrant”, “guest”, or “immigrant”.

“Expat” privilege is so deeply entrenched in Hong Kong culture, rooted in the 150 plus years of British rule that ended in 1997, that one could argue that it is a signature of the culture. As far back as most people (including my parents) can remember, caucasian or Eurasian people have been at the top of the Hong Kong economic and social food chain. For the most part Hong Kong Chinese have been expected to accommodate western expatriates working abroad.

Not entirely unlike my experience as a Chinese person in America, those Hong Kongers who were especially adept in the language and nuance of British culture, stood to gain social and/or financial status.

And while this is changing, as Hong Kong fights for control of its government and culture in the face of return to the People’s Republic of China (Hong Kong is currently a Special Administrative Region), it is impossible to ignore the fact that “expats”, as a minority group, are under little to no pressure to conform. Hong Kongers, many of which are of an older British/pre-SAR generation, still feel pressure to cater to “expat” needs. It’s a social structure that will take generations to undo.

While some may say this is part of Hong Kong’s global culture, “East Meets West”, I can’t help but wonder about the non-western immigrants who call Hong Kong home.

Do they feel pressure to conform to Hong Kong Chinese culture and norms? Or is there pressure to adopt a western “expat” way of being? Do those categorized as “immigrants” think of Hong Kong as a global culture, or do they actually find themselves uncomfortably sandwiched between white western and Hong Kong Chinese culture? Can one move between “immigrant” and “expat” status?

Personally, I find myself walking between worlds — neither here nor there. Because of who I am, how I speak, how I carry myself, my accented Cantonese, and yes, my husband, I am viewed as an “expat”, treated like an “expat”. Ironically, now that I’m viewed as a westerner in my birthplace, I find no satisfaction in this label.

The dominance of the west is inescapable. Even thousands of miles away from the place where I cut my teeth on western culture, I am still subject to its whims. Only now I find myself resisting.

The influence of the west tends to swallow up everything it touches. Myself included? Has the Chinese side of my Chinese American identity been permanently lost? In some backwards way, I suppose I achieved what my teenage self always longed for: indisputable American identity.

I will always be Chinese American, but I wonder if I can ever restore the balance to both the American and Chinese side of my identity?

Photo: Anton/Creative Commons

One thought on “Can you be an expat in your own country?

  1. Really enjoyable article. I’m an expat from Canada living in Korea with my wife and children. Unfortunately, I don’t speak more than survival Korean at best and rely a lot on my Korean wife to do my talking. Korean people are wonderful and treat me with kindness and understanding. “the Cantonese-speaking person in HONG KONG apologizes for their lack of English skills, to the white American guy who cannot yet speak the dominant local language.” This quote from your article is also very true here. It always amazes me how they feel the need to apologize for something where the blame should be put on me. I also have a blog called iExperienceKorea where we discuss life as an expat in Korea and the cultural differences we encounter in Korean society. We are trying to encourage dialogue between locals and expats on our differences. If your interested, please give us a read at http://iexperiencekorea.com/blog/.

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