Nine years ago today, I left China for a flight to Singapore to attend high school.
As I look back over my past 9 years of living outside of China, I realize my view towards my home country has changed completely.
During my first few years living overseas, I was, to be honest, not exactly proud of my nationality. China was what made me the outsider, the strange one, the kid with an accent (and not the cool, British kind). I was consumed by immersing myself in the local culture, trying to make as many Singaporean friends as possible. I thought about how unlucky I was to be born in a non-English speaking, non-Western country that seemed to solidly place me in the “uncool” category in the developed world. If only I was born in New York or London. I would be the cool one.
But once I got over the initial adjustment period, I started to worry less about how I can fit in, and more about how I can stand out. I soon realized that there was an obvious answer to that question: I’m from China. Others aren’t.
This was right after China held its first Olympic Games in 2008, and interest in China was at an all-time high. Professors and classmates started to ask my opinion on China-related issues. What do you think of the One Child Policy as an only child? What’s your view on the government’s censorship policies? How do ordinary Chinese people feel about the Communist Party? I discovered that I had a valued voice while discussing contemporary affairs in China as the only person in the room who had actually lived there. I was the one who could point out Western biases, reset the narrative, and illustrate arguments with personal experiences. My opinions were deemed refreshing, my writings about China authentic.
This prompted me to pay closer attention to the developments in my home country. I soon realized that I live in a unique era of China’s rise in the global arena, and I am in a unique position to explain an ever-powerful China to an ever-curious audience.
Since I left China, the country has become the world’s largest economy, and home to two out of the world’s top ten most highly valued public companies. China now leads the world in e-commerce penetration and mobile payment adoption. Alibaba briefly surpassed Amazon in market capitalization recently. China now has the world’s longest mileage of high-speed rail, and is rapidly catching up or even surpassing the US in artificial intelligence. Michael Moritz recently went as far as arguing that “China is leaving Donald Trump’s America behind.” It is now clear that any person or organization with global ambitions must sooner or later deal with China.
However, for non-Chinese people, China is often inscrutable and impenetrable. A vast language barrier, numerous cultural differences, and The Great Fire Wall stand between China and the West. To compound the problem, China is changing literally every day, and the breakneck speed of development can make it difficult to stay in sync. What you knew about the China 10 years ago – or even 6 months ago – might be no longer true today. More than a dozen Chinese friends living overseas have told me that on their most recent trip home, they were extremely surprised to find their cities littered with colorful bikes that seemingly came out of nowhere, as a bike-sharing war has taken hold of the nation. Even local Chinese people need to make a constant effort to stay informed on the changes happening to their own country.
Not every Chinese person seems to realize the need to stay in touch with China. When I moved to the US after four years in Singapore, I discovered there are two types of Chinese Americans (or “ABC”s, American Born Chinese, as we call them in China):
Those in the first type are embarrassed – if not ashamed – of their roots, and try to be as un-Chinese as possible. They pretend they don’t know a word of Chinese even though they speak it at home. They recount horror stories of going to Sunday Chinese school growing up. They avoid hanging out with Chinese people from China like a plague, and wear their Americanness like a badge.
The second kind are the exact opposite: They take Chinese classes in school, spend their summers in Beijing, ask their family members about life in China, and are fascinated by their friends who came straight from China. They lament that their Chinese is not as good as they would like it to be, and actively embrace their cultural heritage.
I’m not saying that each binary is good or bad. But I would argue that today’s world needs more of the second kind: people who are (or at least make an effort to be) well-versed in both Chinese and American culture, and who serve as a bridge between the world’s two superpowers.
As Chinese people living overseas, we uniquely have a linguistic, cultural, and ethnic affinity with a nation that is becoming a game-changer in the world today. The ability to understand, explain, and interpret China to a non-Chinese audience will be one of the most prized skills in the decades to come. This is why I have made a resolution to read Chinese news voraciously, visit China regularly, and make the most of this privilege.
I used to think that I’m unlucky to be Chinese. Nine years later, I feel like the lucky one.
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