By Konrad Kelly
I remember back as a highschooler volunteering at my local library as a coordinator for an ELL Conversation Group, how the experiences recounted by these immigrant adults, who often came after a long day’s work, impressed on me a curiosity of other cultures, international experiences, and the subjective question of how it would feel like to live abroad. Whether they were Guatemalan or Sudanese, Iranian or Algerian, Eastern Europeans, Chinese or Korean, what they wanted was not abstract. They were in the struggle of assimilation and wanted to develop their abilities to express their own agency through the English language. For many, their aspiration for coming to the US was in the search for a better life. This is not to say they saw the US as some promised land of opportunity or necessarily better to their home countries’ and culture’s way of life. Some pointed out negative experiences they had had being judged and stereotyped by Americans; surprised about how little the locals here knew about their homeland. This international group also came to common agreement that American culture emphasized individualism more than their own cultures and even delved into topics such as global economic inequality, life as an immigrant, and the struggles of immigrants in their own countries and others. They also discussed the parts of country they enjoyed such as the beautiful public parks and the well preserved national parks. Many loved the international vibe of the greater Seattle area and had gotten opportunities to meet and relate experiences with people from both across the world and in similar geographic and cultural regions to their own. From this they had gained greater perspective and a sense of solidarity with others in like situations internationally. For them, the process of becoming American was not to erase their roots, but to be able to engage with both parts of themselves.
What I felt from them was that they wanted to become accepted as American, amongst the people and culture, but not give up their Pakistani-ness or Chinese-ness. Listening to their stories, I found a common theme amongst all the stories was resilience. You have to be resilient to come to another culture, readjust and work your way in. People will not always understand you and may stereotype, but knowing your roots and having confidence in your capabilities to move forward is what matters. It was these kinds of conversations they were making, and I could sense the solidarity they had as being foreigners in America sharing an intercultural space.
Like them, I have come to see the struggle it can be at times living abroad. How basic things become harder, like buying groceries to trying to converse with people at the dinner table. And your sense of agency can feel impaired as unfamiliarity, language, and cultural barriers limits one’s expression and understanding of what is around them. Coming to live in a foreign country is not the romantic or idealized image that a tourist who quickly passes through the surface of a foreign place might perceive. Rather you begin to see that foreign cultures’ flaws and contradictions, and the dizzying honeymoon phase of living abroad becomes more nuanced as you come too see the culture as it actually is. Sometimes you may feel the discomfort or realizing that your values are at odds with the culture there.
As an ABC (American-Born-Chinese), I do not get the same “laowai pass” as many other foreigners do. People here see me as Chinese and expect me to speak their language and understand their culture. I am perceived as a part of a Chinese ethnicity by default regardless of whether or not I happen to identify as such. It does not matter that my Chinese is far from the same par as their own, I am regardless seen as more Chinese than a white person having lived here for more than a decade and whose understanding of Chinese culture is doubtless superior to my own. Given this circumstance, I am afforded a unique perspective on how the Chinese public treats one another, in general. And yet there are times when I am perceived as dumb or out-of-it when I stumble up on my Chinese. Further, when strangers hear me speak, they sometimes ask if I am from Singapore or Xinjiang rather than America. This too speaks to, as would any society under similar circumstances, to the understandable ignorance that Mainland Chinese have of the outside world and of the US. The States, racially, they perceive as composing white and black, while the concept of the Asian-American seems remote or non-existent. To be raised in such a homogeneous society as China, (92 percent ethnic Han majority) makes it, perhaps, harder for one to be aware of the diversity inherent to other cultures and societies. Yet still this judgement too is likely to change as China becomes more globalized. Cities like Shanghai, Shenzhen, or Hangzhou brings influxes of people from around the world whose backgrounds are complex, and such that it is not enough simply to glance at a passer-by to know where they are truly from.
I have lived most of my life in the greater Seattle area, such that living in the Chinese countryside as I have been now for the last five month, has been quite a different experience. For many of the kids at the primary school where I teach English, I am the first foreigner they have seen or interacted with. Since serving as a cultural ambassador for the Amerson Foundation’s AYC cultural exchange program, I have opportunities to educate these children about American cultural diversity and livelihoods. I believe it is important to be aware of other societies and cultures and that such brings greater richness to the human experience. I want these students to be educated on the world beyond this countryside town, the Chinese nation and ethnicity. Many of them will grow up and move to urbanized cities, live abroad, and will traverse upon a world that has become more global. Here a bridge that is being built in Taishun, as the county’s historic wooden bridges had been built to greet travelers, is one shaped by mutually shared experiences and bounded towards the future.
Konrad was born and raised around the Pudget Sound in the Pacific Northwest. Last year he graduated from Evergreen State College with an interdisciplinary focus on Politics, History, and Sociology. International relations and national identity were common themes in his study. Konrad now teaches primary school students English in Taishun County, Zhejiang Province, China.