Growing up a cultural immigrant mutt, not European enough to smoke nor American enough to drive a car, I have spent the better part of the past two decades looking for a culture to latch on to. When I was in high school, I tried to be Jewish. My effort entailed spreading peanut butter and jelly on matzoth at Passover, singing hymns in Hebrew in front of 400 people, and, when required, kvetching.
I’ve tried other cultures since then of course. Eating tofu and speaking C++ in California during the dot-com boom and drinking Cosmopolitans and speaking financial “greeks” in the derivative days of Wall Street. So when I showed up in Beijing, I was ready for the next next thing: I was determined to become an Asian-American.
Yeah, I have no idea what I was thinking either. That I could pretend my mom was Asian, because Russia is half in Asia? That I could fabricate that my parents had wanted me to be a doctor, or had made me take piano growing up? Watching the Grace Lee Project (www.gracelee.net) a second time, a fantastic documentary about Asian-American women, I saw it was finally time to face the music: no one will ever confuse me for a Grace Lee.
But just as hope for being Asian-American receded from the shores of my imagination, a new tide of cultural identity took over. Somehow, I became an American-Asian.
The key is not, actually, that I have lived in Asia for more than two years now, and plan to stay for a while. The key is that I live in an American ghetto, a real immigrant community. Sure there are Chinese people everywhere — my roommate included — but there’s also cheese. Inevitably I will bump into other Americans I know when I leave my apartment. We American-Asians tend to go to the same ethnic restaurants (to eat cheese sandwiches), shop at the same ethnic grocery stores (to buy more cheese), go to the same house parties (if they serve cheese), work in the same office buildings in the Central Business District, and bargain for ties and tailored clothes at the same shops. You can bike from end to end of the foreign ghetto, weaving around the flanks of teenage Chinese soldiers in the Embassy districts, in about half an hour. And while there are five ring roads rippling out of the center of this capitol city, by living and working in the foreign area district, you can remain oblivious to them.
I remember, while growing up in New York, not understanding how people could immigrate to America and not learn English, not spend time outside their ethnic neighborhood, not want to date outside their ethnicity, and not consume American food. Now that I am an immigrant myself, I totally get it: it’s actually really hard to learn another language, especially after a long day of work, when it’s so much more comfortable to spend time with people who, quite literally, speak your language. As for nightlife, I’d much rather live near a street of western bars than karaoke joints and tea houses. Relationships are hard enough without throwing in a sharp cultural divide, a language barrier and/or potential future geographical challenges. And I have tremendous sympathy for immigrants to the US trying to swallow an undercooked slab of under-seasoned dead cow. Forget the beef; where’s the soy sauce?
Because we want to live near work, western grocery stores, and each other, the American-Asian scene here in Beijing sometimes feels incredibly small. Yet while the “Cheese Proximity Theory” explains a lot, it can’t explain just how small the Beijing I know (and love) feels. How did 16 million people boil down into such a small town?
A few theories here, though I’m curious to hear your thoughts. First, the American-Asian community tends to go to the same church. No, we don’t call it church of course. We call it the Yale Brunch (a lecture series sponsored by the Yale alumni club in Beijing), but it’s the same thing: on Sunday mornings, we gather together despite weekend-lag (or hangovers) wearing nice clothes to listen to a lecture and improve ourselves — and of course meet other people with the same set of priorities. The Yale Brunch crowd is an extremely “BoBo” set, to steal the phrase from David Brooks’ (excellent) book: well-educated folks with lots of opportunities ahead of them, a sense of social justice and a deep curiosity about the world, who nevertheless like drinking pricey cappuccinos on Nanluoguxiang and getting their shirts pressed. We BoBos don’t subscribe to any religious belief system, but pride ourselves on being exceptionally open-minded to people of all beliefs — except of course those people who aren’t open-minded, like, you know, some religious people. Yep, we’re slightly confused with how we are supposed to live our lives, which is probably why we came to China in the first place: to see if we could merge the twin BoBo objectives of professional success with doing something good for the world. Our favorite hobby, after playing the Name Game (e.g. “Oh, you work at…! So do you know…?”), is “Importanting” (e.g. going to any event described with the words “global,” “conference,” “forum,” “world” or “China”). Beijing is a great place for the do-gooders who want to do okay too, so for the most part, we’re pretty happy we came.
Secondly, you can blame the smalltown phenomenon on the Fulbright kids. For those that don’t know, the Fulbright scholarship is an extremely prestigious and selective grant given to Americans to do research for a year in a foreign country. If Beijing were college, the Fulbrighters would be the freshmen; many are straight out college, with tremendous energy, little immediate responsibility, and lots of unstructured time on their hands in which to be social. So you get a few dozen people who come from a few dozen schools and hence each know a few dozen pockets of alums, all organizing dinners and parties, it’s pretty easy to see how they form the mortar that brings the community together.
Lastly, the typical American-Asian is transient. Most of us have just been welcomed to China and Beijing by strangers, who have accepted us and invited us to their dinners and birthday parties and companies. We are happy to return the favor to those still Fresh Off the Boat. In the real world (i.e. New York), if you plan to have dinner with someone, you tend to have dinner with that person. In Beijing, your dinner date will just as likely show up with three other friends at the last minute. Ridiculous, yes, but it does have its upside: since Chinese food is shared, the more people means the more different dishes you can sample. As a newcomer like me, originally friendless and jobless, all you have to do is plan “one-on-one” dinners with three random new people, and your rolodex grows expontentially — as does the risk of bumping into aforementioned new friends at the aforementioned cheese store.
Of course, this Aabservation doesn’t describe all American-Asians, not even all American-Asians in Beijing. There are many different and unrelated American-Asian communities here: college students, trailing spouses, people who don’t speak a drop of Chinese, people who rarely speak a drop of English. This is just my corner of the woods. Come drop by sometime. I’m between the dumpling joint and the store that sells cheese.