It was decades ago, when I was in elementary school and the number of immigrant families in my neighborhood was increasing. But what I couldn’t reconcile was that I was already where I came from — Northern California. This country was the only place I had ever lived.
Mandarin was my first language, because that’s what my parents spoke at home, so I had to suffer through English as a Second Language classes instead of enjoying recess. I attended Chinese class every weekend, as much for cultural enrichment as language skills, missing Saturday morning cartoons.
Since I lived in the Bay Area, all of my friends were Asian. We snacked on dumplings, Pocky and boba, made fun of our parents’ accents and drove souped-up Hondas. The cool kids in my high school scored perfect SATs and played badminton, not football.
So I thought I was very Chinese — until I decided to move to Hong Kong.
Some young Chinese Americans during the U.S. recession decided to immigrate to China, where the economy was booming. The motherland offered opportunities that some of us struggled to find in the United States, including stable, well-paying jobs and a society where our appearance wasn’t labeled “other.”
“China, and Asia in general, was on the rise economically,” said Peter Yu, 49, who grew up in San Jose and moved to Hong Kong in 2008.
“The opportunities, dynamism and personal heritage connection there appealed to my constant urge to explore, learn, and grow both professionally and personally,” Yu said in an email. On top of that, “I wanted to work in Greater China so I could get my ROI from all of those lost Saturday mornings.”
Ironically, our parents had made the opposite journey in search of economic security. Many objected to our return, worried that we were no longer Chinese enough.
But for some, there was an additional draw. As a 2013 China Daily story put it, some immigrants arriving from the United States and other Western countries were in search of “a sense of belonging.”
I left last year to pursue a romantic tale of working as a foreign correspondent. I was finally going “home.”
But when I arrived in Hong Kong, I discovered that I didn’t fit in there, either.
Life was hard. I stuck out. I was yelled at for not understanding the local dialect and glared at for my blue hair. I learned to cope by paying with bigger bills when I couldn’t understand the price, and pointed to other people’s meals when I couldn’t read the menu. I stayed in the more expatriate neighborhoods of Hong Kong or made sure I shopped and ate with a local when I ventured out. Sometimes, it was just easier to stay in.
I spoke conversational Mandarin, not the Hong Kong dialect of Cantonese. When restaurants got my order wrong, the workers took their frustrations out on me, shouting about how slow I was ordering buns. Since I spoke China’s main dialect, I represented their enemy. I had to go out of my way to explain that I’m American and my parents are from Taiwan — either that or never buy buns there again.
“You’re always a foreigner if you are not born or raised there, legally and conceptually,” said Jason Chang, who, after working as a contract attorney for a few years in the District of Columbia, moved to Shanghai at age 31 for a “bare-bones Chinese salary” at a local law firm. It was the only viable option when the financial crisis hit after he graduated from law school in 2008.
Chang’s bet paid off when he was hired at an international law firm in his second year in China. He now splits his time between San Francisco and Shanghai.
Chang attended Chinese school while growing up and majored in Asian studies at the University of California at Berkeley, but he struggled with basic tasks in Shanghai, such as using the washing machine, whose instructions were in Chinese.
For me, it wasn’t just the language gap. I also had trouble fitting in because I wasn’t familiar with certain customs, such as the practice of saying less to mean more in some settings.
Business communication in Asia can be implied and indirect, said Tim Tu, who has done business in China since 2002. He moved to Hong Kong from Los Angeles in 2009, then to Shenzhen, China, to start the study-tour company Mind Over Mandarin.
“Sometimes things are better left unsaid but understood,” he said. “In America, unclear communication is frowned upon.”
After years of working in the United States, I had been conditioned to speak up. So while I may be a quiet American, I am a very loud and direct Chinese American. When people stared, I glared right back. Then I changed my hair from bright blue to bright green.
My parents left everything behind to come to America and now have lived in the United States longer than in their homelands. My father started as a busboy, walking to work in his only pair of shoes. He climbed the ranks, attending graduate school at Texas A&M and becoming an executive in a technology company. My mother studied biochemistry at the University of Tennessee. But they were alone in this country, so while my dad worked, my mom stayed home to take care of me and my brother.
Now, when my parents visit their former home, they stick out, too. My dad proudly wears a baseball cap from his alma mater. For a long time, he also wore cowboy boots like any proud Texan.
In Hong Kong, my parents get ripped off like any other tourists. As Mandarin speakers, they are yelled at, too. One time, after they were chastised in Cantonese for not understanding the price difference between eating in and taking out, they retreated to McDonald’s. When I returned home from work, I found them holed up in my tiny apartment, traumatized and refusing to venture out again.
There is a scene in “Crazy Rich Asians” in which the main character wonders: If we are all Chinese, why can’t we get along? Her mother points to the daughter’s head and heart, explaining that those parts are American.
When I asked my own mom that question, she laughed and said I was not very Chinese at all.
Our sense of beauty is different, too. Many women in Asia aim to be as pale as possible, this being perceived to be a sign of status and wealth. When my tan Floridian fiance, a Hong Konger by birth, came to visit, the cops stopped him. They assumed he was an illegal immigrant due to his dark skin color.
Then, there comes the question of loyalty. I flew to Hong Kong on Inauguration Day last year, and as the only American in the room, I was often questioned about U.S. policies.
My friend Kelly, who moved from Seattle to Shanghai and Taiwan in 2011 to work for two international companies, received similar questions.
“If the U.S.-China trade war breaks out, which side do you stand on?” said Kelly, who refrained from giving her last name to avoid jeopardizing her job. “If the answer is more American-sided, I would sometimes receive appalled looks and a subsequent lecture on patriotism. … However, on the lighter occasions, I am expected to be American amongst the Chinese, conveniently when someone needs to dance like Beyoncé and rap Nicki Minaj at annual dinners.”
Like New York City, Hong Kong and Shanghai seduce young people with the thrills, risks and rewards of the big city, with the added opportunity for young Asian Americans of exploring their roots.
Hong Kong offered a home with people who looked like me and a bustling landscape that was always challenging me to learn more, but my mind and heart belonged elsewhere.
My time there expanded my worldview and taught me that the United States is not the center of the universe. I learned to assert myself, so I was no longer afraid of ordering buns. And I gained a new appreciation for my parents’ journey as immigrants, how they braved a new world without Google Translate. They didn’t even have the luxury of looking like locals.
But my year and a half in Hong Kong made clear that while the United States is not a perfect fit, it’s the best fit for me.
Correction: An earlier version of this post misspelled Marian Liu’s name in a photo credit. A previous version of this story also incorrectly indicated that Peter Yu was on the verge of losing his job when he moved to Hong Kong in 2008.