Being Chinese away from China

Updated: 2014-08-23 07:57

By Ma Yingyi(China Daily)

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Freedom, well nurtured, can grow to fidelity. - Eric Liu

Eric Liu is a second-generation Chinese American, a speechwriter for former US president Bill Clinton. The line cited above is from his book The Accidental Asian, and refers to the idea that if immigrant parents grant more freedom to their children to explore their identity and cultural heritage, the children might ultimately find solace in and become loyal to their parents' culture.

The line is so meaningful that it can find resonance in other contexts. During my conversations with Chinese students overseas, I often find their strengthened affinity with Chinese culture even when they are thousands of miles away from China.

These students often cherish the freedom after they arrive in the US: freedom of being away from parents, freedom of exploring a new place and space, freedom of managing their spare time, freedom of taking courses and participating in extracurricular activities on campus, and so on. However, after a while, they find the renewed interest in their own culture - Chinese culture and society - something they thought they were eager to dump.

Shuyue is such an example. Before she left China, she could not care less about Chinese history and culture; all she desired to know was about American culture. In the US, she encountered her American adviser who happened to be a China specialist. He encouraged her to take a course with him on Chinese Buddhism. She enjoyed the course so much that she made religion her second major, in addition to economics. She told me that she had not appreciated until now how rich and fascinating Chinese culture was.

Guojia took a Chinese history course in an American university and was totally absorbed by it. He was especially fascinated by the analysis of modern Chinese history by his American professor - a white man in his middle age who can speak very good Putonghua. Guojia gave high marks for his professor's ability to provide what he perceived a neutral and nuanced interpretation of modern Chinese history. He said this kind of exposure to Chinese culture and history away from home has made him more Chinese, as he felt he came to know true China while being away from it.

Other Chinese students may have not articulated their thoughts in this sophisticated manner. But they have talked about their experiences such as attending talks by figures like former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton and celebrated talk show host Oprah Winfrey, and how those events broadened their horizons and led them to give more thought to issues that they took for granted. These thought processes have made one student describe his overseas study experience as if he was "reborn".

Even those who care more about mundane aspects of life, such as eating and entertainment, find that they are really into Chinese food and Chinese ways of entertainment like karaoke and poker games while being away from China. In other words, their fondness for a Chinese way of life has been renewed and reinforced since landing in the United States. This is not just nostalgia, though certainly there is some element of it. More significantly, this is an affirmation of self-identity and affinity for one's homeland.

That many Chinese students have rediscovered the meaning of being Chinese while being away from home could be one of the unintended - but valuable and profound - consequences of their overseas experience.

The author is a tenured associate professor in Sociology, Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, Syracuse University, New York.

(China Daily 08/23/2014 page5)