Dear Asian Youth,
"OMG, you’re from China?”
This is a comment I hear way too often when I visit the United States. It sounds innocent enough, but something about it always feels off to me. Though I would love to believe this question comes from a place of genuine curiosity and interest, that is sadly almost never the case. Maybe it’s the intentionally exaggerated “OMG” that gets me, or the eye-widening look of surprise printed on the face of my inquirer - as if they’ve just discovered an unfathomable secret. Yes, Chad, I’m from China. And no, Chad, I do not eat dogs. But why this reaction? I constantly ask myself. When everyone else proudly introduces their hometown of Louisiana or Seattle, I see polite nods of acknowledgement and appreciative smiles from their peers. But when I calmly present myself as a Chinese citizen, all eyes around the room widen in shock.
People crowd around me for information. “How can you speak English so well? Is it true you guys actually eat dogs? Do you guys have to wake up at 8:00 a.m. for the government to inspect your houses? Can you even watch TV? Have you ever tried Starbucks before? No… Wait. Do you even know what a Starbucks is?” I know what you’re thinking: what the hell are these questions? As shocking as it is, real teenagers have asked me these questions. I would like to point out an important distinction here. Curiosity and a willingness to learn is definitely not a bad quality; in fact, I actively encourage people to educate themselves. However, this interrogation disguised as a Q&A session has clear undertones of superiority, and is phrased in a manner that undermines my culture. To them, China is this exotic and underdeveloped country. They know so little about what life outside the United States is actually like. They make me feel scrutinized, or somehow drastically different from everyone else.
Sometimes, people follow-up their initial comment with reassurance, telling me to “not worry”, and that they would’ve never guessed I live in China. This reply suggests that I should be relieved people don’t think I’m from China. That is the inherent problem - China’s tainted image in the eyes of westerners. Western society has a history of viewing Asian and African populations as barbaric - their justification for colonization and imperialism. A classic case of white man’s burden, colonizers believed that they were “making our ancestors more civilized, and improving our wellbeing” with their forceful entrance. This idea of being ‘better-than’ other ethnicities is deeply ingrained in western history, thus allowing for prejudice against other cultures, including mine, to continue.
Western media has also portrayed Asian countries in an extremely negative light. News sources that claim to produce unbiased reports are creating articles directly criticizing and dramatizing the “Chinese lifestyle”. Furthermore, I rarely see articles or videos that address China’s real developments and improvements. Take the Coronavirus, for example. In China, we are celebrating the perseverance, sacrifice, and bravery of our nurses and doctors. Since January, my local community has come together to support one another, and I was lucky enough to witness stores, restaurants, and even schools reopening.
My school opened up around three weeks ago, and everything has been going great. We have temperature checks, sanitation stations, and personal seating arrangements to ensure our safety. I was so excited to finally return to school and resume my education. However, in western media, the recovery of China from this dreadful pandemic is barely touched upon. Instead, my social media page is flooded with content attacking Chinese people for their eating habits. I even see foreign political figures referring to this pandemic as the “Chinese virus”. I stumble upon memes after memes about the coronavirus and Chinese people, an example of social media users perpetuating and reinforcing racism under the guise of “dark humor”. The coronavirus is just one of many examples of people hopping on the bandwagon to hate on an entire group of people, for the crime of maybe just one. Because once a bias is set against a certain group of people, an entire population subsequently becomes the target for hate crimes. This pattern of hostility and superiority over another race will continue if we keep overlooking xenophobic content. Western media, with its immense power and influence, needs to use their platform informatively, positively, and responsibly. If not, gossip and misinformation will spread like wildfire, resulting in serious false perceptions about Chinese people, or any other group for that matter. As summarized by Kevin Han, an associate professor at Iowa State University, “If you read a lot of negative articles, that leads to negative concerns and perceptions. Media provides a certain type of experience for people who don’t have personal or direct experience with a country, so they get the message mainly from the media.”
As a person who has lived in China for almost her entire life, I can confidently dispel many ignorant misconceptions about my country. No, most people do not eat dogs. No, we are not robots controlled by the government (a shocker, I know!). Yes, I can watch TV and access the internet (wait, no, I am secretly writing this article online and risking my freedom, because the Chinese government will put me in confinement if they ever find out!). Yes, I have had Starbucks before. In fact, we have almost all international brands and stores in China.
I want people to know that I love living in this country and I love honoring my culture. China is just another country. And Chinese people are merely humans, just on the other side of the world. I see Americans taking huge pride in their country, praising their land with colors of red, white, and blue. I wish to do the same with my country. My ethnicity is an enormous part of my identity, and I should not have to be ashamed of the blood in my veins. Additionally, many Americans need to understand that the reality of China is not always the way it is portrayed in the media. I implore everyone to properly vet the information you are taking in as “facts”, and stop the spread of misinformation about life in China.
I sincerely hope that China’s labels of “exotic”, “scary”, “underdeveloped,”and “inhumane” can be replaced with kinder adjectives. So to answer your question, yes, I am from China, and I am very proud to be Chinese!
- Eva Zhong