Ethnic Chinese from abroad ask: Who am I?

Chinese culture, customs and ways of thinking will inevitably leave an indelible mark on these children as many of them spend their formative years in the country.

They look Asian; they speak Mandarin; they attend schools on the Chinese mainland. Nothing marks their identity as foreigners except their nationalities: Canadians, Americans, Germans ...

Most of them learn English as a second language. And on top of that, the official language of their “motherland,” such as German or French.

They look indistinguishable from other Chinese teenagers. But do they talk, act and think the same or, as is more often the case, like expats?

Some students I used to teach at an international school in Suzhou, a city west of Shanghai, started to think over this question.

Julia Ma, a 14-year-old eighth grader, said that she had been confused about her identity for quite a while. Born in Canada, she moved to Suzhou with her family at six, and she has since visited Canada only once.

Julia recalled feeling upset on her first school day in China because of her poor command of Mandarin.

Children like Julia attend international schools as public schools aren’t an option for those who don’t have a Chinese hukou, or household registration.

China’s international schools, mostly in affluent areas such as the Yangtze River Delta region, offer foreign-style education to Chinese students seeking to study abroad as well as foreign passport holders like Julia, whose parents work here.

The number of international schools on the Chinese mainland has soared in the past few years. Enrollment skyrocketed. These schools usually feature Christmas trees, Easter eggs, club events, exotic sports like equestrian, rugby and fencing.

However, signs of Chinese-style education can still be found at these schools. For example, many international schools still have the Chinese ritual of flag-raising every Monday morning. But most teenagers in Julia’s class do not take it seriously: They neither stand solemnly nor sing along when the Chinese national anthem is being played.

Julia, on the one hand, has already forgotten the Canadian national anthem she learnt in kindergarten, but had picked up wu yu (Suzhou dialect). On the other hand, as a Canadian passport holder, she finds it “awesome” to be able to visit a number of countries without visas.

Identity crisis has been a frequent topic at the dinner table in Julia’s family. Realizing her daughter’s confusion, Julia’s mother, who emigrated to Canada earlier in her life, tried to show her the bright side. “You learnt about the importance of protecting intellectual property rights at the age of four or five in Canada, and now you are able to appreciate poetry from the ancient Tang and Song dynasties,” Julia recalled her mother saying.

Julia’s parents both hold the opinion that there is no need to choose “one or the other.” “You can love both. Your love for a country finds its roots in various aspects. Your passport doesn’t stop you from loving China.”

While Julia has been pondering her identity issue, her classmate Simon, a South Korean passport holder, believes he is 100 percent Chinese. Asked which language is his native language, Simon answered without hesitating, “Chinese.” He went on: “I wouldn’t deny that I have a South Korean passport either.”

Many benefits

Julia, Simon and their fellow non-Chinese students admit that they benefit from Chinese secondary education, characterized by rigorous teaching, fierce competition and perhaps also a healthy dose of rote-learning.

Despite complaints about long school hours — 12 a day — they conceded that this might have made them competitive relative to most of other students in their adopted countries. However, none of them are planning to go to university in China. Enrolling in a prestigious university in North America or Europe has been a path charted for them by their parents.

These children seem to be rather optimistic about their future because they realize that holding a foreign passport might help with their application to universities in the West. Their parents are mostly immigrants of Chinese origin who would like their children to be blessed with foreign citizenship as well as the opportunity to learn about Chinese language and culture.

This “joint-venture” educational approach aims to ensure that their children can get the best of both worlds and evade the grueling gaokao, or the Chinese college entrance examination. Whether they will return to China one day does not concern them for the time being.

Nathalie Wei, 13, has also gone through pangs of an identity crisis and proposed her solution with a hint of resignation: “I just tell myself that I am an ethnic Chinese who speaks Mandarin and owns an American passport. I don’t feel the need to be labeled or any urgency to resolve my identity crisis. I will settle it over time.”

A passport does not necessarily guarantee a sense of belonging. Culture and language play a bigger role. Chinese culture, customs and ways of thinking will inevitably leave an indelible mark on these children as many of them spend their formative years in the country.

And exposure to a mixture of influences in their teens might encourage them to be a little more accommodating toward cultural differences later in life.

Julia and her peers will leave China for higher education in three to four years and perhaps settle back in their “motherland” in the future. The possibility of undergoing a reverse culture shock awaits them.

“Now, whenever I hear about China and Canada, I feel proud,” said Julia. “I hope I can help strengthen the bonds between the two countries when I grow up.”

Special Reports