Your ABCs

Posted by Pete DeMola on 17. Jun 2010

By Francis Tseng

BEIJING, JUNE 17 - Hello, name is Francis and I am an ABC -- as well as WLIB's new editorial intern. As a child, I visited Beijing often to see my grandparents and other scattered bits of family I had across the city.

When I wasn't in Beijing, I grew up around Philadelphia, a city about 46 miles southwest of New York.

It was in the City of Brotherly Love where I went to Chinese school on the weekends and had some Chinese friends. This exposure to Chinese-American culture was so routine that I never really thought anything of it.

Later in my life I was introduced to the concept of the "ABC," or the "American-born Chinese," which I will introduce to you now as my introduction to the WLIB community.

I had never realized this phenomenon was so common that it had earned its own acronym, and had never before taken any time to consider the implications that being an ABC had on my life. While the acronym itself is clearly defined, the experience of being an American-born Chinese remains elusive and misunderstood.

Abroad, ABCs (and all Asian Americans) congregate over the shared "ABC" condition, and from this the Asian American community springs.

In the States, people treat Asians differently - not necessarily in a prejudice or racist way, but there are always subtle preconceptions that influence peoples' dealings with Asians.

For example, there are deep-seated stereotypes of Asians (that they are all very smart, that the men are emasculate, that the women are terrible drivers, etc.) that are (nowadays) seldom ever explicitly expressed, but still affect the way Asian Americans are perceived.

These stereotypes emerge when students first ask if you're an engineer before anything else, or if women prematurely brush you off -- or if your friends are apprehensive of catching a ride with you. Yet over the years, these influences have become less and less problematic, and in response, Asian Americans have begun assimilating and contributing to American culture.

As a result, Chinese-American culture is a hybrid of contemporary American culture and the traditional Chinese culture of our parents.

It can be hard to balance these often conflicting cultural commitments.

The child-parent generational gap is especially magnified in the case of ABCs, where a concurrent cultural gap exacerbates every disagreement. For instance, the old values of immigrant parents can often hinder their child's social life: I remember having an extremely difficult time convincing my parents to let me sleepover at friends' houses, or getting a video game system to play with my friends on.

Their academic-oriented attitude that is the norm in China is inappropriate for the socially-oriented atmosphere of America, and this complicates the life of a young ABC.

These conflicts extend beyond youth into adulthood as well.

Growing up, my parents insisted I become a doctor, a lawyer, or otherwise pursue some lucrative profession so that I could support them in their old age and have a respectable career. Now, the path I lay for my future seems to coincide with one that leads to my parents' disappointment. The tension born from these incongruent interests is hard to dispel, and is common among Asian-American families -- but I can put these issues on pause when I travel to China.

Here in China, ABCs occupy a strange space between the foreigners and the locals.

Each of these groups has, upon first sight, preconceptions of us to which we do not conform. To foreigners and locals alike, we appear to be another Chinese youth, and thus the expectations and associations held with them are applied to us.

Local Chinese expect us to have fluent grasp of the language and an intuitive understanding of the nuanced cultural practices of the area. When they hear my accent and slow speech, it's immediately obvious I'm a foreigner. (However, until I start spouting English it isn't obvious what kind of foreigner - I am almost always asked if I'm Korean).

Subsequently, I am treated differently.

The marvel that a non-Asian foreigner would draw is instead replaced with a quiet unease. Maybe it's because it isn't clear how we should be dealt with: Should we be treated as Chinese or foreign?

Anomalies are hard for anyone to accept or understand.

A lot of the cultural practices I grew up learning have become outdated or obsolete since the time my parents had emigrated.

Foreigners are expected to lack knowledge of the area or to be ignorant of cultural practices, so their faux pas are excusable -- endearing even -- whereas the slip-ups of an ABC can easily be misinterpreted as intentional and done in spite of an understanding of what's wrong and right (according to local practices).

Fortunately, there is enough rudeness and inconsideration in Beijing that I can easily get away with accidentally pissing off some people every once in awhile.

But being an ABC in China is not without its benefits, for the space we occupy is not only strange, but special.

We have the advantage of being able to observe China from a totally unique viewpoint: it is at once the land of our legacy and ancestry and a new and exciting place to explore. We have the capacity to understand and mediate the viewpoints of both the foreigner and the local.

We have, from growing up outside of China, the pleasure of experiencing China with the wonderment of a foreigner, and at the same time, from growing up in a Chinese family, we have a sense of familiarity and comfort from being in the place of our heritage. There is another level of appreciation in enjoying China as an ABC that no other traveller has, and while many lament the ABC condition as being without a home, I prefer to think of us splitting time between two.

Are you an ABC? Experienced the same ups and downs? Tell us below!

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