The problem is, Max does not look the part.
Max Wang is ethnically Chinese, and in a schooling system that equates speaking English with being Caucasian he does not have much chance. Max, though, does not mind.
“I came to China because of the opportunities, if I can’t teach English, I will find something else to do.”
Max represents a growing phenomenon among overseas Chinese – that is, ethnically Chinese people born and raised outside China.
Since Deng Xiaoping’s liberalisation reforms of the early 1980s, hundreds of thousands of overseas Chinese have been returning to the birthplace of their ancestors for both business and pleasure.
Back to the source
People whose families once fled the country because of incessant warfare, poverty or fear of political reprisal are now heading back in unprecedented numbers.
“China is exciting, attractive, challenging at both a professional and social level,” says Steven Huang.
“I try to bridge the gap between cultures; I can see the situation from both a Western and Chinese perspective”
Huang, 29, was born in Taiwan but moved to the US aged five. He came to China almost two years ago to study and from there, forge a career.
In addition to his work as an investment banker, he organises Oriented: a Happy Hour get-together for young professionals interested in doing business in east Asia.
“I came without a job, without knowing anybody. But China is full of opportunity, it’s the Gold Rush of the 21st Century,” says Huang.
For Huang, the fact he is ethnically Chinese has been advantageous.
“I try to bridge the gap between cultures; I can see the situation from both a Western and Chinese perspective.”
This notion of gap bridging has been instrumental for many ethnic Chinese who return. John Wang, a postgraduate student at China’s premier university, Beida, or Beijing University, was raised in Canada and returned thinking he would be in an advantageous position to work in China.
“For the first six months I hated it …it took me a while to get used to it”
“I speak Chinese, I understand the culture but I have realised that in order to bridge the gap I do need more work experience. This though will come with time.”
Yet, not all overseas Chinese who return feel able to move between East and West with comparative ease. The first barrier for many who were brought up in the West is that of language.
Eric Lee is a fourth generation American Chinese. Although his grandmother still speaks Mandarin, he is unable to say more than the basics.
“Not being able to speak Chinese is a huge frustration,” he says. “At the moment, I feel very American. I have no solidarity with mainland Chinese, and I find local behaviour wears me down.”
Arriving in early 2003 to take up a job, Lee quit soon afterwards.
“I’m proud, though, to have seen China and to realise it’s not what many of my American friends thought it would be. Their image of a Communist country was deeply flawed.”
Lee is not alone in his ambivalence towards China. For many who come back to China, the fact they are ethnically Chinese has little bearing on how they assimilate themselves.
“For the first six months I hated it,” said Alan Wang, the owner of a highly successful Japanese restaurant in Beijing.
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“I couldn’t speak the language. Because of my clothes and the way I walked, people stared at me and treated me differently … it took me a while to get used to it.”
Although Wang now speaks the language, he does not consider himself Chinese.
“Despite being more aware of Chinese culture, I really have very little contact with local people. My business is structured towards foreigners and, at the end of the day, I’m an American.”
But for others, the assigning of identity labels is not so easy.
“I’m Chinese. I was born in the US but I’m ethnically Chinese and that makes me feel more Chinese than anything else,” says Hu Hua, who works at an advertising agency and has been in China for several years.
“For me, identity is about ethnicity rather than culture.”
Engen Tham, a Chinese language student was born and raised in Britain and has been studying the question of identity since her arrival.
“What do they know about being Chinese? They haven’t experienced what
“I don’t know if I’m British or Chinese,” she says. “When I was young, I tried to avoid socialising with other Chinese as it was ‘uncool’. But when I first arrived in China, I felt such a sense of comfort by being surrounded by all these people that look just like me.”
She is wary, though, of attaching the label “Chinese” to herself.
“I’m proud of what Chinese people have achieved both abroad and in China. But I feel I have a different outlook on life. My upbringing stressed female independence and I have no connection with many aspects of Chinese life, including the government and associated moral values.”
The local Chinese have a rather derogatory title for many of these people.
Banana, (xiangjiao), suggesting yellow on the outside but white on the inside, is often applied to those who might think of themselves as Chinese but (in the eyes of some locals) cannot be.
“What do they know about being Chinese? They haven’t experienced what we’ve experienced,” says Li Boyong, a 25-year-old accountant.
“To call yourself Chinese you need to be more than ethnically Chinese. You need to have lived in China, experienced the true culture and hardships of life here, otherwise you cannot call yourself Chinese.”