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26/11/2016

IWentBacktoChinaandFeltMoreAmericanThanEver|ForeignPolicy

I Went Back to China and Felt More


American Than Ever
Six years in Hong Kong showed me how deep racism runs in Asias world city.
BY CRYSTAL CHEN

OCTOBER 21, 2016

On Oct. 9, New York Times metro reporter Michael Luo revealed that he and his family had been subject to a
racist outburst on the streets of New York Citys posh Upper East Side. Readers, especially of Asian descent,
were quick to volunteer their own stories in the aftermath, showing that while racism against Asians is not
always in the U.S. public eye, it is widespread. Id like to address this article to the woman who told the U.S.born Luo and to all those who may have harbored similar sentiments at one point or another to go back
to China.

My parents left China in the wake of Mao Zedongs Cultural Revolution to seek refuge in American higher
education in the 1970s, eventually becoming entrepreneurs. I was born in Ohio, raised in Nebraska and
California, and attended Yale University in Connecticut. Six years before that woman on the streets of New
York told Luo to go back to China, I had already done so. After graduating college, I moved to Hong Kong, a
port city that has been the Wests gateway to China since the mid-1800s.
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IWentBacktoChinaandFeltMoreAmericanThanEver|ForeignPolicy

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I believed the city, a place brutalized and molded by colonial forces before its return to China in 1997, was
somehow like me: an East-meets-West pastiche. I also believed that Hong Kong, more multicultural, global,
and outward-looking than any mainland city, was likely to be the most racially enlightened. But after more
than six years of living and working there, I would learn just how racially progressive the United States was by
comparison. Its not just because anyone can speak up and defend themselves, but because doing so is
embedded in our culture.
Growing up in Nebraska, I was ching-chongd in school and asked why my eyes were so small. Later on,
popular kids would compel me to do their homework with overtures of friendship, only to ignore me at recess.
Even in relatively liberal California, I was bullied and shut out by the girls in my all-white Girl Scout troop. My
early life in white, Christian America impressed upon me the notion that my real home, my real friends, was
where my parents had left it back in China.
In college, I devoted myself to the notion. I holed myself up exclusively in Asian cultural clubs and worked to
beef up my half-hearted, lisping Mandarin Chinese. I took classes in Chinese philosophy, sociology, and
politics. Internships in Beijing and Shanghai and travels around the mainland gave me a glimpse of what my
new home would be like. After graduation, I secured a job in Hong Kong.
My mother, who had moved from Shanghai to Hong Kong to the United States, was distraught: Why do you
want to go back there?
But much, I insisted, had changed. The mainland wasnt the Mao-era hot mess shed left behind; the 2008
Beijing Olympics painted a glorious image of a new Middle Kingdom, and Lehman Brothers collapse that
same summer foretold an ominous future for the United States. Out in the dizzying economic rise of the Wild
Wild East, opportunities abounded for those willing to work in a globalizing China, particularly in Hong
Kong, which billed itself as Asias world city and was also deepening ties with the mainland.
What I didnt tell my mother was that my desire to leave was primarily motivated by the possibility of
escaping the unfriendly U.S. racial climate. In Asia, I wouldnt have to deal with being Asian. I wouldnt be a
minority, much less a model one. For once, I was certain, my race wouldnt matter.

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26/11/2016

IWentBacktoChinaandFeltMoreAmericanThanEver|ForeignPolicy

I moved to Hong Kong in 2010 to work for a multinational education company and cast myself with a
privileged lot of expatriates, or huayi ethnic Chinese who have grown up abroad. It was deeply comforting
to be surrounded by people who looked like me. And because I spoke perfect English and had attended an Ivy
League university, my social currency in status-conscious Hong Kong went further than most. I was not just
able to blend in I was privileged. I was heard, respected, and invited to glittering parties. Those rst years
in Hong Kong were beautiful and easy.
But eventually my conscience began to gnaw at me. At work, invisible walls divided colleagues by skin color.
White managers who had worked all their lives in Asia sometimes looked surprised when I spoke up in perfect
English to volunteer my opinion a small thing, but revealing. A few seats away from my desk sat Filipino
colleagues, often ignored or greeted with terse, awkward smiles when they tried to make conversation. I saw a
Pakistani colleague of mine held at arms length during team happy hours, lonesome with his glass of wine
while his colleagues buzzed around him. A Sri Lankan friend of mine working in investment banking cried
when she was passed over for a raise once again.
The citys thorny relationship with race was even more obvious outside of work. I remember dining with an
Indian companion and being thoroughly ignored by the waitsta, even beyond the standards of usually
brusque Hong Kong service. Locals regularly complained to me about being paid less than their expat
counterparts. And on the streets, images of hapa women, men, and babies half white, half Asian were
featured prominently on billboard ads, the citys aspiration to whiteness hiding in plain sight.

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Hong Kong is also home to hundreds of thousands of Filipino and Indonesian domestic workers 320,000, as
of 2013. On Sundays, their day o, Hong Kongs otherwise mostly hidden domestic helpers swarm public
parks, much to the chagrin of locals who Id hear complain of what they saw as their parks being overrun.
Workers who have served Hong Kong families loyally for decades cannot become permanent residents,
dependent instead on a work visa that could be stripped from them at any moment. The 2016 Global Slavery
Index compiled by the Australia-based nonprot Walk Free Foundation, which tracks government action
on forced labor, human tracking, and other conditions of modern slavery ranked Hong Kongs
government in the bottom 5 percent worldwide. Reports surface regularly about domestic workers being
beaten or sexually abused by their employers. These people served me cocktails, cooked the food I ate, bussed
my plates without a sound, painted my nails, massaged me, and cleaned my apartment. Thats just
capitalism, my erudite friends would say, but I couldnt shake the truth that my privilege oated on cheap
Southeast Asian labor and the diminished social position they occupied.
With each year that passed, I became increasingly aware of the morally fragile foundations of the lifestyle I
enjoyed. I had believed that spiriting myself to Hong Kong would mean that I wouldnt have to face racial
discrimination anymore. Bewitched by the possibility of transcending the racial totem pole, I only later
realized that I had merely relocated to the top, and the view wasnt what I expected. Being brought up in the
United States meant my standards for racial equality were forged in a culture built around the dissent,
dialogue, and disruption that the First Amendment vouchsafes.
It was only after six years in Hong Kong that I began to understand why people leave their countries to come
to the United States and why its so dicult to repatriate. You cant unlearn what youve learned or unsee what
youve seen. Neither could I unlearn the promises of equality that Id repeated every time I took the Pledge of
Allegiance.
I had been running away for a long time. I had run away from being a victim of American racism to become
part of the perpetrating class in Hong Kong. I had hid from the yellow face in the mirror and pretended, with
my perfect English and my elite education, that I was someone else. I had tried to go back to China, only to
nd myself more American than Id realized. But Im not running away anymore. Ive found that my home
isnt limited to a physical place. Its not in Hong Kong, China, or the United States. Its in the people I love and
the work that needs doing. Its in the values I hold that grow and change over time.

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IWentBacktoChinaandFeltMoreAmericanThanEver|ForeignPolicy

So, to all those who have ever wanted people like me to go back to China: My home is on a bridge as short as
a hyphen and as wide as the Pacic Ocean. My home is an in-between place, as it is for all Americans who
remember their roots, their history, and the journey that got them here. My home is a compromise, a
discussion, a negotiation.
With you.
Photo credit: MIKE CLARKE/Getty Images

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