Issue One: Adapting
It’s half-past ten in Shanghai, and I’m sitting upstairs in the Shanghai-equivalent of a bottle-o holding a stubby of some obscure Chinese beer. The label is a minimalist depiction of a panda, although I’m not sure if the minimalism was intentional or if the designer was just lazy. Two men smoke at the table opposite, punctuating every other sentence with a cao! and a slap of the table. My friends arrive with their drinks and comment with distaste on the cigarette smoke wafting in our direction. We talk about how we’ve been settling into Shanghai, career interests, and then one of my friends describes how he’s been having a “China day.” Puzzled, I ask him to elaborate. He explains how on some days, it’s too loud, there’s too many people, there’s intractable bureaucracy, some phrase is too hard to remember, some jerk – he subtly indicates the opposite table – decides to smoke inside. My other friend nods in agreement and gives his own examples, and I realise I’ve never had one of these days in my life.
Maybe it’s because I grew up ABC [Australian-born Chinese], so I’ve already adapted to it, I think. Primed for it even, at a genetic level. As my parents would say, 5000 years of culture flows in our blood. I suddenly feel an inexplicable sense of Chinese-ness, despite the fact that I speak and read far less Chinese than my parents would like, and the fact that any actual Chinese person would be able to tell I’m ABC as soon as I start talking. This newfound sense of confidence in my Chinese-ness lasts for almost a whole day, until a particularly awkward conversation at a convenience store checkout brings me promptly back to earth. I guess growing up ABC has, in a way, both given and taken identity.