As a Chinese woman born and raised in China for 18 years, race had been a foreign concept to me. There is no race in China, only 56 ethnicities, or so as I have been told. From the pieces that I gathered from the TV shows and talk shows, I learned that American born Chinese are called “ABCs” and they are like “bananas” – wearing yellow skin but thinking like a White person. I also learned that ABCs are cool, partly because they speak perfect, sexy English, partly because they always look so damn good. (I am thinking about ABC celebrities in China and Taiwan, like Wang Lihong/Leehom, Wu Yanzu/Daniel, Wu Jianghao, etc.) From those shows, I also got two binary, conflicting views of the U.S. One view said that America is a great melting pot, the pioneer of freedom, equality, and democracy; people of all races live a happy and middle class life here. Guess what? The other view said that the America is a dangerous place, where guns are legal and discrimination against Chinese Americans is still prevalent.
It was not until I came here that I realized that not all ABCs are cool and pretty. They don’t all earn so much as to be qualified as middle class. Some maybe “banans,” some are pretty Chinese still! As for the binary, conflicting views of the U.S., neither of them depicts the whole picture. As Michael Omi and Howard Winart argue, the system of racial meanings and stereotypes, of racial ideologies are so essential to the US society that even though the specifics of racial meanings have changed over time, the system remains. They further argue, it has become so central to the US cultural that it is naturalized and materialized into people’s common sense. In other words, Americans rely on the system of race to gain information and make quick judgments about others. Such common sense passes along from generations to generations, and is hardwired into our brains (through schemas) to help us organize information and understand unfamiliar cultures or people. Some of the common sense may travel beyond the border, get twisted, and reach the other side of the world. Obviously, I used my common sense to get an idea about “ABCs” when I was in China. As you can see, the common sense can be very wrong.
The system of race is so powerful yet so subtle that we cannot really see how it operates unless we have some critical knowledge to decode its manifestations. Americans have been socialized into the system of race since they were born, and it has become a natural part of their everyday life. But as a Chinese and foreigner, what does race have to do with me? For all my life before I came here, I had known myself as a Chinese, or a Cantonese. Asian or Asian American never sounded like an intimate identity to me. I want no “bananas.” But as soon as I got here, I was identified by others as Asian. I was required to put Asian/Asian American/Pacific Islanders on personal data on GOLD because there was no “Chinese”. Can I refuse to be racialized and just be somebody from Canton or Guangdong? Maybe I can, on a personal identity level. But it’s impossible to stop others from using their common sense to make quick judgments about my race and my ethnicity. They may not know that I am a Chinese foreigner by purely looking at me; surely they will quickly put me to the box of Asian/Asian American unless they get to know me more. What follow are all other kinds of assumptions (read: stereotypes) that their common sense can muster to understand me, and at a institutional level, these assumptions about being an Asian/Asian American carry real consequences, such as discrimination in housing, employment, education, etc.
So, why does race have to do with me, a foreigner? Because, it affects how others think about me, and how I will be treated on both personal as well as institutional levels. The system of race, like a machine, will catch me, turn me into its parts, and make me work for it, whether I like it or not. That’s how powerful it is.
by Angel (Ruiqi) Ye