I spent the better part of last year in East Asia kind of studying, kind of working, kind of traveling. Through Victoria College, I was on an exchange/internship program that started with learning Korean in Seoul, South Korea and ended with teaching English in Beijing, China. During the eight months I spent in East Asia, I also made pit-stops in Shanghai, Taipei, Tianjin, Suzhou, Hangzhou, Sanya, and my hometown, Lanzhou, China.
Before I embarked on this trip, I expected this to be some sort of triumphant return to the motherland. Twelve years after leaving my small hometown in northwestern China, I returned older and wiser to share my knowledge of English with eight year olds. The reality of it was that when I was in Beijing, I was a foreigner, just like the millions of other foreigners in Beijing. I had nothing in common with the Chinese students in my class at Beijing Foreign Studies University or my Chinese colleagues at Beijing Foreign Languages School. It was like I was a Third Rock from the Sun character who has only learned the language but is mystified by the culture. I was vaguely aware of pop stars from a few years back, had difficulties deciphering connotations in conversations, and was often frustrated by the different pace at which Beijing operated. It was particularly bewildering because when Beijingers looked at my Chinese face, it was expected that I would be intimately familiar with Chinese culture and were put-off when it quickly became apparent that I was not. As a result, I ended up hanging out with other foreign teachers and going to foreigner networking events, reluctantly accepting my status as a “foreigner”.
But I am not the only one. I am just one out of so many kids who left their home country when they were young and return to find that they are now a guest. There is actually a Chinese term for us, 香蕉人 or “banana people”, because we look ethnically Chinese, “yellow” on the outside, but we have been assimilated into Western culture, “white” on the inside. There are so many of us “banana people” who are bi-cultural, who struggle with the balance between their two cultures, who must translate their degree in Gender Studies to their perplexed older relatives. For me, knowing that I have lost touch with Chinese culture spurs me to do all that I can to reconnect and bridge that gap. My experience at the University of Toronto has connected me with so many other like-minded individuals who are also trying to relearn their culture. This shared goal has created a community for people to come together and encourage and empathize with each other.
I still hold my childhood memories of China close, but I know that those clips of night markets and street kiosks are different to me now. I will never be able to change the fact that when I am in China, I am always a visitor who will fly away in the immediate future. But when I do fly away, I know that China is where my roots are, even if I have blossomed elsewhere.
-written by Katy Wang, a fourth-year student majoring in English and Psychology at the University of Toronto.