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Chinese Americans: My Daughter Finds Her People

My daughter has a mix of identities, but the one that she recently connected with is surprising.

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“They are Americans but they speak Chinese,” my 5 year old daughter kept saying over and over again. The concept of Americans speaking Chinese, like she does, blew her mind. She all of a sudden, Petra seemed to realize for the first time that she wasn’t alone.

She had just watched a troupe of Chinese American kids from Boston perform a dance/ yo-yo/ drum show at Bangor’s Folk Festival. These performers enthralled her. She rushed up to the front when the red robed dancers were on, and when they finished she looked up at me and said, “I want to do that!” When I asked her if she wanted to meet them after they had finished performing, she raced through the crowd without hesitation and bulled her way right into the middle of the group. She began talking to them in Chinese. They initially responded in Mandarin, but their English quickly began coming out. My daughter looked at them confused: they looked Chinese, they sounded Chinese, but they also spoke perfect American English.

My daughter speaks Chinese Mandarin as a first language (i.e. she didn’t learn it via English) without hardly a tint of a foreign accent. After spending her first two years between Mexico and Colombia learning Spanish she was hauled off to China, where she spent the next three years. She got to China young enough to learn Chinese as a baby would — by babbling gibberish until it became words — and it is now her go to language for many situations, like play and school. She now dreams in Chinese, and when she’s by herself she can be heard talking to her toys and imaginary friends in Chinese.

More on Vagabond Journey: How Petra Learned to Speak Chinese

This has made her a bit of a freak. As she’s a white, completely Caucasian kid with light colored hair, the Chinese don’t regard her as one of their own. Her ability to speak their language like they do comes as a shock. They often get incredibly surprised and flood her with massive amounts of attention and questions. White people aren’t supposed to speak Chinese, the occurrence of such rattles people’s view of the world here. Contrary to what I believe would be commonly thought, her linguistic ability has not brought her into the fold of this culture, it has not allowed her to blend in, to become one of the gang — it has turned her into an uber-Other. Though she can communicate fluidly she does so as a novelty.

Being a novelty is something this kid has always been used to. From six weeks after she was born she was known as “foreigner.” While she asserts that she is an American with virility and pride I am unsure if she really knows what this means. For her, America is a distant land at the end of the rainbow where the food is delicious, the people are kind, and everything is better than wherever she happens to be. Except for periodic short visits to the USA, where she is a special visitor who is showered with attention from her family, she doesn’t really know the place very well.

She’s also never known a group of people to call her own, that she could identify with. She knows that she’s an American, that she’s Jewish, that she was born on a living room floor in Maine, that she spent the first two years of her life in countries where people speak Spanish, that she speaks Chinese natively, that she’s been to many countries, but she’s never met anyone else who could say the same.

Though she kept talking about those Chinese American kids. “They are Americans but they speak Chinese,” she kept repeating. Eventually, it became apparent that she was including herself in with them.

“They are Americans but they speak Chinese, just like me.”


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Filed under: Expat Culture, Petra Hendele Adara Shepard, USA

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3722 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: New York City

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