When you look Chinese but struggle like a Westerner

Lily Rugo
July 16, 2016

They can spot an ABC (American Born Chinese) from a mile away, they said. You’re going to stick out as a Westerner, they said. Lies, I say. It’s nearly daily that I have to talk to a confused local who doesn’t understand why I’m not fluent in Chinese.


Duibuqi, wo de Zhongwen bu hao, (I’m sorry, my Chinese is bad) has become a go-to phrase for me these last few weeks. Shop keepers, restaurant servers, people on the street asking me for directions, taxi drivers. Sometimes I get a chuckle or confused smile and they move on. Other times they just look confused and walk away. A taxi driver actually did a full 360 in his seat to look at me, saying that I wasn’t how he imagined Americans to look. One server at a bakery actually laughed at me, but it was good natured and we figured out a system of pointing to get my order. 


Before I came to Shanghai, I hadn’t realized how “Chinese” I look because I knew right away I must stick out. I’m a bit taller and bigger than most Chinese women, but the biggest difference is that I don’t mind the sun. Most Asian cultures think that pale, porcelain-like skin is prettiest, hence the classic image of Asian girls walking on sunny days with umbrellas. I’ve always been tan and embraced it because I knew girls in the States tried so hard to get one. Since I’ve been in Shanghai, I haven’t tried to blend in to the culture that way and walk around in the sun without so much as a hat or sunscreen. I’ve gotten some side eye standing at the bus stop in the oppressive Shanghai heat in my short sleeves while other girls are huddled under umbrellas and awnings. Little things like that made me sure that I would be marked “NOT CHINESE” right away, but I was surprisingly wrong.


At first, it was stressful having to navigate everything in China with the expectation that I should be able to read and speak my way through everything. Ordering food when the menu didn’t have pictures was a struggle. My Chinese classes have helped refresh what limited Zhongwen I do know, and I have an app that’s been my life saver. By now I don’t mind it interactions like this because they’re so commonplace and they don’t mean any harm. Looking like a local is also not without its perks, as I have a much easier time hailing a cab than my white friends here and not being looked at suspiciously when we go shopping. 


There have been times when I’ll pass a white student on campus and I’ll realize that even though I relate to their struggles here, they’ll see me as another Chinese student. It’s a strange diaspora to be in the Motherland, look like you belong here, but don’t actually. I’m just another American exchange student who happens to look like the rest of population.

Lily Rugo

<p>Lily is a journalism student at Emerson College and is excited to be spending her summer in Shanghai. She loves traveling, learning about new cultures, and eating all the best local food. Exploring one of the most exciting places in the world, follow Lily as she explores her roots and Shanghai!</p>

2016 Summer 1, 2016 Summer 2
Home University:
Emerson College
Explore Blogs