I’m From Shanghai, and Yes I Speak Good English

"So if you’re from China, why is your English so good?” This is a question that Vivian had to answer tediously almost every time she introduced herself to someone new. At first, she attributed the question to innocent ignorance. Over time, the question became monotonous, and Vivian started dreading the “where are you from” portion of any introduction. Eventually, she started saying she was from New York City…which wasn’t a lie because that’s where she was born, but gives her a lingering feeling of guilt for hiding a large part of her identity.

To Vivian, Shanghai is modern and busy. Shanghai is tall skyscrapers. Shanghai is a bustling restaurant scene with cuisines from all around the world– Italian, Mexican, Spanish, Japanese, Korean, you name it. Shanghai is a developed subway system, one where the train actually arrives in 2 minutes when it says so. Shanghai is art museums, music festivals, comedy shows, concerts. Shanghai is nightclubs and bars that put up good competition for New York’s nightlife. Shanghai is westernized. When Vivian hears uneducated assumptions about her home, she gets frustrated.  

But beyond that, Shanghai is also eating xiaolongbao, locals hanging underwear to dry from their windows, spit on the streets, squat toilets, chicken feet, and more. Vivian is tired of defending where she’s from by telling people that her home is more westernized than they think. Being westernized is a part of what Shanghai is, but Shanghai is more than that. Vivian wants to be proud of every aspect of where she grew up, even the dirtiest and ugliest parts. She will not be shamed for it.

Living in the U.S. while coming from an international background is really confusing. Vivian is not Chinese enough to fit in with the students who come from local Chinese schools, nor is American enough to fit in with the students who grew up in the States. She belongs to neither, yet she belongs to both. Vivian understands some of the slang for both groups, but there are times when her difference is apparent. Despite popular belief, it’s also not the same as growing up Asian American. Students who have grown up in an international community, especially those of non-caucasian descent who have grown up in their “home” countries, have not experienced the racial and cultural discrimination that minority groups who grew up in the US have. College may be their first exposure to ignorance, discrimination, and feeling like a minority. In her years of growing up, Vivian’s peers have often referred to themselves as “bananas”– yellow on the outside but white on the inside. This constant internal tug-of-war between different cultures and identities is difficult on its own, but made even more difficult in the ruthless environment of ignorance, white privilege, and discrimination.

Recently, there has been a lot of discussion on cultural appropriation. The qipao incident of a caucasian girl wearing a traditionally Chinese clothing piece, qipao, to prom drew the attention of many mainstream media platforms. Cultural appropriation is a topic that remains in a very gray area, and that’s because every single person has had a different relationship with their (in this case, Asian) culture. Perhaps in the mind of those who grew up in China and went to a local Chinese school, cultural appropriation does not exist at all. The qipao incident, to them, would be a celebration of Chinese culture in a foreign country, and thus beneficial. On the contrary, someone who’s a child of an immigrant and grew up in America may see this as strongly offensive. They may have grown up facing the insults and assumptions made by people who do not understand their culture at all. They might feel that it’s inappropriate to take a part of their culture, the very same one that was made fun of for years, and call it a fashion trend. Both opinions are valid, as this is a discussion of personal experience. There is no right or wrong opinion on cultural appropriation, but there is discussion, which can lead to more respect and understanding for minority groups.

The message of this piece is not to put blame on misinformed individuals for cultural discrimination. The message of this piece is to ask everyone to have respect for people of all backgrounds. We live in a country that is the biggest cultural hub and melting pot. Next time you want to ask someone why their English is so good, please consider that they don’t owe you–or anyone– an explanation.


Vivian Zhoufp, z, s, g