top of page

For Chinese Americans, We Face A New Identity Crisis

With COVID-19, we belong neither in the U.S. nor China

As a 1.5 generation Chinese American, I no longer know where I belong. Being part of the “1.5 generation” refers to individuals like myself who immigrated to America in our childhood, and, in contrast to other Chinese Americans, we believe the U.S. is as much our home as is China. But the pandemic has created more separation and divide at a time when solidarity and support are essential. What I’m witnessing across both the U.S. and China is the growing sense of fear and frustration that overpowers rationality and compassion, emotions that trump reason. The results not only can become economically disastrous (via a trade war or worse), but may also propel an identity crisis among many of us who consider both countries our home. And to be blatantly honest, I feel fully accepted by neither the U.S. nor China at this moment.

My family immigrated to America from Southern China when I was just entering elementary school, and growing up, I took pride in my duality of values. As an immigrant, American and Chinese culture were equally represented in my upbringing, and the freedom to move across both countries was a luxury I gratefully embraced. In the U.S., the feeling of acceptance took many years to establish — it took mastering the language, understanding norms and pop culture, and constantly contemplating my Eastern heritage alongside my Western surroundings. When I return to China, it would take a few weeks to habituate to the dry humor, frequent use of idioms, and etiquette in front of guests and the elderly. Within each culture, I bring a bit of the other inside — eating pizza with chopsticks or mixing Chinese music with American lyrics. Having this duality makes me neither fully American nor fully Chinese, but a special mix of both, and with time, I was accepted as both.

But recently, as Sino-US tensions reached a new climax, I fret that this feeling of acceptance is at risk. In America, the increasing antagonism is rather unnerving. Each day, I listen to bitter accusations by the Trump administration blaming China for the virus and threatening to intensify the trade war, as if the current sanctions are insufficient. When I read about senators suing China in federal court for “causing the global pandemic that was unnecessary and preventable,” or pushing for a bill to allow American “victims” to sue and seek reparations from the Chinese government, I worry that racism towards not just Chinese people, but Asian Americans as a whole, will gain momentum within the America. Two-thirds of Americans have an unfavorable view of China, a sentiment that has increased 20% since the start of the Trump administration. Animus is often strong among Republicans, but recently, Democrats are also agreeing that the Chinese government bears responsibility for the spread of the virus.

Fear and disdain are contagious, and if we allow it to fester, the resulting consequence could be a Cold War between the U.S. and China that’s even more tense than the previous one with the Soviet Union. It’s unlikely that we will see something to the extreme of Japanese internment camps during World War II, but as anti-Chinese fervor builds, I would not be surprised if a “Chinese ban” became the new Muslim ban. I hope history will not repeat itself, but in today’s situation, nothing can be said for certain.

For the broader category of Asian Americans, we wonder whether the negative sentiment towards the Chinese government will translate into daily life animosity towards Asians living in the America. Anecdotes of services requested by Asian Americans being rejected run rampant across our community. A friend’s mother was just refused service by a gardener because she was Chinese; an Asian friend of mine lives in constant anxiety ever since a stranger left threatening messages in her cell inbox. The coining of the term “Chinese virus” or “Wuhan virus” by Mr. Trump has only incited greater friction. When I see #chinazi, #ChinaMustPay and #ChinaLiedPeopleDied trending on twitter, I take a personal affront mostly because I know how contagious negative language and bitterness can become. The quarantine somewhat protects us from confronting these people face-to-face, but post-pandemic, will anger and frustration be channeled towards us when we look for jobs, order in restaurants, travel from place to place? Within the confines our home we can only play these scenarios in our heads and mindlessly worry about our future in America.

When discrimination abroad exacerbates, I along with many other first and 1.5 generation Chinese Americans think about returning to China. But going back to our home country proves to be a challenge as well. As the epicenter for the outbreak shifts from China to Western countries, mounting fears of a virus resurgence in China were met with hostility towards foreigners and induced other xenophobic responses. I receive frequent messages in a WeChat group touting the dangers of taking in Chinese people who are abroad. A forwarded message from the health department that warns of Chinese citizens returning from South East Asian countries and Europe sparked debate about whether they should be let in. Another message discusses the public’s outrage towards rich families requesting a charter flight from the government for study-abroad students in the U.K. The anger grew from the issue of letting in the students, to patriotism, and finally to the growing class divide (only the wealthy could afford sending their children abroad) and traditional Chinese culture and education. “Have you considered the hardships and sacrifices made by China to achieve today’s epidemic prevention achievements?” the message reads. And as the rumors and insults from the U.S. cross into their borders, they retaliate with similarly vicious words. Within my own community, I see rebuttals from both sides become increasingly defensive.

For myself, I had originally intended to return to China for a few months this year, but my parents and relatives strongly objected, showering me with public shaming anecdotes verbally attacking returning foreigners. When I toss around the idea of working in Beijing, they admonish that Sino-U.S. relationships are at its nadir and the trade war may disrupt business.

Sometimes when I return to China, I am asked by natives, “Why did you leave in the first place? Was this country not good enough for you?”

I felt the question to be unfair, since in my mind, I did not choose America over China, or China over America. They were both my homes. The idea of not being welcome to China, coupled with intensifying antagonism towards Chinese Americans in the U.S., worsens the identity crisis, as I fight to cling onto the two cultures that nurtured me.

Must the situation end like this? No. There’s still time to unite and set aside xenophobic attitudes, to speak out and against racial slur, to offer compassion and support to all those in need. In America, we should understand that placing accusations will not cure the virus nor will it absolve our leadership’s incompetence in curbing the spread. A pandemic does not differentiate between the East and the West, the rich and the poor. Placing all blame upon one country and demanding reparations will only breed racism within the public eye. The world did not blame Ebola on Guinea nor the H1N1 flu on the U.S.; other countries did not demand reparations for the world-wide economic damage wrecked by the 2008 financial crisis, where evidence suggests its cause to be largely catalyzed by subprime mortgage-backed securities in the U.S.

The damage and suffering caused by COVID-19 pandemic have been harrowing and unprecedented, but everyone is under the same threat. In China, preventing Chinese people abroad from returning to their home country creates national divide that harms the progress of returning life to normalcy. And even if some in the U.S. refuse to acknowledge the "sacrifice and action" by the Chinese leadership, pointing back the fingers will only fuel the tensions between the two countries.

The people who feel more confused coming out of the events of the pandemic and the sensational media headlines are the 1.5 generation Chinese Americans, broadly speaking, who feel like the two countries that they love the most have turned on them. People in America believe we are shadows of the Chinese government; people in China think we turned our backs to a perfectly good country. A WeChat group emerged during quarantine for first and 1.5 generation Chinese Americans out of fear that prejudice will worsen following the pandemic. It states, “We must unite as Chinese people in America. It may be a dangerous world for us.”

In a way, we just simply don’t belong anywhere right now.


For more posts like this, you can subscribe and follow me on twitter.

bottom of page