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“Culture Shock – Chinese Americans in China”

This is a thought-provoking two-part documentary, titled, “Culture Shock – Chinese Americans in China,” produced by Stephy Chung featuring Chinese Americans’ experiences in China with Beijing Foreign University Professor Li Jinzhao (Center for Diaspora Studies) providing analysis from an identity point of view. Professor Li says that Chinese Americans in China are “constantly weighing the values [Chinese and American] and trying to decide which is better.” The documentary also features Kaiser Kuo, who explains how these Chinese Americans could channel their energy and perhaps embrace this idea of dual culturalism, which then allows them to bridge China and America.

Kuo is Director of International Communications for Baidu and spends part of his time engaging Western journalists covering China. Given the lack of scathing coverage by Western media about Baidu (with so much junk about everything ‘China’ and ‘Chinese’ in general), perhaps Kuo’s dual culturalism has merits. It seems to work for Baidu after all.

Chinese Americans who felt torn between the two sets of values or felt discomforted by any of the dimensions in the identities Professor Li speaks of, Kuo offers a solution. The challenge there is of course where to draw the line – how much of the values from the Chinese experience and from the American experience does one embrace?

For example, the American (and European) experience was one of tyranny by the monarchies, and hence distrust for governments. Their colonial domination of the world shielded them from pillage and exploitation, so they lack appreciation for the need for a strong government to repel foreign invaders. That’s precisely the Chinese experience in the last few centuries. The Chinese experience desires stability and unity, and above all, a strong government to block external meddlers. How does one draw the line?

For the most part, the Chinese Americans featured in the documentary generally seems to be embracing the Chinese culture while in China whereas while in America they were pressured to distance from their first generation Chinese parents. They are all working in China now due to growing economic opportunities there, and in order to maximize career success, they naturally must learn more Chinese culture and values.

My personal conclusion is therefore simple: the strength of Chinese culture and values on the global stage really comes from China’s economic might. Water flows because of gravity. China’s economic might is the gravity.

(I should point out that this general topic of identity has been visited before in the article, “What does it mean to be Chinese?” by Buxi and is part of our Featured Posts section.)

Part 1

Part 2

  1. pug_ster
    April 5th, 2012 at 23:53 | #1

    Excellent post. You do hear alot of stories Chinese companies and Chinese people themselves tend to discriminate towards Chinese Americans rather than pure Americans. Many Chinese schools looking for English teachers who wants Americans rather than Chinese Americans because many Chinese has a simple notion that it is best to learn English from Americans. I think Chinese Americans are more suited to the task because many of them probably learn English as a second language and know the implications of learning a second language. Same goes for Chinese companies that would go out of their way to hire Americans rather than Chinese Americans because these companies wants the ‘prestige’ goes along with hiring Americans as them being an ‘International’ company. I think Chinese Americans are more suited for the job because they understand American and Chinese work ethics whereas Americans probably don’t understand as much about Chinese work ethics.

    I also think Kaiser Kuo is right about conflicting yourself trying to be too American or too Chinese. And you shouldn’t and it is perfectly fine being a person of 2 cultures.

  2. melektaus
    April 6th, 2012 at 12:06 | #2

    I’m really discouraged by some of things these Chinese Americans mentioned. They affirm the claims that there is racism against Chinese by other Chinese. That is truly disheartening. I can’t say how disappointed I am of the Chinese people. I wonder if that racism is mainly coming from Chinese women. It seems to me that they are far more status and money conscious, much more superficial and insensitive than Chinese men.

    But I am also slightly encouraged by Kuo’s statement that Chinese Americans have a huge advantage in China. I wonder is that is only a language advantage with being mostly bilingual. Maybe its also cultural. Chinese Americans should have an advantage in China because of those skills and sensibilities. They shouldn’t be viewed as second class citizens in the home of their ancestors.

    This shows the crucial need for Chinese people, native and diaspora to develop modern Chinese culture. Chinese identity and collective esteem depends on it. Fuck going into engineering, medicine, science and go into occupations that allows the creation and development of culture.

  3. colin
    April 6th, 2012 at 13:37 | #3

    Pretty good video. I think the younger folks in the video are still trying to figure things out. You can see their impatience and anger at things from mainlanders that I would not necessary attribute to racism. Chinese ask each other all the time “where are you from?”, given China is such a large place with so many distinct areas and cultures. The girl in the video equates that question to being asked in the US “where (from outside of the US) are you from” with an obviously different tone and intent. There are all kinds of daily challenges for someone who has grown up in the West living in china, but I don’t think that they are as a whole special in facing the challenges or that they challenges mainly stem from some sort of reverse racism. I do think the experiences of the young folks growing up in the US, and being subjected to racism there, makes them assume many of the issues they have in China stem from racism.

    I thought the anchor interview by Kaiser Kuo was great to point out that trying to fit into one culture or another is silly. Each person is an individual, take the best of both or any cultures, and be a bridge. I think it’s a great gift to be able to be a part of more than one culture, and be able to compare and contrast the two, and pick the best aspects for oneself to live. I hope the individuals in the video and others in similar journeys find satisfactory resolutions to their challenges.

  4. April 6th, 2012 at 14:18 | #4

    Great comments folks.

    Chinese Americans can be snobs too:

    “Doors closed to ‘returning turtle’ snobs”

  5. April 7th, 2012 at 02:32 | #5

    I think it is probably more in a context of classism that refused to die in Chinese society. Today, city folks still look down on their rural cousins. Decades ago, mainland shoppers were discriminated in HK, today it is the opposite. The Chinese society on a whole is very pragmatic. As to why Asian American got singled out for registration in visiting a guarded apartment, it is obvious to the management very few European commit breaking and entering there. Go to all major Asian cities, and the trend is similar. One of the way to avoid discrimination is by getting educated and/or rich. This has been a major motivational force in Chinese societies across the globe.

    Chinese American usually comes from better economic background. I think half of Chinese American have college education, compare to around 1/10 in China (though for the younger generation the figure is closer to 2/10). Of course being bilingual is a great advantage. However, most Chinese American are not fluent in Chinese either, their one biggest advantage as noted is their passports (one is free to move about with that). As to whether women or men are more class conscious and discriminatory. I think this proverbs (郎才女貌) say a lot in how both sexes in a traditional Chinese society deal with selecting their spouces. Men are also discriminatory but in a different way.

    I agree, all young people need a good role model. I truly look forward to the day when Chinese (or other ethnicity) need not look up to another Chinese for that. For humanity to truly progress, we need a role model that transcend race, religion or nationality.

  6. melektaus
    April 7th, 2012 at 13:15 | #6


    A lot of the discriminatory beliefs against Chinese Americans from Chinese people probably are due to classism as you’ve described it. There might also be a colonial mindset I fear. Chinese people think that there’s gotta be something right about being white if whites or westerners have developed their economies and culture to this extent seen in the modern world. But this is ignorance of how that development came to be. Whites developed their economic and culture on the backs of other people through colonialism, slavery, robbery and genocide. It’s a shame that Chinese people are so ignorant of history to know that. It’s not a result of their superior culture. In many ways its a result of their more inferior, barbaric, judeo-christian culture.

    But I think that as China develops on its own, Chinese people will move away from this mentality and cultivate a sense of collective self-esteem. As Chinese also get more educated on history, this will also let them see reality with clearer eyes.

  7. perspectivehere
    April 8th, 2012 at 19:01 | #7

    The frictions and misunderstandings mentioned in the 2 videos are not new; what is new is the scale of Chinese Americans (and other hyphenated Chinese) going to Mainland China.

    From the early 70’s onward, many overseas Chinese from North America and other places went to Taiwan to experience Chinese culture, learn Chinese language and some stayed to work, many teaching English.

    Many overseas Chinese had their first exposure to large numbers of other overseas Chinese through the “Love Boat” language / culture tours. There is a wiki page about this.


    The experiences that these young people profiled in the video are going through today in China sound not too different from the experiences that young people went through in Taiwan in the 80’s, 90’s and perhaps even now. In my day, to teach English in a Taipei buxiban, white teachers were paid more than the Chinese North Americans (even if the white teacher came from a country like Germany!) but the Chinese South East Asians were paid even less than Chinese North Americans. Is that still the case today, I wonder?

    I also wonder if Dr Li Jinzhao has considered to impact of (a) European extraterritoriality in the treaty ports on Chinese people’s habits with respect to white foreigners (i.e., Europeans could not be punished by Chinese authorities for violence or abuse they caused to Chinese) or (b) PRC government policies to welcome foreign business and tourists by giving them privileges and extra protection from locals. These would account for the behavior of the security guard giving someone with a Chinese face a harder time than a white foreigner.

    This kind of behavior goes on regularly in Hong Kong today.

    In Hong Kong 10 years ago, a bilingual person would regularly make the choice to speak in English or Cantonese using very pragmatic criteria — which would give me better service and attention? The answer was not always one-way. For example, in HK chinese restaurants that cater to westerners, asking the wait staff in Cantonese what were the specials might get a different (and superior) set of choices than asking in English, because of the waiters’ expectations of what tastes might appeal to a Cantonese eater vs a Western eater. A Chinese waiter will assume that westerners enjoy sweet and sour pork but would not likely suggest that dish to a local. I don’t think behavior like this is “racist”. “Racial” categories may be used, but they are shorthand for behaviorial categories of market behavior. It is not racist to observe that some dishes are more popular with certain ethnicities than others.

    Today, going into certain high-end shops like Hermes, speaking Mandarin will likely elicit more interest from the salestaff than speaking English or Cantonese. Fifteen years ago, if I spoke Mandarin, the sales staff might have totally dissed me. Is this “racist” behavior? Well, sort of and not really. It has a very small racial element, but it’s much more crass and amoral commercial calculation using an ethnic or linguistic marker of how much attention to expend vs likelihood of a sale. If I said “I want to buy 10 birken bags and I want to pay cash” in bad Cantonese 鄉下佬dialect today, I’m sure I would get excellent service.

    The individual experience of Chinese ethnicity and Chinese community is a complex phenomenon, and not easy to explicate with quick judgments.

    A good read (dare I say “must read” although I hate it when people say that – my natural rebelliousness will make me object to reading it) for Chinese experiencing the overseas cultural divide is Lynn Pan’s Sons of the Yellow Emperor, which helps to put the experiences of Chinese around the world into perspective.


  8. aeiou
    April 8th, 2012 at 22:07 | #8

    This is not just a problem with China.

    e.g http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ave6yOWKlj4

    It’s a common theme throughout non-white countries.
    In many ways China is fortunate to not be subjugated to the kind of American post war occupation such is the case of Korea, Japan and German. I think that ultimately is what matters in the long term, not why English teachers would rather make less than minimum wage in China than find a real job in their home country – these kind of fads fade on their own.

    The people that ultimately make a difference in china in the long term, and stay long term are still by and large are Chinese, from afar or from home. That has always been the case and it’s not likely going to change any time soon. IIRC, more than 50% of FDI into China is from the Chinese diaspora. And certainly not all Chinese will have the same experience as the ones from America, particularly the more removed generations.

  9. April 9th, 2012 at 00:53 | #9

    Indeed, folks, a confluence of many factors at play, and yeah, a real complex phenomenon.

    To me, one of the biggest factor is still human nature. Culturally, we all suck up to wealth and power.

    One more telling experiment along the lines in the video linked to by aeiou is to have a Chinese American and a Chinese Filipino in turn ask for directions in Hong Kong. (Hong Kong has many Filipino maids, so the chance of locals there identifying the speaker, whether from Philippines or America, is likely.)

    I am willing to bet the Chinese with the standard American accent will do much better. We ingratiate with wealth and power.

    But, if America is weak and poor while Philippines is rich and powerful, then I think the outcome of the reception would be reversed.

    What this all means is that an economically richer China would automatically bask the Chinese diaspora with more respect around the world.

  10. Dr Stevenson
    April 9th, 2012 at 01:20 | #10

    “What this all means is that an economically richer China would automatically bask the Chinese diaspora with more respect around the world.”

    Only if you assume that other peoples and cultures around the world “suck up” to wealth and power as much as PRC folks. After living in China for many years, as well as several other countries, I’m not sure thats the case at all.

  11. April 9th, 2012 at 01:26 | #11

    Only a racist against the PRC would assume the PRC “suck up” to wealth and power more than anybody else.

    [Folks – if this troll continues trolling, please help flag / dump into spam queue.]

  12. perspectivehere
    April 9th, 2012 at 05:30 | #12


    “To me, one of the biggest factor is still human nature. Culturally, we all suck up to wealth and power.”

    I agree with you – such is human nature. However, at the risk of seeming naive, I think that hope lies in this:


    The Golden Rule or ethic of reciprocity is a maxim, ethical code, or morality that essentially states either of the following:

    (Positive form): One should treat others as one would like others to treat oneself.
    (Negative/prohibitive form, also called the Silver Rule): One should not treat others in ways that one would not like to be treated.
    This concept describes a “reciprocal” or “two-way” relationship between one’s self and others that involves both sides equally and in a mutual fashion.

    We don’t all have to be Christians, or Muslims, or Buddhists, or agnostics or atheists. We don’t have to be white or black or brown or any particular skin color or culture. We don’t all have the same wealth or status. However, we can all agree that ascribing to this, if all ascribed to it, would make life better for everyone.

    One of the problems I think is that the piracy, conquest, invasion, enslavement, murder and mayhem carried out by certain powerful parties from several European nations, primarily Great Britain but also France, Germany, Spain, Portugal, Belgium, US and their agents during the last 500 years, creates a terrible foundation for acceptance and practice of the Golden Rule. One of the remnants of the Age of European Imperialism is the privileged position that persons of European ancestry (and those who look like them) which as a matter of shorthand we call “white people”; this “white privilege” (which in some quarters is understood as “white supremacy”) is a psychological, social and cultural barrier to practice of the Golden Rule. Another remnant of the Age of European Imperialism is that global resources are dominated by the former colonizers and their agent states – economic colonization has not ended.

    These remnants of white privilege affect interactions at the global macro level (for example in the ways various former colonized countries of Africa, Latin America and Asia are treated); at the countrywide level (for example, in the way communities of color are treated); and at the individual level. It also comes out in media portrayals whether on television, film or in news media reports.

    For example, this report documents the severely under-reported racial violence against Chinese in the UK:


    “The UK Chinese population is scattered more widely across the UK than any other minority ethnic population, with a settled Chinese-origin population present in every local authority.

    Although the total UK Chinese population is fairly small compared with some other minorities, it is exposed to higher levels of racism than many other minority groups. However, the indifference of many policy agencies, including substantial sections of the police, and the lack of appropriate reporting in official statistics, means that this experience of racism is often hidden from view.

    This detailed and unique national study, by a team led from the University of Hull, of the experience of racism of the UK Chinese population raises very serious questions for us all, but in particular for the policies and practices of those, particularly the police and other elements of the criminal justice system, who are responsible for addressing the scourge of racism.

    On top of their actual day-to-day experience of racism, myths about this population, hostile treatment by many agencies and by sections of the media, and a failure to acknowledge the significant contribution they make to the social, economic and cultural life of the UK, combine to make the lives of many Chinese people in the UK subject to fear, anxiety and insecurity.”

    Reading the report is hard — so many of the incidents are painful to read and contemplate, and the injustice of it all is so grating.

    I have to wonder, for all the residents of the UK who claim to care about “the Chinese people” against the oppression of the Chinese government, I wonder why they do nothing about the oppression that the Chinese population of the UK suffers from UK (mostly white, as the report documents) residents. This kind of hypocrisy stinks to high heaven.

  13. perspectivehere
    April 9th, 2012 at 08:21 | #13

    I just came across this blogpost by Matthew Franklin Cooper at The Heavy Anglican. I would like to think that this young man has internalized The Golden Rule through the teachings of his Christian faith (he refers to himself as “High Church Episcopalian”) as well as his philosophical studies of Confucianism:


    25 JANUARY 2012
    “Kong Qingdong has a point… of sorts
    This news is about a week old now, but Confucius’ much-put-upon seventy-third generation descendant, Professor Kong Qingdong, actually does have a bit of a valid point about Hong Kong – if you’re willing to look past his habitual foul-mouthing and the rather incendiary way in which he made it. I have struggled very much with the notion of nationhood, and whether or not it can be healthy; partially due to the teachings of Professor Kong’s illustrious ancestor, who (though now a notable symbol of Chinese nationhood) nonetheless insisted that his ethics and his teachings could be easily understood and practised by non-Chinese. To be honest, I was also incensed by the behaviour of the Hongkonger on this train as he basically called the law down on what appears to be a seven-year-old child for eating instant noodles on a train. (I happen to think, as well, that what Dr Kong said was completely correct – if that seven-year-old had been a Hongkonger rather than a mainlander, the response would have been drastically different, if a response would have been made at all.)

    A healthy expression of nationhood is a shared expression of values and of the Good; it makes reference to the common aspirations of a community. At the very moment where nationhood is reduced to a sense of superiority for having a specific lineage or mother tongue, that nationhood becomes destructive – and it appears to be the case that, for many of the areas of the world that have been subject to British colonial rule, this reductionist and violent form of nationalism is all too common, encouraged by administrations which were interested only in extracting resources rather than in defending and developing communities. It is an incredibly sad consequence of imperialism that it has shaped Hong Kong identity in this way: as GK Chesterton put it, ‘Being a nation means standing up to your equals, whereas being an empire only means kicking your inferiors.’ And apparently, in the eyes of still a few Hongkongers, mainland Chinese are inferiors deserving only of the force of their boots. Overcoming prejudices such as these is a key part of the long, hard work of undoing the legacy of the Opium Wars and British colonialism in China. One can certainly make the claim that Dr Kong’s televised rant about Hongkonger ‘dogs’ (and his reference to the decidedly anti-Confucian author Lu Xun in making such a statement) was counterproductive to this goal, but one cannot rightly dispute his analysis of the cause.

    This is not, of course, the sort of discussion that the news media, either in Hong Kong, in the West or in mainland China, want to have. Recriminations sell better.”


    Very well said! This is the kind of understanding and empathetic analysis of Chinese culture and its interactions with British colonialism that I hope to hear more about from people of different backgrounds and experiences.

  14. Charles Liu
    April 9th, 2012 at 11:08 | #14


    You know that guy isn’t really THE direct descendant of Kongzi right? He may be A descendant, but the real lineage holder went to Taiwan with the Nationalist government (Kong family holds a special appointment with KMT.)

    I know this because we used to be neighbors. My parents were really honored to be neighbor with Kongzi (was lectured about this every time I got bad test result 😎

    But I agree with the point made. Look at Americans – vast majority prescribe to “my country right or wrong” no matter left or right. Another illustration is the “united front” when it comes to the “China taking our jobs”, “China owns us” type visceral reaction.

  15. April 9th, 2012 at 11:16 | #15


    About two years ago in Belleville, France, many Chinese went to the streets to protest, because they were constant targets of robberies. What finally triggered the protest was a Chinese man who fought back but was thrown into jail. The French authorities basically sat on their thumbs in regards to the robberies until pressed by the protest and the Chinese diplomats. And, so much for LIBERTÉ; ÉGALITÉ, and FRATERNITÉ, the freaking French media shed nothing of the plight of the Chinese.

    And, that French attitude of not giving a damn about the Chinese like anywhere else in the West is now perpetrated by their “Collective Defamation” in their media about anything ‘China’ or ‘Chinese’ related.

    Absolutely, and amen, what incredible hypocrisy:

    I have to wonder, for all the residents of the UK who claim to care about “the Chinese people” against the oppression of the Chinese government, I wonder why they do nothing about the oppression that the Chinese population of the UK suffers from UK (mostly white, as the report documents) residents. This kind of hypocrisy stinks to high heaven.

    The Golden Rule could help as an inward tool, but is too slow on its own. If Martin Luther King, Jr., had not stood up, who knows how much longer slavery would have lasted. Heck, he might have been assassinated earlier or some faction within that civil rights movement became violent, the whole thing could have easily been quashed. The FBI harassed him too at which he could have crumbled under that pressure alone. And it was the more fair-minded white population that supported King’s movement which eventually won out. So, many stars were fortunately aligned to allow the movement to succeed.

    In the recent case in France, it was the Chinese diplomats who made the biggest difference in my opinion in terms of getting the French government to act. Back during the “Chinese Exclusion Act” days, the then Chinese government was probably told to drop dead when protesting how racist that law was in America – or protesting maltreatment of Chinese anywhere. China has strength today.

    As Chinese society becomes more affluent, I believe it will accord the diaspora with more opportunities and that in turn help raise their standings in societies around the world. All of that is a force too for equality.

    Mathew Cooper is very wise to have articulated that perspective.

    Beijingers, Shanghainese, or any of the higher tier cities in China look down on migrant workers too.

    With that in mind, I think the attitude in Hong Kong towards the Mainland is conflated by the British legacy as well resentment towards the “poor and uncivilized.” Then there is the crusaders of “democracy” and “freedom” who subscribe to this idea that the Mainland’s form of government is ‘evil.’ They see the product of that ‘system’ in similar light.

    For me, I pin the greatest hope in a stable Chinese society and a strong China to level all those resentments.

  16. perspectivehere
    April 12th, 2012 at 17:49 | #16


    “About two years ago in Belleville, France, many Chinese went to the streets to protest, because they were constant targets of robberies. What finally triggered the protest was a Chinese man who fought back but was thrown into jail.”

    This sounds a lot like what usually happens in the UK. In the eye-opening report I cited above, which was prepared by The Monitoring Group London Civil Rights & Arts Centre, with researchers from the University of Hull, University of Leeds and Nottingham Trent University:

    “Hidden from public view? Racism against the UK Chinese population”

    there is a constant theme of white mob violence being directed against Chinese (often restaurant owners and shopkeepers) but no action by the police until the victims fight back, and then the victims are arrested.

    The report is dedicated to “In Memory of Mr Mi Gao Huang Chen”

    “We dedicate this report – Hidden from public view? Racism against the UK Chinese population – to the memory of Mr Mi Gao Huang Chen, affectionately known to his family and friends as Mi Gao.

    Mi Gao was murdered on 23rd April 2005 in a race attack by a gang of over 20 white youths. He was attacked outside his takeaway catering unit in Wigan, Lancashire. According to Mi Gao’s partner, Eileen Jia, the tragedy was a culmination of a targeted campaign of harassment by local youths against the business and despite making several attempts to elicit support from authorities, pleas for help went unanswered.

    The killing was witnessed by a number of individuals, including Eileen and the chef who was employed by Mi Gao and Eileen. A CCTV camera also captured the events leading to the killing. Its recordings not only showed the violent intent of the assailants but also the desperate attempts of the victims to protect their business and their lives, including the call made to the police and Eileen’s brave but vain attempts to save her partner.


    When we met Eileen a few days after the murder, she was in a state of shock and devastated by the horror of what she had witnessed. But at the same time, Eileen was determined to fight for justice. She felt betrayed at being arrested and charged simply because she was carrying a stick to defend herself and the business. It took the intervention of the Monitoring Group for the racial motive to be recorded and a public campaign to have her case reviewed and the charges against her dropped.

    After the murder, Eileen still managed to live on the premises and keep the business running without any protection or safety measures until the trial. During this time, she had to endure the constant presence around the shop of those closely associated with the perpetrator group, who waged a vociferous local campaign in support of the attackers while continuously demanding her re-arrest.

    Although Eileen’s tenacity and determination have allowed her to ‘survive’ the ordeal, it brought no real comfort and her victory was hollow: the takeaway business was ruined and Eileen remained isolated. In fact, her ethnic origin seemed to work against her. As a Chinese person she was stereotyped as being self-reliant; and not in need of the kind of support offered to other families of murder victims. Although satisfied by the court verdict, she was demoralised by her experience. Consequently, soon after the trial, Eileen left the UK to live abroad.”

    Sad and unbelievable, yet not uncommon is Mi Gao and Eileen’s experience.

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