By Olivia W. Zheng

Asian Non-American?

Categorization can help us feel a sense of belonging to a certain group. But what happens when these categories become exclusive? What happens when these categories instead entrap and ensnare us?
By Xinni (Sunshine) Chen

Guess where I’m from” is my favorite game to play when I meet someone new.

“Maryland?” they ask.

“No. Further east.”


“No, further east.” I didn’t even know where Wyoming was.

“California?” They ask, taking in my cottage-core dress and my perfect English without a hint of an accent.

“Nope, I’m from Shanghai.” I finally tell them, earning incredulous looks of disbelief.

“You’re international? I thought you were an American Born Chinese.”

I grin, mission accomplished.

Four years ago, when I first came to America for high school, I yearned to be recognized as someone from China. I would introduce myself, unsolicited, as “Sunshine from China.” I was that person who wore traditional qipaos during dances and holidays, wrote op-eds in the school newspaper about how we should embrace foreign cultures, showed Chinese TikTok reels to my friends, and posted on Instagram about Chinese National Day on October 1.

I felt the need to represent an entire country of 1.4 billion people and push back against stereotypes. In the process of doing so, I shunned other Chinese internationals who weren’t in touch with their culture — those who refused to speak Chinese or show up to any cultural events, who didn’t know how to write commonplace characters like 洗澡 (shower), and who didn’t know the lyrics to famous Jay Chou songs.

Changes in politics and the onset of the pandemic, however, forced me to be more careful of revealing where I’m from. I began introducing myself as merely from Shanghai, secretly hoping that they didn’t know Shanghai was part of China. Later, when I was paired up with someone from Syria as a pen-pal to practice English, I said that I was merely from “Mass”: partially because I attended high school there, but also because I didn’t want him to think any less of my English skills (ironically, I said “Mass” instead of Massachusetts because I couldn’t pronounce the state’s full name properly).

Though my initial reluctance stemmed out of fear of xenophobia and judgment, it eventually became easier to pretend that I was American in a country that groups people together by race rather than nationality.

One day, I found myself using the pronoun “we” rather than “they” when talking about Asian American advocacy. It felt terrifying to erase who I was in just one sentence. It felt terrifyingly easy to pretend to be someone else.

A one-time remark slowly progressed into a whole act. Subconsciously and consciously, I found I was distancing myself from the international community. I stopped reading and writing in Chinese and had to (embarrassingly) search up how to write 导航 (navigation). I brushed off the waves of guilt that washed over me when the pen faltered in my hand. “It’s easy to relearn the language,” I reassured myself when muscle memory failed me. I forced myself to ditch the JJ Lin for A Boogie, the polite waves for G-locks and daps, and the long trench coats for puffers. I didn’t want to be known as another international student.

I became the very person I used to judge.

When my Hong Kong friend gets called “fake Hong Kong” because of her perfect English and literacy in American culture, she takes offense. When people make similar statements about me, I don’t.

Yet in the process of trying to be American non-Chinese, of trying to find a sense of belonging, I lose my sense of home. Caught between two shores, I no longer know who I am.

In my dorm, the quote “不忘初心,方得始终” (never forget why you started, and your mission would be accomplished) is stuck on my wall. But what am I accomplishing if I don’t know where I started from? Where am I going, if I don’t know who I am?

I’m reminded of the words of philosopher Hannah Arendt, who described this feeling as a double layer of loneliness. Or as New Yorker Columnist Masha Gessen aptly said, it’s “having no place in the world, nothing to give to the world.”

I don’t know where I end, and where the world begins.

At Harvard’s Chinese Student Association’s gatherings, I felt like I was unnecessarily Chinese when I spoke Chinglish or hummed to JJ Lin songs. Yet in Harvard Chinese international student gatherings, where I used to think I could find more people like me, I could no longer keep up with all the slang and puns they threw around.

Even my name pulled me in two separate directions. In the West, Americans would tell me that they loved my name “Sunshine.” Yet, in China, elders would grimace when I said my English name. “You should change it when you apply for jobs,” they would tell me. “It makes you sound too Chinese international in a pool of white applicants.” I didn’t know if I should laugh or cry over the irony of the situation.

Funnily, I named myself at four years old because it was my favorite word at that time after an American kindergarten teacher insisted I abandon my Chinese name to be more American. But what does it mean to be Chinese, to be American?

Now, when a Harvard professor tells me “your English is so good for someone from Shanghai,” I freeze. I overthink.

Is this the same as a white person telling an Asian American, “your English is good for an Asian?” Should I take offense to his statement? If I do, does that mean I see myself as Asian American? If I don’t, does that mean I falsely admit that I grew up in China all my life until college?

This train of thought is exhausting to untangle. Sometimes, it simply feels like I live without the feeling of soil underneath my feet.

Categorization can help us feel a sense of belonging to a certain group. But what happens when these categories become exclusive? What happens when these categories instead entrap and ensnare us?

My years of upbringing in Shanghai had made me too Chinese in America. In China, my nine years of bilingual education and five years of American education had made me not Chinese enough.

I am not enough, for either side. Or perhaps, I am enough, for anyone but myself.