A native of China's bustling capital who studied in the U.S. and UK felt more embraced as a local abroad than in a new Chinese city. Inside the native-foreigner divide.
BEIJING — Since leaving home as a teenager and traveling through many places, my feelings about my home city become more and more blurred. I can't tell anymore whether what I missed were the family and friends I left behind, or the city full of memories. As the saying goes, home is where the heart is. Yet peace of mind here doesn't seem so easy to find.
Two events I witnessed one summer when I returned home to Beijing are particularly memorable. The first was on a bus. One migrant worker mother was telling her friend about her child's schooling problem in the capital. "The teacher says that migrant children's level is low, and it will have a negative impact on the locals," she said.
Another time was on a very crowded subway. A local youth was arguing with a middle-aged man carrying heavy luggage. "Can you speak Mandarin?" the young man said, trying to provoke the older man with a typical Beijing accent. The middle-aged man vaguely mumbled a few words and looked dejected.
These events made me recalls the days I studied abroad in the United States and Britain, when being local or foreign didn't matter. Regardless of language or passport, I was embraced as long as I showed an interest in my community. Studying abroad helped me learn to participate actively in the world around me.
After attending an American high school for two years, I studied politics at a U.S. university, and I very often attracted attention from classmates who were particularly active in social affairs. They would encourage me to get involved and asked me to sign on to proposals they advocated — gay rights legislation, urban renewal or environmental issues.
Americans seem to have an inexhaustible supply of issues about which they care. No elder can possibly put the hat of "angry youth" on these young students. And parents don't tell their children, "You haven't experienced the Cultural Revolution" or "Stay away from politics."
Since returning home, I still, at nearly 30 years old, hear these words in China.
Not from around here
I studied in Minnesota, and most of my American classmates came from Illinois, Wisconsin or somewhere outside the state. Yet then and now they share something in common. They are all citizens of the United States of America. Wherever they are, they all think about how local policies might affect them, and how they can affect change with a vote or other political participation.
I used to think this was all about just standing up against injustice. But I discovered that they do it primarily for their own sakes. "Though I am here only for my studies, why shouldn't I support or oppose the noisy rail track repair going on right where I live?" one of my fellow students told me. Friends also advised me to get involved with what was happening around me, because this is how people in the United States protect their interests. If you don't participate in politics, no one else will speak for you.
After graduating from university, I went to Washington D.C. along with a classmate from Minnesota. Within just a few days my friend had already registered herself as a resident so that she could vote as a local. I sent my CV to a congressman from Minnesota and received an enthusiastic response. He didn't care about my nationality, only about the fact that I had lived in the United States for several years and had experience working for local Democrats in elections.
Years after, via Beijing, I moved to another Chinese city to start my first job back home. One morning a policewoman, sensing I was a newcomer, shouted at me. "Where are you from? Did you rent this place or did you buy it? Are you on your own? How long are you staying?" Passively, I wrote down my name and identity card number. I was clearly a stranger in this city. In the suspicious eyes of the police offer, I didn't merit protection but instead appeared to be a local threat.
Certainly Americans aren't immune to issues of national origin. The continuous congressional disputes over immigration prove that. But putting aside high-level politics, American society generally welcomes outsiders to their communities. At least that's been my experience.
China is a country going through a tumultuous migration process. Can't we put aside the confrontational emotion of the local and non-local and just think out how we can bring about changes for the better where we live instead?
*This is one of a series of articles published by WeThinker, a chat room forum gathering like-minded people. The author studied at Macalester College and the London School of Economics.
**An earlier photograph on this article was mistakenly identified as Beijing.