Who Am I? – From Tao Yue

About the author:

Tao pictureTao Yue was born in Shanghai in 1976. She took a B.A. in English language and literature at Fudan University and an M.A. in social sciences (cum laude) at the University of Amsterdam. Between university studies she was an editor and journalist in Shanghai and is now an independent intercultural consultant and a case writer at the Rotterdam School of Management.

Tao publishes regularly in English- and Chinese language newspapers, magazines, and multimedia. A selection of her publications is available at http://www.china-cultural-consultancy.com/publications

Red Cricket is her first novel. The Chinese original appeared on the mainland with Huacheng Publishing House in 2012. She is now at work on a second novel about Chinese who come to Europe in search of freedom but rediscover themselves and their heritage through disillusion. Tao lives with her husband and their son in Amsterdam.

Who Am I?

This is a question for everyone that has troubled me all my life. I have loving parents and had what most would consider a happy childhood, but I published a novel about an orphan in search of her biological parents and the secrets of their liaison.* This is no coincidence . . .

Who am I? Intercultural researchers will tell you that Chinese people define who they are by their relations with others—I’m the daughter of so-and-so, the wife of so-and-so, the mother of so-and so—whereas Western people define who they are by their inner attributes—I’m an artistic person with a big heart and, unfortunately, an ego to match . . .

As a Chinese living in the West for almost 13 years now, I am constantly torn between the relationship-oriented me and the self-oriented me. On the one hand, I cannot ignore how others see and accept me, especially those I hold dear. On the other, I feel the urge to be my true self, even at the cost of disappointing those I love.

At first I thought my inner conflict owed to a “clash of civilizations” between China and the West—it is not easy for someone raised in a familistic culture to be thrown into an individualistic one. But over the years I gradually realized that the conflict was not so much in the cultures as it was in me.

Thinking back, I realize I already lived double identities as a child. My parents are from Shanghai and Beijing—two distant and equally arrogant cultures. Growing up in Shanghai, I felt like an outcast because my accent was not pure and my skin was not fair—yes, a real Shanghai girl should look like a porcelain doll with delicate features. But when visiting Beijing (my real home I then felt) I was treated like an exotic guest and asked all kinds of odd questions.

This is where my sense of alienation originates, and it never went away. By my early teens, the problem was inability to identify with my family. I recall lying in bed one night and thinking to myself about the kind of life I wished to live in the future. Only one thing was certain—I did not want my parents’ life. They were both engineers working for a state-run enterprise—an excellent job by the standards of the time. But seeing how secure, routine, and boring their life was, I swore off a career in engineering, government, or big organization.

I kept my promise to myself and defied my parents by studying liberal arts at university instead of finance like all my cousins. I defied them again by turning down a high-paying director’s assistant job at a bank for a low-paying editor’s job at a publisher. I defied them yet again by going abroad instead of making a family and career at home. But the war came when I announced I would marry an American who did not speak Chinese. They threatened to disown me and even feigned a heart attack. I was consumed with guilt but would not give in.

The American shared my alienation. Having lived in Europe most of his adult life, he felt neither Europe nor US was his home; he had long sworn off ever working in big business the way his parents did; and, like me, he scorned bourgeois conventions. The two aliens got married wearing blue jeans in a third country—it was a civil ceremony: no music, no champagne, no flowers, no photos, no banquet: a horrific wedding in Chinese eyes but liberating for me and my husband. For the first time in my life I felt that love can be free and that there was no need for the self-oriented me to fight the other-oriented me in order to find the real me. Three years later we conceived a child—not by design but by accident—who is growing up speaking three languages and who started asking “Who am I?” at age three. We expect he will become as alienated as we are. But is that misfortune or good fortune? I’m not sure anymore.

I used to resent alienation from my family, my school, my home city, my mother country, my host country: I always lived on the periphery and never knew what it felt like to be in the mainstream. That bothered me a lot: how much I wanted to live like others and belong! I tried moving from place to place, from group to group; but wherever I went the feeling of alienation stayed with me. Then I realized it had nothing to do with my social environment—it was me: I belong nowhere and everywhere, this is just who I am.

Is it really so bad? Most people do not have the privilege of staying free from convention and being true to themselves. But many creative people do. Take Ang Lee, a world-renowned Chinese director with the manners of a perfect Confucian gentleman. In his memoir, he says he is an outsider wherever he goes but the further away from home he gets, the more creative he becomes. In the end, not belonging is not such a bad thing—it is a gift few people have and even fewer can live comfortably with but one that encourages sensitivity, sobriety, strength, and acuity.

* The novel Red Cricket appeared in China in 2012; an idiomatic English translation is available but awaits publication. If you are interested, please get in touch (info@china-cultural-consultancy.com).