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Exploring Family Roots and Exotification in China

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I have always wanted to come to China. Listening to the stories my grandfather told about his childhood here and wondering about the ones he didn’t share, I felt I owed it to my blood to try and understand some of Chinese culture. What did my Grandpa feel on his way to the Philippines and then the States? What was he leaving behind? 

Despite my long, ongoing attempt to learn Chinese, and my curiosity, coming to China was a hard decision. I might technically be one-quarter Chinese, but since my Grandpa came to the States by himself, he could not hold on to much that made him Chinese. Further, I don’t look Chinese, so I can’t speak to the Chinese American experience, much less the Chinese experience. Ultimately, I didn’t want to take something from China that didn’t belong to me, as so many white men before me have. 

With my position in mind, I have been excited to learn what I can while being as respectful as possible. Truth be told, nothing has been more special than spending time with my great uncle and distant cousins. I have never felt so welcomed and loved by people I’d barely met and struggled to communicate with. I’ve also been fortunate enough to have a homestay with a truly lovely family. My host mother, father, and little brother have taken great care of me, and I’d be lying if I said I don’t look forward to playing with my little brother whenever possible! 

Being so welcomed here has been lovely, but no place is all one thing, and China is rich with many things, complexity included. Being a foreigner in China has kept me explicitly aware of my privileges on domestic and global levels. As someone who doesn’t look Chinese and has white skin, I am privy to a host of privileges, from a door held open to extra wiggle room at security checkpoints. 

One of the most important take-aways is the feeling of being exotified. Even in Shanghai, foreigners draw the occasional stare or children’s whispers. So far, it has been in good humor, and out of admiration not animosity. However, it gives me a lot of perspective.  

In the States I may not be exotified, but people who share my Chinese heritage certainly are, not to mention every other ethnic group under the sun that isn’t white, even indigenous folk who have more right to the country than anyone else. If exotification based in admiration prevents me from feeling l belong in a foreign country, exotification based in animosity in your own country is all the more terrible. This trip has served as an important reminder of that. 

Living in China has been a wonderful opportunity to learn about the country, my family, and myself, while also improving my understanding of the world. I have been lucky enough to meet my relatives and ask myself important questions about the ethics of travel and the implications of furthering the globalization’s nasty reach. 

—Tommaso W. (Colby College), IFSA Study in Shanghai: Public Health