05/14/2012 11:54 am ET Updated Jul 14, 2012

Americanese: In Between the Gaps

At the turn of twentieth century's last decade, large numbers of Chinese students immigrated to study in Europe and the United States. The dust of Tiananmen Square had just settled. Surprisingly in response, both Chinese and Western governments dramatically loosened restrictions on educational exchange. The Chinese government wanted to send hormonal-driven students overseas in order to reduce political discontent. The western governments were in the early stages of testing ideas that would later crystallize into a theory known as "Brain Gain."

In 1991, there were less than ten thousand international Chinese students in the US. A year later, the number nearly doubled to twenty thousand. Since then, the number of international students in the U.S. has only multiplied. There are currently over 160,000 international Chinese students seeking some kind of educational degree in the United States. That's over sixteen times what it was twenty years ago. The number doesn't even include Chinese students who are U.S. permanent residents or green card holders.

My mother was part of the earlier waves emigrating out of China in 1993. We went to Germany in the search of an overseas education. In 1999, our family of three immigrated to the United States and has since then proudly called Cleveland home.

Over the past decade, I have settled comfortably into my identity as a Chinese-American. I have always thought that it meant I could be both Chinese and American. I have since found that is not completely true. Chinese-American is a separate identity by itself. It indicates someone who is American with physical Chinese features. It is neither completely American, and nor is it purely Chinese.

My parents and I have tried desperately to retain our Chinese roots. At home, we speak Chinglish (Chinese + English) and eat home-cooked traditional Chinese meals. We once even bought a three-foot satellite in an attempt to watch Chinese television directly broadcasted from CCTV.

As a result, I am able to speak Mandarin with barely a detectable accent and for all intents and purposes sound like a native Chinese person. But unless it is on a resume or I am trying to impress someone, I wouldn't call it fluent. My abilities to navigate Chinese society are quite literally at the level of a Chinese third-grade elementary student. I can read and understand the gist of a newspaper article without recognizing every character. I can also write a simple correspondence given that I can look up every other word on a dictionary. If someone were to ask me to name the ancient Chinese dynasties chronologically, I'll be sure to mix up the order and leave a few out.

Despite this I have always thought that if I were to move back to China, I will be able to survive and eventually become accustomed to the lifestyle. I have never been concerned with the seemingly small blemishes in my Chinese education. They really didn't matter in day-to-day experiences. I have always blended in every time that I visited my grandparents in China.

I soon realized that just blending-in was not enough.

Recently, I had the opportunity to attend a week-long academic exchange fully sponsored by Duke and Peking University concerning the challenges to higher education in the U.S. and China. I was one of nine Duke students who presented an original thesis concerning a specific challenge that is facing U.S. higher education. One of the things that I noticed on the trip is that whenever I wear a tank top and shorts, people walking pass would look at me suspiciously. Men would look at me with lurid expressions, and women with disdain. At first, I thought it was just my imagination. Then a fellow Chinese-American student informed me that it was because tank tops and shorts are what prostitutes wear on the streets at night.

Why didn't I think of that?

The students from Peking University would never characterize me as truly Chinese. At most, I am just an American-wannabe who has lost my Chinese roots. I am not Chinese enough, but neither am I truly foreign.

And so wouldn't my fellow Duke classmates consider me as American. I can speak Mandarin and have no trouble eating the various strange delicacies that is presented during dinner. Chinese-Americans are usually considered by many as those born in American and can no longer speak Mandarin fluently. Since I was born in China and can at least pretend fluency in Mandarin, I am not really Chinese-American either.

In modern American society, there are two mainstream terms available to describe people of Chinese ancestry. You can either be Chinese-American or international Chinese. Chinese-American means that you're American in every sense of the word, but just has Chinese physical appearance. International Chinese means that you're Chinese, but just happens to live or study in America for a limited amount of time.

I am stuck in the middle and do not belong completely to either.

When my parents first moved to Germany, the concept of Chinese-Germans didn't exist. The term is only slowly starting to emerge in the past decade as more and more Chinese nationals obtain German citizenship.

As more and more international students from all over the world come to the U.S. and become immersed in American culture, perhaps a term like Americanized Chinese or Americanese can also emerge to indicate an identity that is not completely Chinese or quite Chinese-American.

Until that day, I would like to ask for your honest opinion: if you were in a similar position, had to choose between a nationality and Something-American, which one would you choose and why?