Culture, Gender & Identity, Life

I was an expat but I’ve always kept quiet about it

I tried to minimize multiple years spent abroad in order to fit in, but I didn't need to fit in at all. Now, I am proud to be an expat.

My family moved from the San Francisco Bay Area to Shanghai, China when I was 10-years-old. I spent five years of my life there. Yet, I never wanted to mention it. 

On my first day of school in Shanghai, I remember walking into my 5th grade classroom to an Australian woman with aggressively red hair. I was so nervous. But why wouldn’t I be? I was the new kid. Within the first five minutes, we had to say our names, where we are from and how long we had been in Shanghai. I learned a few things from that exercise. Firstly, international school is wild because there were kids from literally every continent in that single 25 person class. And secondly, half my class was new and there was nothing weird about it.

Throughout my five years in China, I had incredible experiences that I quite frankly took for granted. I truly thought these things were normal. My family traveled all over Asia so much so that I had to get pages added to my passport. I was the only girl on an all boys soccer team at a Chinese soccer school. Friends came and went every year and then moved somewhere even more special and remote than before. I traveled internationally for Model United Nations in middle school. And when I say these things to others they are very taken aback, because in the United States, that is not a normal childhood. But to an expat, it is.

Right before my freshman year in high school, I moved back to to the U.S. I moved back to the Bay Area expecting it to be just as different as I was. It was not. And different to being the new kid in China, I was one of two new kids in my graduating class of 600. Which meant that for the first month or two of school, I was a hot topic.

But after that excitement ended, I started to limit how much I talked about it, because I didn’t want to seem like I was bragging. I felt like it explained a lot about me: why I accidentally spoke Chinese in Spanish class (common for third language learners), my focus on designer clothes and who has them, my inability to care about small town life, my desire to move out of the small town, why I’ve been to so many Asian countries. I didn’t talk about it, because I was self conscious about the privilege.  I still feel that way. 

Fast forward to 2019 and I am a junior in college in a public speaking class through the school of communications, listening to speeches from my peers about “experiences that changed our lives.” I gave mine about a concussion, because, hey, it changed my brain and then my life. That, and I don’t like to write about the real thing I consider to be my biggest life changing experience.

But as I am listening to people, I hear this one voice begin to speak mandarin with what was clearly an American accent. I instantly felt like I knew him. He spoke about his time in Beijing, how his best friends are Danish and Kenyan, how he played baseball with kids who couldn’t speak English, and how he lived in a small complex with all the Americans. And he, too, felt displaced when he moved back to his original home in Boston.

I can’t even begin to tell you how many times I’ve tried to write about my time in China. Ever since high school, I actively try not to mention it, and if it comes up I try to minimize it. But it was and is so important to me. All of a sudden, because of this stranger, I knew I needed to start telling my story. 

If I don’t talk about China, I don’t get to talk about my ayi (auntie) Xiao Sun, who taught me how to make Chinese fried chicken and xiaolongbao (pot stickers). I don’t get to talk about her husband, my driver, Xian Yuen, who pulled me out of a crowd of Chinese people during the Moon Festival, or about going to the fake market to buy my first purse, or the flower market, or ballroom dancing in the middle of Fuxing park. These are the moments that made me who I am. I am so privileged to have experienced these things and I should be proud of it.

To my fellow expats: it’s time for us to talk about our experiences.

To everyone else: go to China, it will truly change your life.