Choptensils Short: Adventures in Hunxue’er-ness

April 19, 2010

I’m CRAZY busy these days – all with good, meaningful work, but I’m starting to think I’m trying to get my hands into a few too many pies here . . . So here’s a brief, off-the-top post to buy me some time ’til I can get back to the more time-intensive posts I’ve been meaning to get to.

So, yesterday I went shopping for a special souvenir (don’t want to identify it here, just in case the intended gift-receiver reads this), and it brought me to a cheap-market/shopping center. This is one of these markets here in Shanghai that’s full of knock-off clothes, shoes, luggage, belts, lighters, flashlights, lasers, faux-antiques, paintings, tailors, jewelry, watches, and a million other little random trinkets and cheap items geared towards the tourist-set (a one-stop shop for those who want to bring something home to the fam). (*1)

Anyway – I don’t really find myself in these kinds of areas here in Shanghai very often. There’s a very distinct "tourist-track" in Shanghai, and since I’m kind of in the "everyday living" track, I don’t go to those places. As a result, I don’t really get a whole lot of the "foreign treatment," anymore. Folks largely ignore me, or just don’t care too much about my "foreign-ness" (and, from time to time, they even buy me as Chinese).

So, walking into this shopping center was interesting for me, because I got to play the "foreign tourist" game. Sort of. Well. Let me just describe it:

I went in there with my cousin E (who is full-blood Chinese-American), who had just been in there purchasing a unit of the item in question for himself. As we’re walking through the first level, nobody really says anything to us. We hit the first elevator, and we get a few looks, a couple half-assed attempts (in Chinese) to get our attention, and we continue on. Up another elevator. Hit the third floor.

And suddenly, EVERYBODY gets lively. All the various salespeople (and their friends, just hanging out) start walking up to us, yelling out at us, trying to get us to look at their stuff. My cousin and I are in the middle of some conversation, though, so we largely ignore it.

Until we realize something . . .

Everybody is speaking JAPANESE to us.

Well – back that up. Because everybody is speaking Japanese to me. My cousin had just walked through that same area without me an hour or two before, and he had been ignored or spoken to in Chinese, because everybody just assumed he was local (which is how it normally goes for him). So all the Japanese was aimed at me. Not English. Not Chinese. Japanese.

Interesting. One look told them all I was obviously some sort of foreigner, but my hair was too dark, my eyes too brown, eyes angled enough . . . couldn’t be European or from the U.S. Must be Japanese. I have to say, I kind of enjoyed it (although, maybe that was an insult, since the Chinese still harbor a lot of enmity towards Japan).

Anyway. We get to the little shop where my target item was, and where my cousin had made friends with the lady running it, and we start chatting her up. She gave me even more of a discount than she gave my cousin (because he was her "good friend"), as promised, but she was so fun and lively, we just kind of lingered and talked with her more.

In the middle of the conversation (all in Mandarin, by the way), she turns to me and asks, "So what country are you from?" After all the Japanese, I’m feeling cheeky, so I tell her to guess.

She seems to ignore me, so I’m stuck thinking my Mandarin still sucks, and we continue to look over her ridiculously powerful lasers and flashlights that shine square beams of light.

And then she suddenly lights up and says to me, "You’re a hunxue’er (mixed-blood), right?" I respond with equal excitement and say, "Yeah! I am! Good guess. All those other people thought I was Japanese . . ." And I liked this lady even more than I had before.

I can’t explain it. This shouldn’t be such a big deal to me. Why was I so very excited about this lady guessing that I was mixed? I don’t really know. Maybe it’s something to do with being so consciously "in the middle" out here – in between those two worlds that my blood represents. I’m no longer just "American." I’m still not (and never will be) "Chinese." And I’m fine with that. It kind of feels right. It doesn’t bother me in any sort of conscious way.

But then some random lady pegs me as hunxue’er, and I can’t stop thinking about it. I’ve explained that to people a million times out here, but so few have guessed it (nobody in a number of months, for sure). I don’t know . . . it’s just nice to be acknowledged, yeah? To find somebody – in an unexpected place – ready to validate my personal identity and existence.

I know I’m making too big of a deal of this. I’ll forget about it by the end of the month.

But – for right now – I feel good about it. And I think that I’ll just let myself have that.

(*1) I should note that, in China, the vast majority of tourists are Chinese folks from other parts of the country. It seems obvious, when you think of it, but most people just assume "tourist" outside of the U.S. means "foreigners" (of course, there are also a ton of foreign tourists that hit up these markets, as well).



  1. What a win for you! There is nothing better than feeling validated. And I disagree with you about making a big deal out of it….for mixed people who have to constantly justify or prove their “asianess” it’s a huge deal.

  2. Same thing happened to me when I was backpacking thru Asia years ago. Because I was an obvious Asian looking tourist with the clothes I wore, mannerisms, etc., they first asked if I was Japanese. When I said no, they then asked me if was ‘mixed’ & then asked if my father was White and my mother Asian. Interestingly, I never had anyone ask the reverse: if my father was Asian and my mother White.

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