The Bad Handshake: My Experience with Cultural Passing

The first time I talked to my college advisor, I wasn’t nervous. At least, not at first.

“Hey there!” she beamed, extending a hand, “It’s so nice to meet you. I’m Prof. Smith.”

It took me a few seconds to realize that I was supposed to shake it. Grabbing her hand, I hoped she wouldn’t notice my slightly sweaty palms.

By the time I had settled into that movement, I noticed that everyone around me was staring at me, their friendly smiles frozen on their faces. What were they waiting for…?

“Oh! Sorry. I’m Xiaoxiao,” I said, chuckling nervously.

Everyone looked away again, relieved, but it was too late. I was already staring into the ground, my face flushing hotter than the humid New England summer.

I was freaking out–and not for the reasons I thought I would be.

Here’s the thing. When people meet me, they generally assume that I’m American. I speak without an accent, and I present as your average ABC (American Born Chinese) kid.

What they’re usually surprised to learn is that I’ve lived most of my life overseas in China. I moved with my family when I was nine. Unlike many kids who move abroad, I attended a local school for the first four years I was there and ended up absorbing the culture and language alike. So while I pass as American in America, I also pass as Chinese in China.

When I returned to America for the first time in ten years, I thought that attending college in America wouldn’t be a challenge for me at all. For all my cultural complications, I was still American enough. Plus, people here were supposed to be accepting and tolerant toward other cultures… weren’t they?

In a way, I was right. People seemed to read me as American, and they were very pleasant. But as I kept walking away from fumbled social interactions, shaking my head at myself, I realized that something wasn’t quite right.

That was the first time I realized the cultural differences at work between my two countries of origin. It was the first step in a long journey toward coming to terms with being at the crossroads between two cultures, one that will probably never end.

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