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Identity

I went back to where I ‘came from’

Aug 01, 2019

In the past month, Donald Trump’s tirades against Congressional members of color have sparked discussion of an oft-heard refrain among immigrants and children of immigrants: “Go back to where you came from.”

As a child of immigrants from China, I’ve always felt the sting of the line. I can’t recall if I’ve actually heard it—if I have, I must have blocked it from memory—but I’ve always felt its essence in the cold stares my family would get at roadside diners and the distance that seemed to separate me and my white coworkers.

No one had to tell me to go back to where I came from. I already knew I didn’t belong.

Those seven words hurt, but the irony is that having moved to Asia for work, I have nonetheless “gone back”—and the truth is I’ve never felt more like myself.

I was born in the States, but my family is from Guangzhou. Four years ago, I moved to Korea, and now I live in Hong Kong. I’m not from any of these places, but I’ve nonetheless made them my home.

The irony is that having moved to Asia for work, I have nonetheless “gone back”—and the truth is I’ve never felt more like myself.

There’s an analogous history to this. In America, there is a tradition of black writers leaving the United States for Paris.

The author Richard Wright, who grew up in Mississippi and came of age in Chicago, moved to the French city in 1946 and died there as a permanent expatriate.

His younger contemporary James Baldwin, the eminent gay black intellectual born and raised in Harlem, fled the discrimination of the States for the City of Lights in 1948, at the young age of 24.

James Baldwin fled the discrimination of the States for Paris in 1948.
James Baldwin fled the discrimination of the States for Paris in 1948. / Photo: AP

And in 2015, at the height of his career, Baltimore-born Ta-Nehisi Coates, deemed the literary heir to Baldwin, himself moved to Paris after years of pointedly writing on race relations in the United States.

The thread that runs through all three writers is this: seeking distance from the racial discord of America and the suffocating toll it took on their work—and their creative minds—they moved to Paris, where, as Baldwin once said, they could pursue their own vision of themselves, free from the American institutions that limited their identity.

“I think my exile saved my life,” Baldwin wrote in Esquire in 1961, “for it inexorably confirmed something which Americans appear to have great difficulty accepting. Which is, simply, this: a man is not a man until he’s able and willing to accept his own vision of the world, no matter how radically this vision departs from that of others.”

In other words, the French gave Baldwin the gift of ignoring him and allowing him to simply be.

In other words, the French gave Baldwin the gift of ignoring him and allowing him to simply be.

Coates, when he was living in Paris, felt the same. “When I talk to people here, the first thing they sense is about [my] Americanness,” he told The Financial Times. “That’s the mask I have on for them. It’s an incredible experience. This is the first place I’ve been where I felt people saw something different.”

His time in Paris allowed Coates the space to produce a different rendering of himself. In a New York Magazine piece, the writer said, in French, “My wife tells me that when I am in France, I am a different person. Very extroverted, very nice. Just different.”

I bring up these black intellectuals because their writings on self-imposed exile resonate with me as a Chinese-American living in Asia.

(Read more: Why I love—and hate—mainland China)

When I moved here, I wanted to escape the unavoidable consciousness of being Asian in America, a consciousness that had a profound effect on the person I became, but was also an obstacle to the kind of person I could become.

If the aspiration of many immigrants and children of immigrants is to be accepted as Americans, I’ve received nothing but that in Asia, where it is my Americanness which stands out. That, in turn, has given me room to breathe and pursue a vision of myself that might never have been possible in the United States.

The sad and painful premise of this story is that I had to travel thousands of miles away from my actual home just to feel comfortable in my own skin.

The sad and painful premise of this story is that I had to travel thousands of miles away from my actual home just to feel comfortable in my own skin. But ultimately, I’ve never felt a greater sense of confidence and optimism for who I can be as a journalist and writer than being in newsrooms surrounded by peers who understand my experience.

The Goldthread team.
The Goldthread team.

I came by choice—which I recognize most people don’t have—but I always find myself wondering whether that choice was an antidote to the stinging pain of “go back to where you came from,” a sort of “F you” to all the folks who thought I wouldn’t.

And with the recent furor over Trump’s tweets, I once again find myself asking what to make of “go back to where you came from.” Because I took it literally and have never looked back since.

When I first visited China many years ago, people would ask why I “came back,” and I would correct them without even trying to hide my annoyance.

I don’t do that anymore.

Personal essayChinese-Americans