What I learned from China and a roll of toilet paper

I was sitting in the dining room of our West Los Angeles airbnb apartment when I noticed a roll of toilet paper on the dining table.

What the heck” was my first thought, and I proceeded to call out my Chinese husband on his “error”.

Why is the toilet paper in the dining room? We have paper towels, napkins, and tissue boxes…so why bring the toilet paper out of the toilet?

Return culture shock
By the second time I noticed this, it occurred to me that this was normal in China. Even though we bought tissue paper and paper towels, sometimes we would resort to toilet paper in the house. At many offices I worked, my colleagues had toilet paper in their desk drawers or placed on the pantry dining table. I’ve even seen college students bring out a huge roll of toilet paper from their jacket pockets to unroll enough for a sneeze while out walking.

All of this was pretty normal because toilet paper is more economical, you can buy it in bulk, and it’s a daily necessity. In comparison, you could go without tissue paper (Kleenex), paper napkins, and paper towels. Toilet paper is obviously a practical person’s go-to-paper.

Yet here I was, a few weeks back in the US, and already judging my husband for using toilet paper the “wrong” way. It’s one of those things that I used to think makes me feel more “civilized”, and now that we were back in the West, I felt a need to return to our old ways.

Dreadfully uncivilized
But, wait, why does it matter if toilet paper is on the dining table? The same reason why there are coffee and tea cups, coffee mugs, water glasses, glogi glasses, shot glasses, beer mugs, whiskey glasses, red wine glasses, champagne glasses, and the list goes on–capitalism.

If you use the wrong glass, you’re uncivilized. If you use the wrong fork, you’re uncivilized. If you use the wrong plate, you’re uncivilized.

…See where I’m going with this? There’s no practical purpose in these “rules”. If you learn about etiquette, you might learn of some convincing reason, like how the aroma of wine stays within the glass longer or enters your nostrils better, but is it practical? No, it just sounds fancy. You can drink wine from a plastic cup, the bottle, or even a barrel as many of us might’ve discovered in college.

Designating specific types of paper for different purposes is just like having a whole aisle for “liquid coffee creamers” at the supermarket (only in the US!). You don’t need such variety, but product designers and marketers will tell you you do in order to sell you more stuff.

Revolution a Privilege
We can look at China’s cultural revolution and shake our heads at her supposed backwardness, shaming the nation for its cultural loss. Or, we can look at China’s cultural revolution and recognize the revolution for what it is: a revolution.

In the West, there are cultural norms, rules that dictate what is civilized and what is not. If you’re uncivilized, you’re backward, uneducated, and even, savage. These are colonial terms that many still throw around to establish class differences. If you’re poor, you didn’t take etiquette classes as a child, and missed out on valuable lessons from your private tutor. Poor people are always uncivilized.

China in that sense is like a blank slate. Rich Chinese can be of any class, like the infamous tuhao. They have the power to revolutionize society on their terms, rather than follow the age old lead of the west, where they will never be revered as equals. Young Chinese are free to educate themselves and pick and choose their values and build their own cultural identity. Is this not enviable?

Maybe I can too. I took a piece of the toilet paper on the dining table and wiped my nose. Huh. Why was this a big deal again?

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A response to the claim that Americans don’t know the meaning of ABC (American-born Chinese)

Amanda Roberts published an article titled “Chinese Americans vs. American-born Chinese” in theNanfang.com where she begins with the claim:

If you’ve never been to China, you probably haven’t heard the term “American-Born Chinese.” It is a uniquely Chinese phrase used to identify people who live in China of Chinese ethnicity but were born abroad, often truncated as ABC (or BBC for British-born Chinese or CBC for Canadian-born Chinese, and so on).

Okay, Amanda Roberts…We clearly haven’t lived in the same parts of America.

Let’s start by what I agree with: yes, American-born Chinese are labeled ABC, Canadian-born Chinese CBC, etc. The semantics of Chinese American and American-born Chinese (hereafter, ABC) do indeed have different connotations. However. I cannot agree that in America, “it doesn’t matter what your race is or where you are from“. If anything, I would argue the opposite.

American-born Chinese vs. Fobs

The term ABC is used in the States by first generation Chinese-Americans and ABCs alike. It is not a “uniquely Chinese phrase“, as demonstrated by related phrases used by other ethnic subgroups, such as American-born Koreans (ABK), American-born Vietnamese (ABV).

What is the purpose of this term in America? Well, it is used to identify “native Americans” versus “naturalized Americans” (also known as immigrants). The ABC community would call them fobs, which stands for “fresh off the boat”. There’s a book and a whole TV series about this Chinese-American fob phenomenon, by the way (hint: it’s titled “Fresh off the Boat”).

Fresh off the boat tv show

Because of othering

If you’re part of the dominant culture (or you’re just white), let me break it down to a simple explanation:

In any society, there is a phenomenon called “othering“, which is when we create divides between us and “them”. “They” can be people of color, immigrants, the disabled, little people, fat people…and the list goes on! Anyone different than you and the community you identify with can be your “other”.

To “other” is associated with pride in your own group, dislike for another group, and social hierarchy.  Basically, you can only other people you believe are lower in the social hierarchy.

Stereotypically, Asian-Americans are othered by Caucasian Americans as an ethnic minority group. Asian-Americans will other Hispanic Americans, African Americans, Pacific Islanders, Indians (India is part of Asia), and even Southeast Asians.

Within the “AZN Pride” Asian American community, there are further divides between the different ethnic groups (Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean, Japanese, Philippine). There are even sub-divisions within the Chinese American group, such as Taiwan-ABC and Hong Kong-ABC (consider that the first Chinese Americans were from Guangzhou).

Then, there is othering within the country+ethnic group where second-third-fourth generation Chinese Americans will differentiate themselves from new immigrants,  fobs.

Fobs at the bottom of the pyramid

Fobs are stereotypically thought of as having non-native English abilities, to only speak their own language at home (not English), and to prefer the culture of their home country, such as the foods, music, movies, games, or even tv series. Fobs can graduate from their fob status by shedding their fobbish habits and preferences and adopting American culture, but it is unlikely that they will ever reach ABC status. Instead, ex-fobs might be called “half ABCs” if they immigrated in their teens or “near ABCs” if they immigrated at a younger age.

In summary, ABCs take pride that they were born and raised in the States and feel that they are thereby more American than fobs.

An excerpt from the graphic novel American born Chinese

Back to the semantics

Whle it is true that in the term “American-born Chinese”, American-born is the adjective describing Chinese (noun), and in Chinese American, “Chinese” is the adjective describing American (noun), I don’t agree that the nouns are emphasized. I believe the hyphenations used by multiple ethnic groups proves that racial othering is commonplace in America, and the label, ABC vs. FOB, is a product of said othering culture. Think about it: if we Americans truly didn’t care about race, we wouldn’t need any hyphenations!

China, on the other hand, is a country with little racial diversity and a dominant Han Chinese culture, so they don’t have anything to hyphenate.  If anything, ethnic minorities downplay their heritage to fit into the dominant culture.

Roberts is correct in stating that Chinese, due to their heavy emphasis on ancestry, believe essentially that once born Chinese, always Chinese. China has even created terms like “overseas Chinese” and a corresponding visa category to welcome “returnees” back at any time.  The US is an immigrant nation, so of course they wouldn’t have a similar outlook. However, it can still be argued that Americans emphasize their heritage and ancestry (ethnicity and race) just as much as the Chinese, albeit in each respective subculture.


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Where does the name “Suotmaa” come from?

Americans, a diverse group of people brought together by land, dreams, and a love of freedom (the constitution), are very sensitive to remarks on their race, ethnic heritage, or any question that undermines their national identity. When polite, they’ll refrain from asking you any questions, but sometimes they just have to know–you know? So they’ll covertly ask you about your name (unless you’re John Smith, in which case you’re just British) to find out your ethnicity, where you’re really from.

My name is Finnish

My Finnish dad told me that when he studied in the States, his name was always butchered. At some point, his name, Juha Suotmaa, was completely Americanized to “John Southman”. I have not had such an experience (yet), but that’s because my first name is generic enough for people to just drop my surname.

The Finnish language is not well known in the world and thus most cannot identify a Finnish word when they see it. It’s not a Constanza, Wu, Nhi, or Park. Often, people will look at my name, look at me, and guess Filipina, Malaysian, or even South American. They would never guess American, Taiwanese (Chinese), or Finnish.

Granted, our family name was not always Suotmaa. Before my grandfather had changed it, we belonged to the Suominen family tree. Although I don’t know the reasons behind the change, I do not mind our branching off, for to me our unique name signifies the rooting of a new family tree.

I could’ve been a Wang

Perhaps that’s also why I have yet to change my name after almost a decade of marriage. When we were married, I was still in college and feared all the paperwork the name change required. I worried it might postpone graduation, or that I wouldn’t receive my diploma in time. Since my husband is Chinese, he didn’t seem to mind that I kept my own name (it was barely a conversation), and every time I’ve brought it up he’s said I should just keep my unique name.

Today, I brand myself with my father’s name when just a few years ago I longed to blend in as “Jessica Wang”. Fitting in was one of the reasons I chose to study in California (when most of my friends went to England). I was tired of heads turning when I walked into a room, of random people speaking a random Asian language to me and expecting me to understand, and of having to explain my family background to every confused gaze. I thought, for sure, I wouldn’t ever have to do so among California’s diverse population.

Of course this was not entirely the case. Clearly, my childhood memories were rose-tinted. In college, I first ended up in international circles, and then befriended locals after I transferred to Los Angeles. I was a third culture child (TCK) disguised as an American born Chinese (ABC), an identity I perpetuated after we moved to Beijing in 2012.

When labels matter

In China, I learned that ABCs are a dime a dozen (just like in California), and most of them felt insecure, disrespected, and inadequate compared to the white expat “foreigners”. For many Chinese, foreigners have to look different to be foreign, and anyone of Chinese descent, regardless of upbringing, is simply an overseas Chinese person (huaqiao). Hence, my husband’s elevator pitch for me has always included: “she’s half-white. Her mother’s from Taiwan.” Years later, it finally dawned on me that my Chengdu-born husband was selling me better than I had been. He had understood what was unique about my brand, about me, better than I had.

Today, we might be back in Los Angeles, but I’m no longer pretending to be someone I’m not. I have no reason to blend in, and I don’t worry about what others might perceive me to be. When someone alludes to my heritage, I play dumb and keep them guessing. If you want to find out where I’m from, where I got my name, or who I am, just ask me. I don’t bite.

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