Text / Tang Xiaoyou
With a typically dashing, handsome ABC face, the first time I “got to know” Zhou Siling (Travis) was during a video called 《本国卢瑟》(LBH-Loser Back Home). In this video, which has had over 650’000 views online, he uses quick, slightly accented Chinese to describe a strange issue that he sees occurring in China — having a green card has it’s advantages, but why do Chinese girls prefer these “foreigners”?
“I believe that using a comical style to express this makes it easier to attract people’s attention and for them to accept it.” On the day we met, Zhou Siling had just completed his Test of Chinese as a Foreign Language (TOCFL). When communicating with his Chinese friends, he insists on using Chinese, and he often can’t help but squeeze in some difficult words and phrases. However, even when speaking Chinese, his line of thought still has a somewhat “American taste”. “In America, serious political issues can be discussed jokingly on talk shows. I also use a light-hearted way to let people know about the things I observe.”
“I’m an ABC, I’m also a sandwich. I’m pressed between ‘East’ and ‘West’ cultures.”
Zhou Siling is a typical ABC. He was born in Hong Kong and grew up in America. In 1998 he graduated fromuniversity, after which he went to China for the first time. In 2012, before he started living in Shanghai, he could only speak Cantonese. He couldn’t read Chinese, let alone write it.
Zhou Siling doesn’t count as a “loser back home”. Although he isn’t extremely wealthy, after graduation he got a job at an IT company in Silicon Valley. After a successful venture he sold his company and came to China. He certainly would be considered as “promising youth”.
After coming to Shanghai, apart from participating in some projects as a freelance, Zhou Siling spends most of his time studying Chinese and writing scripts. Now 37, he has started a new career — a screenplay writer. “Loser Back Home” was an experimental work done in his leisure time.
“In the past, I hated the fact that I was ‘Chinese’.” Zhou Siling spoke this phrase in an articulate manner, rather unperturbed. Sitting right in front of him, this inevitably startled me. It turns out this man flaunting “I’m just going to China to take a look,” “hates China”.
“When I was little, my parents and I emigrated to America. At school, the white kids didn’t like me. I thought it was because I was Chinese, and so I hated myself for it.” Zhou Siling’s parents took root in America, and by means of very basic work provided for the whole family.
In 1998 he graduated from university, after which he went to China for the first time to travel. At the time, he still was “unable to love” China. He went to Beijing, Shanghai and even Hong Kong, during which he felt that everything “wasn’t that familiar”. However, it was by this trip that he was able to gradually comprehend and become aware: “There were many things about my parents that I didn’t get at first. I didn’t understand their practices and behaviour. It turned out that here held their origins and answers.”
In 2004, when Zhou Siling was 28, he stopped his work at hand and embarked on travelling the world for a year. This gap year enabled him to travel to many places and meet many people. He slowly began to realise, “The world really doesn’t have people who are unique to one country, or who have unique differences. The true distinctions are between the system of values, life outlook, attitude etc. of individuals.”
“After turning 28, I slowly started to realise that when I was small it wasn’t because I was Chinese that people didn’t like me, but instead because at that time my family was poor. My clothes weren’t the best, and I wasn’t really that likeable.” Zhou Siling added, “The issue doesn’t lie in one’s nationality, but rather in whether one is a good enough person, whether you are respected enough for people to engage you.”
“Fast approaching 40″, Zhou Siling began to study writing and screenplay again. He says this is something he personally enjoys. If it weren’t for his parents, perhaps he would have made this choice somewhat earlier.
“Life for the first generation of Chinese parents living in America for the most part really wasn’t that laid back. They slaved away to raise us, and so naturally wanted us to have a better and more stable life. The second generation of Chinese descendants in addition automatically redoubled their efforts.” Zhou Siling explained that this is also why the overwhelming majority of the later generations of Chinese living in America go for occupations such as lawyers, doctors and engineers. His brother is a doctor, and he himself majored in computing at university. The reason he entered a large company upon graduation was largely to “appease his parents”.
“My parents education and expectations were eastern. My environment and education I received from young age were western. As far as I’m concerned, I’ve existed between the east and west from the start, trying to find a balance. This is where I’m sandwiched.”
Over the next few years, Zhou Siling used his parent’s way of accepting things more easily to accumulate and diversify his career experience. Following this, he started to use his own way to broaden his horizons and delve into the things and lifestyle that interested him more.
“ABC”, “banana person”…… Zhou Siling doesn’t mind what kind of labels others use to distinguish him. That calm and collected attitude of “I am who I am” gives this handsome man an air of self-confidence, calmness and maturity.
Q: When did you start planning and making your video “Loser Back Home”? How long did you spend making it? Why did you want to make this kind of video?
A: I started making this video on the 6th of September, and finally released it in the same month on the 22nd.
The first time I got the idea for this video was about 10 months ago. At the time I realised there were many foreigners who had a false sense of eliteness after their arrival in China. This was especially true of the guys. They often used this to attract the attention of Chinese girls. What surprised me more was that those Americans in China were obsessed with acting like they were better than Chinese people. Consequently, I made this video to remind everyone that there’s actually nothing special about foreigners. They’re humans just like everyone else. They came to Shanghai to find a better opportunity, because waiting for one back home really isn’t that plain sailing.
Q: Are you pleased with the effect that the video has had? What were your goals and aspirations when making the video?
A: Yes, I’m extremely pleased with the effect that the video has had.
In the week after it was released, we had 600’000 views, primarily coming from the Chinese social networking website Renren. At the same time we received a warm reaction from Weibo. From everyone’s comments, it’s clear to see I’ve expressed what was on many people’s minds. Actually, my original aspiration was to coin the phrase “domestic loser”. This enables people to easily associate it with the current phenomenon of a “loser back home”. In addition to this, many people have found this video funny, so I’m very pleased with the effect it has had.
Q: Do you consider yourself to be a domestic loser? Originally, what made you come to China and Shanghai?
A: After more than a decade engaged in the IT and financial sectors, I came to Shanghai to break into China’s film market and learn Chinese. The reason I chose Shanghai was because my ancestors came from there. In fact, my parents often use the Shanghai dialect to converse.
In my first two months in China, I think I also acted like a “domestic loser”. However, I suddenly realised that actually there wasn’t any justification in me acting differently to everyone else. Since then, this notion has been deep rooted in my brain. Now, I’ll never act again like I’m someone else, because I no longer have the natural reaction that “foreign things are definitely of a high quality”, and thereby pretend that I’m better than others.
Q: Why do you think it is that this distinct craze of “worshipping all things foreign” exists in China? Is it like this elsewhere?
A: Foreigners get a lot of exposure in the media, for example in films and adverts. Therefore the people have a good impression of ordinary foreigners. I addition, since it hasn’t been long since China broke out of its relative poverty and simplicity, the perception of “good things” which has been handed down is perhaps that they all come from abroad. Today, I am happy to see the speed at which the mentality of the people has changed. I even came here.
Of course, there are a small number of foreigners here who are in fact more appealing than the average person. Advertising, branding and marketing in China is developing rapidly, especially in Shanghai, so naturally people involved in these areas are more attractive. Foreigners are very popular in these areas. They are indeed “on fire”. However, the vast majority of them are mere common folk back in their own countries.
I believe that many Chinese certainly don’t come into contact with foreigners in their daily lives, and so won’t be able to distinguish the different characteristics between them. Therefore, the blind consider that all foreigners are extraordinarily appealing. It’s ridiculous when an ordinary looking foreigner compares themselves to Brad Pitt or other celebrities.
A very similar phenomenon also occurs in the Chinese people in the United States. The large number of Chinese who emigrated to the United States in the past 50 years to satisfy the U.S. demand for good engineers and scientists has led to Americans believing that all Chinese are incredibly smart. In turn, they even provide good jobs in the science and technology sectors to ordinary Chinese people who aren’t good at math or science. This phenomenon has gradually become a self-fulfilling prophecy. It causes these Americans and Chinese to increase their efforts in order to meet what is expected of them.
Q: When did you first come to China? Which places did you go to? Why did you come to China? What was your impression of China at the time?
A: I arrived in Shanghai at the end of June, 2012.
After ten years of working in an IT company and trying out a venture in Silicon Valley, I came here to explore a field of work that requires more creativity — the film industry. My impression after just moving here was that China really wasn’t welcoming to me at all. I thought that people were very rude and impatient. They would often think about deceiving me, and would even ridicule me for not being able to speak Chinese. I suddenly realised; being a “foreigner” really is just the same as being an immigrant. I think there’s no difference between my plight and my parent’s when they emigrated to America. Americans also ridicule the Chinese that can’t speak English, also during which very course and aggressive language is used.
Now I can speak sentences fluently, and people’s attitude towards me is much better. From this I realise that it’s much easier to be a “foreigner” than it is to be an “immigrant”.
Q: When did you start studying Chinese? What level are you at now?
A: Before I came to China, I had studied basic Cantonese from my parents. However, I hadn’t studied Chinese before, so I was completely illiterate in it and couldn’t speak any Mandarin.
I studied Chinese in two stages; the first from July to September in 2012, and the next from June to October in 2013. During a period from September 2012 to May 2013, I travelled outside China, and so I wasn’t able to maintain a fixed study time. Therefore, I’ve only really studied for seven months. Currently, I’ve just passed levelfour of the Chinese Proficiency Test (HSK). I’m very pleased with my progress.
Q: Why do you want to persevere with Chinese?
A: There are two reasons. First, I’m Chinese. My parents were born in Shanghai, so I should be able to read. Second, China will become a strong force in world economics and politics. Therefore, being able to speak Chinese will be incredibly useful.
Q: You have mentioned that previously you hated being Chinese, why? At what point did you begin to feel this way? When did you start to change your mind?
A: In my youth, I didn’t like the fact I was Chinese. I grew up in the suburbs of Texas, where Asians occupy only a very small group. It made my experience as a youth different from that of others. Things aren’t easy when you’re associated with a poor country. In addition, every time my parents didn’t let me do the things that the other kids were able to, they would tell me (and themselves) that the reason for this was because I was Chinese and they were white. So naturally, I thought that China was bad because I was physically unable to do the things things they could.
However, shortly after graduating from high school, when I met more Chinese-Americans who had different experiences from me growing up, I started to change my mind. All the ideas and opinions I had as a Chinese kid were proven wrong. Furthermore, I started to visit Asia, especially China and Hong Kong. I tried to be more open-minded in order to appreciate the blend of cultures.
Like a sandwich, I was pressed between China and the United States. If I could integrate the two forces, then I would get a lot of exciting opportunities.
Q: What kind of people do you think your parents are? In your heart, what kind of people do you think the Chinese are? Are they both the same?
A: My parents say that they are Chinese, and I also regard them as Chinese. As far as I’m concerned, China is just like any other nation or community as it combines two things: the first is a mentality, the second is heredity and cultural heritage. My parents still follow Chinese customs and celebrate Chinese festivals. Most importantly, they prefer a Chinese system of values compared to an American one. In the last ten years, these two sets of values have become increasingly similar. When I was growing up thirty years ago, they were very different compared to what they are like now. My parents are more traditional compared to many modern Chinese parents.
Q: How do you define yourself as an ABC?
A: Er, I was born in Hong Kong, so strictly speaking, I’m not an ABC. People like direct labels, so when I have to be labelled, “ABC” and “Chinese-American” are the two I most approve of. When I’m in America, I consider myself as Chinese. It’s no different to black people considering themselves as “African Americans” despite them not living in Africa.
If possible, I prefer to say precisely: “A Hong Kong-Chinese who grew up in America”.
Q: What kind of wishes do your parents have for you? Furthermore, how do you communicate with them?
A: It’s an ongoing tug-of-war of choosing between being a dutiful Chinese son and being full of passion for the American dream. Of course, my parents prefer scientific undertakings, such as becoming a doctor, and so on. As a Chinese immigrant, the sacrifices I have made for my parents show that I’m incredibly thankful, and so realising their dreams is a very important part of my life. Over the years, the way they view the world’ development has become more judicious. They view the Chinese media as different from the American media. Through television, they have witnessed China’s rapid development.
We all know that the world isn’t black and white. For example, is Facebook an IT company or an entertainment company? My parents realised that what they once thought of as an unstable industry, full of people with problems, was one in which I actually could have a safe, happy and even better life. The true choice was that for my own safety and happiness, a natural lifestyle decides my outcome more than a career I engage in.
Q: When did you, and how did you realise that you were a “sandwich” of the East and West? How did you deal with this?
A: I realised that I was sandwiched between the East and West when I was in elementary school. Our family was not well integrated into local life in the suburbs of Texas in the 1980s. I was encouraged to have an American style of life at school, but this changed back to a Chinese style when at home. At that time, the vast majority of Chinese-Americans were eager to fully absorb American culture. In other words, they were trying to make themselves more white. Back then, my parents were persisting with their traditional Chinese thinking from the1960s, so I was always sandwiched between cutting-edge America and conservative China. I know many of my Chinese-American peers have experienced this.
In my case, I have already combined these two forces. This is a good thing. Actually, it’s a really good thing. It’s like the waves striking the beach as opposed to the dullness of the vastness of the ocean or dry land. What makes people excited and sigh at beauty is that when the waves lash at the cliffs, they permeate the sand in an instant. You can choose to run around on an island or sail a boat, or you can choose to surf.
One has to choose the right direction life. For example, diligent study is a long journey in life. At the same time, trying a new way of thinking will give you better creativity and artistic inspiration. In the beginning you have to be brave to take a chance. However, as soon as you find the right direction, there is nothing more effective than spending your time on hard work and discipline.
Q: Do your ABC friends have similar “sandwich” feeling?
A: Of course. Me and my ABC friends struggling in a “sandwich” predicament have endless things to say. The internal conflict in the vast majority of them comes from having no way to resolve the clash between their inherited values from their parents and the ideology that society throws out. As an ABC, we often encounter the disparitybetween Eastern and Western culture and the usual problem of the generation gap. I believe this is very similar to those born in the 1980s. They were in the vast environment of China receiving Western lines of thought at a time when it was advancing rapidly, and so were sandwiched between Eastern and Western culture and the usual generation gap.
Q: Do you have a plan for your next step? What aspects does it cover?
A: Oh, this really is a big problem. I have learned not to look too far ahead into the future, because we live in the moment. The immediate next step is to master script writing. There’s no better way to do this than to practise. At present, I’ve just finished a Chinese film, and I’m on the verge of starting to write an American one.
Translated by Marco Polo Project.