On Being an American in China Today

posted in: Culture Stress | 4

This is a post with lots of questions and few answers.  I hope that you will explore the questions with me, and have a sense of the complexities of living overseas.



I have noticed lately that often when I tell Chinese people I am from the United States, they are very excited.  They tell me it is a great country, they really like it.  I am not exactly sure what it is that makes the U.S. so great in (at least some) Chinese people’s eyes right now.  I don’t remember getting this reaction when I was here before.  I always feel awkward when I get this response.  What do I say?  There are great things about America, and there are some pretty awful things about America.  I am thankful to be an American, but particularly after living abroad I also have many misgivings, so I hold my patriotism lightly.  What kind of privilege does being an American give me, living in Beijing?  It gives a lot of privilege that I’m still figuring out.  Granted, there are vulnerabilities to being American, but the privilege outweighs them, overall.


Today I learned the word 难过 (nan guo) in class.  It means “to feel sad” or “to feel grieved.”  That is how I feel towards the United States today.  I look at my Facebook feed.  I browse through the news stories.  I am in shock (which I shouldn’t be) at the depth of turmoil in my country, at “home.”  I am grieved that we have such a broken system that consistently devalues some people and that I benefit from that system.  And what am I going to say to the next person who tells me the U.S. is a great country?


I feel so far away.  A major national event is happening that I know will shape American consciousness.  But it will shape mine in a different way.  This is the first such event (I think) since I’ve returned to China, and I am sure it will not be the last.  At the moment it also makes me wonder what it will be like to return to the U.S. and how out of step I will be.  I’ve been shaped by “APEC blue” and my peers have been shaped by Ferguson.  Perhaps this is part of being an American that I need to give up as I become part of this culture.  I am just going to be different from everyone else, neither fully Chinese nor fully American.


In the midst of my questions and uncertainties, in the midst of being 难过 (nan guo), the song on my lips and the prayer in my heart is a song from Brazil, called “Pelas dores deste mundo/For the Troubles”:

For the troubles and the sufferings of the world,

God, we call upon your mercy;

the whole creation’s laboring in pain!

We pray for peace,

the blessed peace that comes from making justice,

to cover and embrace us.

…Kyrie eleison.

You can listen to this song here.  You can find the complete words and music in Lift Up Your Hearts, #663.

4 Responses

  1. Mary Voss

    Hi Ruth, I wonder what news sources you are listening to that only focus on the negative about America. There are many many positive things going on that never make the news. It’s only the riots and the sensational news that many broadcasters focus on. Don’t be discouraged.

    I sure admire you for learning Chinese. It seems very difficult to learn. And they talk so fast.
    Then the 450+ characters instead of our 26. A lot to learn.
    We are amazed at the technology that is available to them. They are on their phones constantly talking to family and friends in China. They have a special app that let’s them talk on their I phones through the web at no cost. Are you familiar with that?

    Best wishes and stay healthy! – Mary Voss

    • Ruth

      Mary, I wrote and posted this on the day that the decision in Ferguson was announced. That day in particular was very discouraging. I do know there are many good things happening and many people working for peace and justice.

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