Before moving to North Carolina, Kaiser lived in Beijing for 20 years — he played in rock bands and became a Quora Top Writer, among other things — which means he’s seen more than a few handfuls of people come and go. That made him particularly suited to answer this question, originally posted on June 2, 2015:
What is some good advice for an ABC visiting China for the first time?
[Editor’s Note: As one commenter points out, a lot of this advice is applicable to anyone visiting China, not just American-born Chinese. Why was this question directed at ABCs?] [Kaiser: No idea, I didn’t ask the question. And yes, a lot of it is applicable to anyone, though there are some specifically ABC things in there.]
Kaiser: Be a good sport. Strange things will happen, and the best approach is just to roll with it and have a good time. Greet those bizarre experiences with a smile and remember what a great story it’s all going to make when you get home. It’s a little like improv: The answer should (almost) always be yes. [Kaiser: You know, eating unusual food, graciously participating in embarrassing work retreat games or cheesy wedding rituals.]
Write. Doesn’t matter if it’s just emails home to your friends, social media posts, or journal entries. At your age, you’re incredibly impressionable and so capable of taking things in. Failing to keep some kind of record of what you see and experience, the people you meet and the conversations you have, would be a real pity. Quora’s not blocked in China, so at the very least, keep a Quora blog!
Don’t exaggerate your ABCness the way I’ve seen many people do — taking on an even more American body language, deliberately speaking loudly in English to make sure people hear that you’re accent-free in the expectation of better treatment. And don’t expect to receive special treatment just because you’re an ABC.
Avoid being petty, petulant, or whiny. Try to avoid negative people and complainers. Be humble and resist the temptation to make comparisons constantly. Every time you realize how far China still has to go, also remember how far along things have come. To get a sense of this, check out videos of what China was like in the early 1980s, during the first stirrings of reform and opening. [Editor: You were here for that. What was it like?] [Kaiser: I was in China in 1981, so at the dawn of reform and opening, and that would fill a book.]
Be forgiving of people who don’t quite get that you weren’t brought up in a wholly Chinese context, and who may have expectations of your Chinese language ability or your familiarity with the culture that you can’t possibly live up to.
Don’t be one of those jerks who seeks to ingratiate him or herself with Chinese relatives, acquaintances, and would-be hookups by breathless praising of all things Chinese. Sycophancy is as disagreeable a tendency as condescension or arrogance.
Before you go, read up a fair bit on the history/politics/economics of China, and study up a bit on the geography. On contemporary China, I recommend Damien Ma and William Adams, In Line Behind a Billion People. And to get a sense of the historical experience, a readable-length book is Orville Schell and John DeLury, Wealth and Power. If you have more time, Evan Osnos’s National Book Award-winning The Age of Ambition is another good one. And if you’re really looking for some great enjoyable reads on China, Peter Hessler’s books (especially River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze and Country Driving) are some reads I’d highly recommend. [Editor: And remember: it’s a cliché now to hate on Hessler. A very particular strain of expat sentiment that went around, for a while, was that Hessler was merely at the right place at the right time; people would say about River Town, “I could do that.”] [Kaiser: And exactly none of them actually have.]
Exploit the fact that you do have exposure to Chinese culture, and that you’re in the enviable position of being able, through your innate powers of empathy, to inhabit two worlds if you so choose. (You should so choose: It isn’t always easy, but it’s insanely rewarding.) [Kaiser: It’s rewarding, yes, but also very challenging. And I recognize that while most ABCs are able to muster a kind of emotional empathy, it takes some work to be able to develop cognitive empathy, which is ultimately much more useful.]