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How to Know Hong Kong and Macau

Roberto Ignacio Diaz, Dominic Cheung, Ana Paulina Lee, Authors

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Questions of return

Relationships between China and the United States have gradually improved since the 1980s, allowing more recent overseas Chinese to maintain existing ties with relatives in China. But for many overseas Chinese with limited personal knowledge of China - perhaps they are second, third, or even fourth generation Americans; or Chinese or American politics restricted any transnational relationships; or they simply do not travel to China; or any other reason - it may be more useful to describe the renewal of such ties as a reconstruction (or simply as a construction). From fragments of knowledge about China and its culture and society, overseas Chinese can imagine a place called China to which they can travel.

But what motivates overseas Chinese interest in China? The most immediate answer is often simply because the overseas Chinese individual is "Chinese." In the context of the United States, the Otherization of Chinese immigrants conflates race and nationality, painting Chinese Americans (as well as other racialized minority groups) as permanent foreigners. An individual of Chinese descent - or of Indian descent, of Salvadorian descent, and so on - is expected to have knowledge of the country of their "origin."

A similar idea of race and nation furthermore exists in China, which the government uses to encourage overseas Chinese ties with the "homeland." For years the principle of jus sanguinus determined Chinese nationality, and today the Communist Party continues to hold expectations of overseas Chinese. Even in 1957, as the PRC discouraged overseas Chinese intervention in China, it established the Overseas Travel and Service Agency with 35 branches throughout the country. The Agency could make arrangements for visitors to be accompanied by interpreters and by relatives from the visitor's family village, thus facilitating travel and investment for overseas Chinese and inviting them to maintain kinship relationships.1

In the 1980s, the PRC began establishing large-scale roots-seeking programs for overseas Chinese youth. The In Search of Roots program in San Francisco, for instance, has been bringing Chinese American youth to their ancestral villages every summer since 1991. In her analysis of the In Search of Roots program and other roots-seeking programs, anthropologist Andrea Louie writes that "racialized and territorialized conceptions of Chineseness form the primary building blocks for [Chinese] state productions of cultural citizenship that define the boundaries of nation through both inclusion and exlcusion."2 In spite of cultural or linguistic differences among overseas Chinese, the PRC nonetheless ties ideas of land and race (specifically, having "black hair and yellow skin"3) to an imagined national entity.

Despite official policies distinguishing between Chinese nationals overseas (huaqiao, 華僑) and overseas Chinese (huayi, 華裔), national rhetoric still claims overseas Chinese. In a USC meeting with Jiang Yu, the Foreign Ministry Spokesperson for the PRC, Jiang described the PRC's hopes that overseas Chinese would "merge themselves into the community to contribute to China's social and economic development." Such statements reflect ideas about overseas responsibility toward an ancestral homeland.4

The processes of American Otherization and Chinese cultural nationalism thus work together to urge overseas Chinese to "connect" with their ancestral heritage. Roots-seeking organizations supported by Chinese American societies argue that they enable youth to maintain their roots and find their identities. In Search of Roots's founders, Albert Cheng and Him Mark Lai, write that "by means of the ‘In Search of Roots’ program, Chinese Americans can renew their heritage and become strangers no more."5 Rather than being "lost" between cultures, these youth can develop uniquely "Chinese-American" identities.

Yet while heritage tourists may view their activities as a reclamation or discovery of personal identity, China's cultivation of roots-seeking activities and its poiltical-economic relationships with overseas Chinese complicate what may be an otherwise innocent journey. The desires of the heritage tourist - tinged with both the exoticism of the East and a nostalgia for belonging - may not meet the realities and expectations of the "ancestral homeland."

2Andrea Louie, Chineseness across Borders (Durham: Duke University Press, 2004), 23. The In Search of Roots program is jointly sponsored by the Chinese Culture Center and the Chinese Historical Society of America, two Chinese American organizations, and the PRC's Office of Overseas Chinese Affairs.
3Louie, 15.
4Jiang Yu, meeting with USC Colt 499: Travel and Culture in Hong Kong and Macau, Office of the Commissioner of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People's  Republic of China in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, May 31, 2013.
5Albert Cheng and Him Mark Lai, "'In Search of Roots' Program: Constructing Identity Through Family History Research and A Journey to Ancestral Land,", accessed April 25, 2012, link, 10.
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