Chinese-Americans vs. American-Born Chinese

Why language matters.

Amanda Roberts , January 26, 2015 7:21pm

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).

In America, we don’t have a quite equal phrase, but we do have something similar, Chinese-American, used to identify American citizens of Chinese ethnicity. Every ethnicity in America can use a hyphenated identity if they wish (African-American, Indian-American, etc.). I’ve been wondering why China and America seem to have opposite views on identity, race, and nationality.

GRAMMAR TIME! In the phrase “American-born Chinese,” “American-born” is the adjective and “Chinese” is the noun. An adjective describes a noun and is typically unnecessary information. in the phrase “Chinese-American,” the ethnicity is the adjective and the nationality is the noun. So what is the difference?

To me, this shows a big difference in how Chinese and Americans emphasize race.

For Americans, the ethnicity is less important than the nationality. It doesn’t matter what your race is or where you are from, if you are an American citizen, you are an American.For Americans, the ethnicity is less important than the nationality. It doesn’t matter what your race is or where you are from, if you are an American citizen, you are an American. You can choose to hyphenate your ethnicity as a sign of respect to your heritage, but you don’t have to. The most important thing is that you are American,

In China, your ethnicity is more important than your nationality (though many Chinese also don’t see a difference between being ethnically Chinese and nationally Chinese). To many Chinese, no matter where you are from, where you were born, or where you may live, you are always Chinese first. Last year, during election season in the US, Chinese officials praised the increasing numbers of Chinese-Americans running in American political races because their success is China’s success (I scoured the Internet to find those articles, but I couldn’t find them anywhere! But I know I read them! If you know what articles I’m talking about, please link them in the comments).

This has made me wonder what our daughters will be. They will be born in China, but American citizens with American parents, but live in China. Will they be CBCA? Chinese-born Chinese-Americans?

What do you think? Are you an ABC or a Chinese-American? Does it matter? Am I over-thinking this?

Amanda Roberts

A writer and editor who has been living in China since 2010.