Aug
2
2009

Being Chinese

It’s the Asian American equivalent of a white person being called a Jew. My friends and I say it all the time.

“Oh man, you’re being so Chinese,” they’ll say. And they’re Chinese too.

This is often in reference to an act of ridiculous frugality. Being Chinese means being cheap.

Buying old bread from the bakery because it’s cheaper and warming it up in the microwave or toaster to make it “just as good as fresh”? That’s being Chinese.

Using a scissor to cut open a tube of toothpaste so you can use up every ounce? That’s being Chinese.

Adding water to milk to make it last longer? That’s being Chinese.

Okay, that last one was a rip from Russell Peters. He argues that Indians are even cheaper than Jews and Chinese. And admittedly, adding water to milk IS pretty damn cheap. And gross. Yuck. Maybe he’s right.

But everything else, that’s being Chinese.

This makes me wonder. How did this metaphor originate? Where did it come from? Why does it perpetuate?

Is it because Chinese food is cheap (inexpensive), so by extension, being Chinese means being cheap & inexpensive?

Is it because Chinese imports are cheap (low quality), so by extension, being Chinese means being cheap & of low quality?

Or is it because a representative number of Chinese people are cheap (frugal), so by extension, being Chinese means being cheap & frugal?

My guess is the last one, though I know some rather financially careless Chinese people too. But if you ask a random sampling of Asian Americans, you will generally hear them say that their Chinese friends are the cheapest and most frugal of the bunch. Hardly a scientific poll, I know.

So many questions, so many possibilities. I’d sit here and think about them all, but I have to shut my laptop down now because I don’t want to pay for the extra power. After all, I’m Chinese.

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  • Ava

    If I had to guess, I would imagine that the metaphor probably comes from the late 1800s/early 1900s when Chinese first immigrated to the US. They worked very manual labor jobs, for little pay and high discrimination. They had little to live on and had to work to stretch their penny to the limit. Perhaps that just carried over.

    Again, wild guess here. My theory gets all blown to hell if these are attributed to non-immigrant Chinese

  • http://www.mikelee.org Mike Lee

    That’s a good theory too! Maybe it started out with immigrant Chinese, than has been assimilated to all Chinese living in the US. I wonder if this metaphor is used overseas too.

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