Two sides to the story

Updated: 2011-09-23 09:12

By Zhang Xi (China Daily)

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 Two sides to the story
Despite her youth, Charlotte MacInnis is an "old China hand" and hosts a Chinese TV show. Zhang Xi / China Daily

TV presenter talks of the challenge of being classed a 'weird white girl in China'

When you deal with Charlotte MacInnis you get two cultures for the price of one. MacInnis lives a hybrid existence in which one minute she can be Chinese and the next minute American, having been born in Michigan but spending almost two-thirds of her 30 years in China.

It is clear that a Chinese influence runs thick in her veins, and when you look back at her family history it becomes clearer why.

Charlotte's father, Peter, was born in China, and his father, Donald, was once stationed in the country as a member of the Flying Tigers, a formidable group of volunteer fighter pilots who helped China fight the Japanese invasion.

Though both eventually returned to the US, their love for China endured. Donald volunteered to be an English teacher in a university in southern China at the age of 84, and his son took Chinese classes at Harvard University; where he met his future wife, Elyn, who was also a Sinophile.

The MacInnises, with Charlotte, 7, and her sister Mika 9, in tow, came to China in 1988 when Peter came here to pursue his career.

Two sides to the story

"My mom told me that we were going to move to a big city in China and at that time the only big city I had ever been is New York," Charlotte MacInnis says in flawless Mandarin. "So I thought, OK, that would be fine."

In fact, when they settled down in Nanjing, capital of eastern Jiangsu province, she was overwhelmed by its stark differences to her hometown.

"However, thanks to my parents, my sister and I quickly adapted our home was decorated in a Chinese style and we lived in a Chinese community, in which local children played with me, although sometimes they thought I was quite strange since my family were the first foreigners who lived there."

Her parents always reinforced the idea that they needed to learn about and adapt to the new culture, she says. "For a young child, such a positive attitude helped with my positive attitude about China as an adult. So I'm really, really grateful to my parents."

However, her parents insisted, too, that they should not forget where they had come from.

"My mother brought many English books and comic videos for us to ensure we had an English learning environment.

"Meanwhile, we took correspondence courses organized by our home country while learning Chinese language and culture."

In the 1980s and early 1990s there was no international school in Nanjing, she says, and the sisters took classes with Chinese students every morning during which they had a chance to communicate in Mandarin. In the afternoon they were taught at home.

"We also had Chinese tutors at home to help us soak up the local culture. After six years' elementary school, we started full-time home-schooling since my parents did not consider we would stay in China for very long. So until that time we had not learnt much about Chinese characters, though we were fluent Chinese speakers and culturally adroit."

The two youngsters with a western appearance but speaking impeccable Mandarin began performing Chinese opera on the stage and on TV when they were 11 and 13, and before long it became clear that they had pulling power. With their Chinese names, Ai Jiang and Ai Su, which together mean "love Jiangsu", they become minor celebrities.

After spending seven years in Nanjing, Peter and Elyn MacInnis, believing they would stay in China for several more years, moved with the children to Beijing, and the two girls were enrolled in the international section of a Chinese high school.

At that time their Chinese names were changed to Ai Zhong and Ai Hua, meaning, "love China".

"Since it was not fully an international school, our teachers and schoolmates in other classes were all Chinese," MacInnis says.

While the student body of the international section was international, the teachers and curriculum were all Chinese.

"Therefore, I had to learn how to write characters in a short time to ensure the smoothness of my study. It was really crazy. I learnt tons of characters during two years. But after all, I knew how to pronounce those words, which helped me memorize them more quickly than others."

But she did not spend her senior year at that school, transferring to the International School of Beijing, where classes were in English.

"At that time, my sister had entered an American university and I would do the same. But actually, we were already quite Chinese, so going back to study in the US was a good way for us to get familiar with our home country."

While in Beijing, MacInnis accepted a role in a comedy on China Central Television and was in more than 100 episodes over three years. But she quit to return to the US to attend Columbia University to study theater and dramatic arts after more than 10 years in China.

Her Chinese traits were there for all to see and hear, and soon her classmates were calling her "Weird white Chinese girl", a moniker that has stuck.

Her lack of knowledge of US pop culture was particularly jarring, she says,

"Although my English was as good as theirs, for both them and me I was strange. I was not familiar with my home country at all. Perhaps that is why most of my friends have an international background, as does my husband."

He, too, is an American who was raised in China.

After gaining her degree in the US, MacInnis returned to Beijing to continue her performing career.

She now hosts a cultural program on CCTV's English channel.

"I like that kind of work, promoting Chinese culture and helping people understand each other. If I was not a TV host I might work for an NGO."

Being "stuck in two different cultures" has brought her advantages and disadvantages, she says.

"No matter how Chinese I feel or how perfect my Chinese is, people will look at me and say 'You are not Chinese.' And when I go back to the US I am regarded as strange.

"I felt it was difficult before. But now ... I have begun to understand that what matters most is not where you are from, but what kind of person you are."

(China Daily 09/23/2011 page21)