Out of the norm: What it means to be Chinese-Algerian

My experience has not always been rosy.


By Sarah Zahaf

“Where are you from?”

Although it starts off as an innocent conversation starter or as a simple question of curiosity, it often leads to a lot more.

“You’re Chinese? You’re Algerian? You’re mixed? That’s so unique. I’ve never met anyone with the same combination.” 

“You’re half Chinese and half Algerian?”

“You don’t look Chinese. You don’t look Algerian.”

“Do you speak Mandarin? Do you speak Arabic? Which one do you prefer?”

I have had my fair share of questions asking me if I am “really” Chinese or if I am “really” Algerian — the constant interrogation that most people from mixed backgrounds face. The simple answer to that question would be, “I feel that I am both.”

Of course, there are the evident benefits of being of dual heritage. I have the ability to experience two different cultures firsthand at the same time. Being of dual heritage, I was able to learn a number of  new languages, such as Chinese, Arabic, French and Spanish, in addition to being able to travel and vacation in two countries every year and make new friends in Algeria and China. 

However, it has not always been that rosy. In the end, I have never been made to feel more out of place in both. 

When I visit Algeria, I am classified by natives as Chinese and not an Algerian. Yet, when I visit China, I am classified as Algerian or as a foreigner, and not Chinese. 

My parents met in the United Arab Emirates, so I was born and raised there. Unlike when I have been in China or in Algeria, I never really felt left out here in the UAE because I found so many others like me. I did not even realize that being mixed was that big of a deal. I never questioned my belonging in my Algerian and Chinese cultures. Not until I was 11 years old. 

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At that age, my family and I made a big move from the UAE to Algeria in hopes of expanding our family business. We ended up staying there for five years. Moving there, I remember the cultural shock I had, it was nothing like the UAE. I had to complete my entire high school education in French—a language I did not understand then—and I definitely did not look like the natives there. I recall the first time I introduced myself to my 8th grade class as being both Chinese and Algerian. However, all my classmates managed to hear at the time was: I’m Chinese. 

Soon enough, many of my fellow classmates began directing racist slurs towards me because of my mixed heritage. The fact that I spoke broken Arabic and French (I was raised with English as my mother tongue) did not help either. In fact, it made me a target of further bullying and questioning. Over the years, I was constantly made to feel like an outsider by my very own community just because I was not 100 percent Algerian.

Things were not that different in China. Despite spending more time there when I was younger, I was still labeled  a “foreigner” and mocked for my accent by strangers and family members alike.  I was continuously bombarded with questions about my inability to speak and write in Mandarin fluently, “how could you not know how to speak Chinese? It’s your native language. How could you not understand?” family members and strangers would say.

All these constant remarks made me feel like an outsider. But why does being from a mixed background often equate to being an outsider? 

As time went on, and I reflected more and more on my experiences in both Algeria and China, I thought to myself, why could  I not be both? Why did I have to pick one or the other? Be more Algerian than Chinese, or more Chinese than Algerian? Prefer one country over the other? One culture and language over another?  Why do so many people make it difficult for a person to be of dual or mixed heritage and to be able to fit in both worlds, that many of us end up feeling like they fit in none?  

I learnt that no matter how hard I tried, I was never going to properly fit into either cultures in others’ eyes. But that did not mean that I did not belong in either. When I came back to the UAE to pursue my undergraduate studies, I realized being mixed did not mean that I had to be an outsider. I was reminded of my time in the UAE as a child, when being from different countries did not — and still does not — have much significance. With so many people coming from various diverse backgrounds being mixed does not make you the odd one out; instead it makes you part of a diverse community of others also coming from different or mixed heritages. 

Now, when I go back to either country, I know that I do not, and did not ever, need to seek the approval of others to consider myself both Chinese and Algerian enough. Although I might not look or sound like my other family members and friends who come from more uniform backgrounds and fluently speak their national languages, I still deserve to be part of the community I carry in my blood and heart, no matter what others would say about me. I am both Chinese and Algerian, not just half of either, and not one or the other, but both. 

Sarah Zahaf is a Chinese-Algerian writer and a student studying International Relations and English at the American University of Sharjah. She is passionate about diversity in culture, arts and literature. She is currently interning at Sekka.

The views of the authors and writers who contribute to Sekka, and the views of the interviewees who are featured in Sekka, do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Sekka, its parent company, its owners, employees and affiliates.