What Exactly is a 华人 (huaren)?

“Xiao Li, I have a question to ask you,” said our Ayi very quietly late last Friday afternoon, just as she was about to go home.

Our Ayi (阿姨, house helper) is a trooper, now aged 63, and no taller than my 9 year old daughter. She is a traditional, conservative little lady, always immaculately groomed with her tidy black dyed hair and little high heels which seem to add very little to her height. I often wonder whether she can sneak into the subway as a child. She is certainly under 150 cm. When Ayi’s 4th daughter (yes, FOURTH child – she is of the generation who tried desperately for a boy and stopped only because her family was getting ridiculously expensive to raise) went to the US to study, she vowed NEVER to visit such a non-Chinese place, AND she renewed her vow to never eat any foreign food. “I’m Chinese. Why would I want to eat American food?” she retorted very unapologetically.

‘Xiao Li’ is the nickname she calls me, meaning ‘small’ + my surname, since I am younger than her. Coincidentally her surname is also Li, but I would never call her ‘big’ Li, or even ‘old’ Li. ‘Ayi’, meaning ‘aunty’, is good enough.

I have come to realize that Chinese people rarely call others by name, not like in the west where people often mention each others’ names before talking to them. So with such an ominous start to a conversation late on a Friday afternoon, I took a deep breath, sat down, and wondered whether she was about to ‘retire’ again.

“I want to ask you if you know of any unmarried huaren华人for my granddaughter”.

My mind swirled as I tried to process the meaning of the question. I remembered she has a granddaughter who just finished university and commenced work this past year. Is it for her? Yes, it’s for her. Do you mean a man, or a housemate? Yes, boyfriend, so she can marry him. And why a ‘huaren’? So they can travel together….

Over the weekend, as I pondered the meaning of a ‘huaren’, I went first to good old Pleco (https://www.pleco.com/) which defines ‘huaren’ as ‘ethnic Chinese person or people’. And I consulted Chinese friends so I could understand the sort of person my Ayi was trying to find.

It seems that ‘huaren’ includes Chinese citizens (中国人 zhongguoren) but it also includes those of Chinese descent who may hold other passports or who might be living overseas. This is certainly a wider category than just ‘zhongguoren’.

It’s now Tuesday, and I smile inside at the thought that our dear old Ayi is ‘open’ enough to include even overseas Chinese in her family. I take this to be some sort of acceptance of my own family, who I always thought were outsiders, ‘waiguoren’ (外国人foreigners), here in China but who must also be, by definition, ‘huaren’. But, then again, the day she asks me to introduce her granddaughter to any of our Caucasian friends, I will need more than just a sit down… I may need the whole weekend to recover!

I love the fact that learning Chinese in Beijing is not just about the language. It’s the culture and the people as well :)

What is YOUR take on Ayi’s request?