Meet Michelle, Project Pengyou Intern

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As a fourth grader, I didn’t understand the lasting implications that one word- return- would have. For me, it meant going back to the elementary school I was familiar with, rather than the one that required me to study a mostly unfamiliar language in remedial lessons for four hours a day. It was a decision that didn’t require much thought on my part, yet my parent trusted my word enough to make a far greater leap of faith. The flight to the United States was booked months in advance, and I looked forward to the date as if it were a second birthday.

Days before our scheduled departure, my grandfather checked into the hospital due to a rapidly worsening cold. Despite our concerns, it was too late to change our travel plans. My mom received a call from the hospital just before we boarded the plane.

The atmosphere was unbearably heavy even as the plane lifted off from the tarmac. My departure from China was thus accompanied by my first experience with a family member departing from my life. Unaccustomed as I was to dealing with loss, I tried to focus on my hopes for the future, but the concurrence of the two events seemed to represent the irrevocable nature of leaving. I was saying farewell to one side of the world for an indefinite period of time.


Chasing Dreams from Changsha to Kansas City

My toddler self, circa 1999.

I’m Michelle Lu, and I spent the first three years of my life in Changsha, China. From my early childhood, only impressions of the warmth of being surrounded by an extended family remain. More vivid are the memories after arriving in the United States for the first time to visit my dad. I remember my first car trip across the continent, visiting Yellowstone Park, New York City, among other iconic spots. I remember watching PBS kids on weekdays, and then riding the school bus to Kindergarten. At that time, my life alternated between living in Kansas City and traveling back to my grandparents’ home, yet it was clear that the country where I spent the majority of my time had begun to shape my perception of the world. China became the country I “visited” on “trips”, and normalcy meant interacting in English with the kids at the playground. However, the balance between my two worlds could not be sustainably maintained forever. My mom was presented with a tough decision. For her, “returning” to the United States was leaving the place she called home and her stable government career in China.

I’m fortunate to have never been shamed for what I did differently from others. Far more common were the curious questions about what was in my lunch, and the appreciative comments about my mom’s cooking after my classmates have had a taste. I remember being bemused about their wonder at the most ordinary of Chinese dishes- scrambled eggs with tomatoes. The only way my food departed from what was served in the cafeteria was that the eggs and tomatoes, two common ingredients, were eaten with rice instead of noodles or bread. Just as my lunch was simply a variation of something familiar, my experience growing up in the United States reflected common themes even if it lacked some elements of a “typical” American life. Outside of school, my main exposure to culture came from summer reading lists, as I preferred delving in the rich imagined world of books to chatting about the latest movies. I also lacked the experience of going to summer camps or joining a sports team because these activities were not viewed as necessities by my family. Perhaps my family also performed, at my behest, the rituals of Halloween and Christmas halfheartedly, for I trick-or-treated without a costume and was handed my presents instead of finding them under the tree. My parents did not understand the significance of these holidays, but their gestures meant a lot to me, who was more familiar with these traditions as opposed to making dumplings once a year. I thought of myself as a regular American, because I shared the same appreciation for the essence of cherished customs, even if I experienced them secondhand or in a deviated form.

My mom and I in the United States.

Being American was not a matter of assimilation to me, because I had already made my choice. To me, it was participating in Chinese culture that felt inauthentic, since no matter how faithfully we followed these practices, when they are removed from their original context they could be nothing more than superficial imitation. So I was reluctant in joining our community’s Chinese youth drum group, and alienated by my classmates’ attempts to flaunt their “Asianness” by embracing Hello Kitty, as if culture were no more than a trend like Converse sneakers in middle school. Being an immigrant meant focusing on the future, and making my mom’s sacrifice of her former life in China worthwhile. There was no impetus to embrace the culture I left behind beyond what my parent expected from me.


Neither One nor the Other- A Third Choice

It was not until high school that I studied Chinese history, opening my eyes to the collective narrative of a nation that made a relatively late transition into the modern international community. Finally learning about the story of the other side enabled me to understand the perspective of the culture I had left. The most compelling part of that tale was how the paths of China and the United States crossed, separated, and then rejoined through the most unlikely of circumstances. It was only thirty years ago that we viewed each other as bitter adversaries, but an encounter between athletes was able to create an opening  for the constructive dialogue that led to the sustained connection we have today. I wanted to be part of that process of continually improving the relationship between the two countries. Was I qualified to represent the voice of either side?

If not me, then who? Ethnicity is not something we are able to choose at birth, but it’s up to us to decide whether the legacy left by those who came before us is a burden or a blessing. Now, I am grateful that I had to speak in Chinese at home, for I’m still able to communicate with the people here in a language we’re both comfortable in. I’m glad to have been able to attend school in China, because even if these few months in fourth grade are a distant memory, knowledge of many common characters has been embedded in my mind.

Being an immigrant does not have to mean abandoning one place for the other. Rather, it is about utilizing your unique experiences to contribute to the society you live in. That is why I chose to become a Pengyou, because I wanted to use my background to help different people cooperate with each other. In the words of poet Naomi Shihab Rye, “Love means you breathe in two countries”. (1)