“You know, this is what I always thought America would look like.”
I looked out the window at my mother’s words, watching as we sped past rows of ornate giant homes with their neatly trimmed lawns, perfectly painted white picket fences, and tidy little flower beds. My father grunted in affirmation from the driver’s seat as he guided our car through the Massachusetts streets, looking for an elusive sign that might tell him where exactly we were on our statewide university tour.
Strange as it may sound, that moment, sitting there in the tiny ancient Corolla as a 16 year old high school junior, was the first time I really remembered thinking of my parents as people beyond just my mother and father. It was hard for me to conceptualize that back then, because they never directly told me much about their lives. Sometimes they’d say things like “when I was your age” or “back when I was in middle school” to give me inadvertent little glimpses, but they never told me about their pasts outright. I never asked either, because it all seemed like memories they wanted to leave behind.
But for a moment, a fleeting moment, I thought of my parents as young, 20-something Chinese university graduates coming to the United States with visions of single family homes, clean streets, and quiet neighborhoods.
Instead, they got a tiny apartment in New York City, the cramped concrete jungle of half realized immigrant dreams. They barely spoke any English, but they had always been persistent people, and staring at cell cultures under a microscope required only scientific knowledge.
New York City. A tiny apartment. Two quiet jobs as biology researchers. And a newborn daughter who was someone and something they didn’t quite understand:
“You were always a handful as a kid.” Whenever I visit my grandfather, he always brings up how much trouble I brought him when I was a toddler. Always running out of sight and sprinting for the nearest bird the second he put me down on the ground, he complained as he rubbed his knees and stared at me.
But he doesn’t have to tell me. Because I remember.
The China I remembered as a 3 year old girl was green and vast.
My grandfather took me to the park every morning and would leave me to stumble about and giggle at birds while he read the newspaper. The damp, muggy breeze that always seemed to hang over Hangzhou would gently blow the willows and cause ripples in the shallow water of the lake. The old men sitting in the pavilion squabbled with one another over mahjong or Chinese chess, pausing only to stare at the sea of lotus flowers on the water below.
My grandparents’ apartment had a balcony. Even as a toddler, I could tell it was tiny, barely big enough to fit me, a handcrafted wooden chair, and a few giant boxes stacked on top of one another. I used to demand my grandparents or my aunt to lift me up so that I could see what at that time felt like an endless city sprawling out before me. And I’d wave at all the rickshaw drivers who passed by below.
“Please let it be closed, please let it be closed, please let it-”
My mother would always end my dreaded rides to Chinese school with those words, and I’d always open my eyes from my fervent prayer to see that the hated building that regularly tormented my Saturdays was still very much in operation. I had a thousand ways of trying to evade going to class. When I was 6, I prayed that the building would just disappear. When I was 7, I wished it would be set on fire and burnt to the ground. When I was 8, I hid myself in a closet and hoped my teacher would never find me. She did. When I was older than that, I just wanted it to be closed.
For me, there was always a kind of shame that went hand in hand with Chinese school. It wasn’t the shame of speaking Chinese and participating in Chinese culture. It was the shame of forgetting something that used to be so important to me.
When you’re a kid, adults always tell you that it’s easy to learn things. They don’t tell you that it’s just as easy to forget things.
It never occurred to me that the first three and a half years of my life spent in China would be worth virtually nothing when I returned to the states. It never occurred to me that I’d forget most of my Chinese. By the time I realized, sitting there in my seat first in kindergarten then in elementary school, that my native language was rapidly becoming English, it was too late.
I’ve always been proud to be a US citizen, and I love my hometown of Philadelphia as much as any American could, but I felt like I was missing something important. My very first memories were now completely silent, nothing more than a few lifeless images because I could not remember anymore what my grandparents and aunt said or how they said it. My very first words too, once so easy and so natural to say, now took effort to heave their way out of my throat and off my tongue. Everything that was once comfortable and familiar felt stilted and unnatural.
I was a disappointment.
I had friends who were perfectly fluent in Chinese, who could express sophisticated thoughts as easily in one language as the other. I had friends who spoke no Chinese whatsoever, who couldn’t even understand a single non-English word their parents spoke to them.
I was envious of them all. I was envious of my fluent friends for said fluency, and I was envious of my other friends because ignorance was bliss. I’d rather have lived my life knowing no Chinese at all than to struggle to piece together complete sentences without relying on English.
I felt like an imposter, through and through.
“你回来干嘛？” (Why the hell did you come back?)
My Chinese isn’t fluent, and the sentences I do know are hardly flawless. Anyone could probably tell, within a minute or two of meeting me and striking up a conversation that, despite what I might look like, I was not a native speaker. But their curiosity never bothered me, because I could easily say I was born and mostly raised in America.
No one was aggressive or hostile with me over those facts. At least not until now.
There was an ugly pause, one that felt like it lasted a thousand years as I stared at the lady behind the counter who was now looking at me like I’d grown a second head. Without giving her a response, I slammed the hanger with the clothing still draped on it back onto the rack and walked out the door into the muggy Hangzhou heat.
Trudging back to my grandparents’ apartment, I wished that I had some kind of response, some kind of snarky retort I should have shot back at her. “Because I’m Chinese”? No, not in her estimation I wasn’t. China never had a history of immigration and, no matter what I might look like or how much I blended in, I was just a foreigner. A foreigner who had no business being in this country, even if I visited it every few summers.
But America, as much as I loved it, didn’t fully want me either. How was I supposed to explain to this woman, or any of the other Chinese people around me, that there were people in New York and Philadelphia who didn’t like me either? They wanted me to “go home” too, to go back to the China that they thought I belonged to.
But the China I felt like I belonged to, and the toddler I was, are both gone.
When I was 15, I ‘graduated’ Chinese school. By which I mean I completed the highest grade level they offered having retained little to none of what I’d been taught in the past 9 years. If anything, all I learned was that Chinese felt like a lifelong exercise in disappointment, inadequacy, and humiliation.
I was never against learning and relearning Chinese. I simply didn’t want to do it in a classroom setting where everyone would be harsh on me and I’d be even harsher on myself. I didn’t like lesson plans. I didn’t like structured vocabulary lists and grammar drills. I didn’t like having to write essays and read them out loud in front of a school assembly every few months while hundreds of eyes stared at me and caught onto every mistake I made.
But I did like Chinese pop music. I liked television shows and variety programs like Day Day Up (天天向上). I enjoyed learning about Chinese politics and history, and I liked being able to talk to the Chinese international students who came through my high school, even if I couldn’t converse with them beyond a basic level.
So I started trying again, by myself on my own terms. And this time, I didn’t think of my language journey as something mandatory. I didn’t let it cloud over my own perception of myself, and I didn’t think of myself as any less a person because there were very simple Chinese things that I ‘should’ know.
When I got to the University of Pennsylvania, I thought that perhaps my adventures in China and with Chinese would go on the backburner for a few years. I couldn’t visit my family that easily anymore, and I wanted to pursue my interests in health studies and globalization by majoring in Health and Societies. I got out of the school’s language requirement by scoring well on a Spanish diagnostic exam, and I genuinely thought I’d no longer be studying Mandarin in any capacity.
But then I met a lot of international students, many from China and many who weren’t, and I remembered that one of the reasons I came to university was to meet people from all kinds of different backgrounds and learn their perspectives and cultures. I wasn’t going to simply sit in a little American bubble when the world was practically right outside my window. I was going to learn something from everyone, and maybe they’d learn a little bit about the US from me.
It took me a long time to understand that I was more than one identity. As I neared the end of high school and started to prepare for college, I began to slowly realize that my ‘home’ and where I belonged wasn’t defined by the borders of a country or the viewpoints of another person. It was defined by me and what I believed, and I wasn’t any less Chinese or any less American because of an arbitrary checklist of requirements I supposedly had to meet.
“I want to go to China this summer.” I said over the phone, twirling around in my chair as I stared out the window of my dorm.
“By yourself?” My mom asked, surprised.
“Yeah. By myself.”
“But are you going to be ok there on your own?”
I stared down at the papers in front of me, the same Chinese characters scrawled out in barely legible handwriting over and over again in my attempt to become a little better at reading and writing.
“你不用担心.” (You don’t have to worry) I finally said. “我一切都会好的.” (I’ll be just fine)