Like many other ABCs (American-born Chinese kids), I have visited China throughout my childhood. Every couple of years, my parents would decide it was time for us to “return to the motherland,” pay our respects to our relatives, and become tourists in a foreign nation of people that looked just like us. When I was younger, going to China meant doting relatives, belated red envelopes, and ice cream every day. As I got older, going to China began to mean language barriers, no netflix and slow wifi. I have been lucky enough to travel to China four times in the past 20 years with my family, every time at the insistence of my parents; the fifth, sixth and seventh time I chose to come back on my own.
The summer after graduating high school and what seemed like an eternity stuck in the secondary school system, I had to travel. Equipped with all of the youthful enthusiasm of a recent high school grad, I was right on the cusp of freedom via college. I had no baggage in the form of obligations or expectations, only the overweight backpack strapped to my back as I embarked on my fifth trip, (but first solo trip), to the Middle Kingdom.
I soon found this summer to be quite different from China summers number one through four. Without the familial and Anglophonic bubble I was used to experiencing China in, I was forced to interact with China in a different way. This time, there was no sister to speak English to and no parents to act as Chinese-to-English translators and tour guides
I spent the trip “relative-hopping,” living within the comfort of family, but leaving the familiarity of major cities like Beijing and Shanghai, and instead spending more time in smaller cities like Zhuhai and Guiyang. I spent my time learning how to play Mahjong with my grandparents’ at their automated Mahjong table, and figuring out ways to embarrass my cousin as I cheered for him at his bank league basketball games. I hung out with the balinghou generation, my cousins and their friends, and using my limited Chinese, attempted to discuss topics that ranged from government corruption and censorship to relationships and love.
Yet one thing I slowly realized was that my bubble had sheltered me; I wasn’t fully prepared for this new outside world. With my insufficient Chinese knowledge, I couldn’t truly engage. I couldn’t verbalize my deeper sentiments, let alone find the words to explain more complex political opinions and observations. I felt stifled at times, only feeling relieved when I found an opportunity to speak English.
Nevertheless, I returned from my first solo trip to China with a bevy of new memories, experiences, feelings, and realizations, all free of the rosy filter and sticky film of my old protective bubble.
That fall, I headed off to college.
Throughout my childhood I had attended Chinese school intermittently, also at the insistence of my parents. They espoused the benefits and opportunities of being bilingual in that pragmatic way adults always do, and I disregarded them, refused to do my homework, and begrudgingly let myself be dragged there in the petulant way kids always do. Yet, after returning from abroad and once faced with Yale’s language requirement, I chose to study Chinese.
As summer rolled around, my plans were set. I would continue to study Chinese, this time in China, at the Harvard Beijing Academy (HBA), thanks to the generous funding of the Richard U. Light Fellowship. I realized that only by learning the language would I be able to connect with the people, appreciate the culture and understand society in China. So with the same overweight backpack, I was ready for China summer number six.
That summer I spent eight weeks of intensive language study at the Beijing Language and Culture University and one week conducting social study research in Inner Mongolia. Mornings were spent memorizing 生词 (sheng1 ci2, vocabulary) and downing coffee. Afternoons were spent catching up on sleep, making promises to stop drinking coffee, and breaking those promises as we struggled through long nights of homework, essays, and oral presentations. Weekends were spent playing Settlers of Catan, enjoying city nightlife, and of course, exploring Beijing.
Although it was my third time in Beijing, courtesy of China summers number two and three, it was the first time outside of my familial, Anglophonic bubble. With my trusty gang of HBA friends, I fearlessly took on Beijing. We ventured beyond tourist sites like the Forbidden City and the Summer Palace into winding hutongs like Wudaoying. We raised the roof in Wudaokou and Sanlitun with some of Beijing’s brightest and shiniest. We rode horses across the Inner Mongolian grasslands and camels through the Gobi Desert. And we ate, a lot.
China summer number six was the longest time I had spent in China and with a year of formal Chinese language study at Yale underneath my belt, it was the most articulate time I had spent in China as well. Simple conversations with classmates and friends could now be transformed into discussions about the dangers of globalization, the materialistic nature of Chinese dating shows, and the growing phenomenon of college students, both American and Chinese, entering as humanities/social sciences/STEM majors and exiting as finance and consulting associates.
Though it was the sixth China summer, in many ways, it felt like a first.
Learning Chinese truly opened up China to me, and it opened up the hearts and minds of Chinese people, like the one taxi driver that taught me Chinese tongue twisters and another that had me teach him English slang. Chinese also brought me closer to my parents as I chatted in Chinese about learning the literature they had learned as students and about struggling through the philosophy they had struggled through as well. Though it was the sixth China summer, in many ways, it felt like a first.
7th, 8th and on…
Learning Chinese was the first concrete step, but it was towards a very abstract goal. Fluency and literacy seemed too far away, so I needed a broader purpose to guide my language study. As I settled on an intended Political Science and East Asian Studies double major, my desire to invest beyond the language, into the society, the politics, and the culture grew.
By the end of sophomore year, my tickets were bought, and I was headed to China yet again for China summer number seven. I had found the perfect internship at Project Pengyou, but this time, I felt a nagging uncertainty, a fear of missing out on America. The pressures of post-grad career planning felt closer and friends (even those that had studied abroad in China) remained in the US, heading off to big cities for internships and paid jobs. China was on the opposite side of the world and in a time zone that only seemed to widen the already-daunting distance.
On top of this internal dilemma, I found myself facing external pressure. My parents were resistant; they held the notion that they had worked so hard to come to America, why was I going back to the country they had left?
But what the world, my parents, and I am slowly realizing is that the binary world in our imagination, this choice between China and America, between being Chinese or being American, no longer exists. China no longer feels like it is an ocean away. There is an undeniable exchange, a constant interconnectedness, and an unbreakable bond that ties these two nations, two peoples, two societies, together and that draws me deeper and deeper in.
For me, learning Chinese and traveling to China isn’t just about exposing myself to another culture, it’s about exposing myself to my own culture. It isn’t just about making conversation with my taxi driver in Beijing, it’s about making conversation with my relatives. It isn’t just about understanding and telling Chinese jokes to the locals I meet, it’s about understanding and telling Chinese jokes to my family. It isn’t just about being from one world and learning about another world, it’s about bringing those two worlds together.
It isn’t just about being from one world and learning about another world, it’s about bringing those two worlds together.
My Chinese is still oftentimes broken and I impatiently resort to “Chinglish,” and sometimes I can’t find the right Chinese words to express my English thoughts. Nevertheless, my love for the people and the culture, and my appreciation of the language, have only grown as I’ve grown. I am a Pengyou and I want to build bridges, because as much as I hope there is an eighth, ninth, and tenth China time for me, I hope even more there is a first, second, or eleventh China time for you.