When I bike home, I anticipate not my building— a nondescript, seven story complex on top of convenience stores and massage parlors— but the building across from it. It towers over mine twenty-five stories high, and two looming characters perched on either corner blaze in red: 天 (tiān) and 地 (dì), or heaven and earth. My Christian roots compel me to remember those first verses: “ In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep…”. I haven’t found solace in the Bible for a long time, but China has a tendency of bringing out the needy child in me, and as I return after a long day, I am comforted by the faith. I am comforted for the same reason of why I almost went to church on Christmas, or why I like the sound of Christian songs. Christianity— and the motions not the belief— affords me a sense of home. The notes of “Amazing Grace” have been imprinted deep in my subconscious whether I believe the lyrics true or not, and humming along brings me a much-needed sense of continuity and stability.
One night after dinner, I followed my Shu Shu and Mei Mei home on bike. It was dark already, and the buildings around us were lit up with blue strips of light running down their glass sides. At times I raced them, teasing them by slowing down until we biked side by side, only to pull ahead once we drifted together for a second too long. My Mei Mei waved her arms riding through a large intersection, and with the cars on either side of us frozen, still like actors the moment before the curtain rises, as well as the all-consuming movement— lights flashing, mopeds swerving, them laughing— I saw her arms move in slow motion, as if the wind was heavy. China feels this way to me: not quite real, yet with each detail blown up. It’s like I’m watching from above, seeing the video of my life speed up and slow down.
This floating detachment follows me wherever I go. At first, I couldn’t place where it stemmed from. I told myself I was just tired that day, or my homestay mom had commented on my acne, or what the hell, it’s just PMS, but I couldn’t shake the emptiness. Instead, I think that this disassociation comes from China itself, and my relation, or rather, lack thereof, to it.
My relationship with China can be explained in a phrase that I’ve heard countless times: “but you look like a Chinese person.” After I’ve, again, failed to smoothly order food or intelligibly introduce myself, I’m hit by this expression. At times it angers me, having grown tired of the song and dance of explaining myself, of their initial annoyance, of their treating me as if I was simply not listening. In the end, though, my anger is directed towards myself, not them. I am reminded of how crushingly deficient my language skills are, and by extension, how utterly un-Chinese I am. In my anger, I wish that people could see me and immediately know where I came from— I wish that I looked American. Then, I realize I just wished to look white, and shame washes over me.
Constantly surrounded by people who look like me, yet with whom I cannot substantially identify, I feel at times that I lose part of my individuality. In reaction, I’ve developed a compulsive need to defend my position as a foreigner by speaking English louder than usual or prematurely asserting my American origins. At the same time, I disdain my foreignness when it manifests linguistically. Mandarin permeates every aspect of my life. It weasels its way into Walmart advertisements in elevators, traffic police directions, and small talk made by salespeople, and my lack of understanding always weighs on my mind. Constantly frustrated towards both my Chinese appearance and my foreign origins, and torn between my desire to feel simultaneously both fully Chinese and foreign, I experience a pervasive sense of isolation that I can escape as easily as I can my own reflection.
Additionally, living in China has highlighted the extent to which my values are American, an attribute that alienates me not only from China but from Asian-American communities. While American and Asian-American values overlap, I think that a large aspect of an ABC community is bonding over the intergenerational tensions that characterize immigrant families. I experience only the echoes of these tensions, as my parents raised me in reaction to how their parents raised them. My parents instilled in me a drive to pursue my curiosity at the expense of financial success and placed an emphasis on my possessing agency unbridled by duty or saving face. While I hope to in the future become part of an Asian-American community, in the opportunities I’ve had during summer camp to do so, I’ve found myself unable to find solidarity with my peers as much as they did with one another.
How, then, can I identify myself ethnically? To my protests, my friends at home teased me by calling me a “banana,” yellow on the outside and white on the inside, but the idea of somehow identifying as white is absolutely unacceptable to me. I was always an outsider in the majority white community of my adolescence, and as my family has been looked down on by members of this community because of our ethnicity, I do not desire a place in it. In fact, I hoped to deepen my identification with my Chinese heritage in part because of my status as an outsider in white spaces, but lately, I’ve faced the truth that I do not know how my Chinese heritage manifests internally. I am not white, not Chinese, and not Chinese-American enough to find solace in that community. Perhaps then, I belong in this negative space, defined as an accumulation of what I am not, rather than any substantive group. However, not possessing a strong ethnic identity feels very similar to rejecting my heritage, and I am still grappling with how to reconcile it all.
I hoped that China could grant me a sense of home, but it gives me the antithesis, an unsettling, pervasive alienation. My disassociation became particularly distressing around Christmas, and once, after FaceTiming my family, I came into work crying. My coworkers, all women between their early 20s and late 40s, surrounded me, listened closely, and pronounced themselves my family in China. They held my hand and made sure I heard that they loved me. One of them, whose face reminds me of my mother’s in its kindness and smile, hugged me tight, and I swear, that moment was the closest thing to home that China has given me. Perhaps, my focus on identifying with an ethnic community is misguided— chosen and pre-formed communities can be equally meaningful.
Recently, my coworkers and I went through a course that they give to the beneficiaries of the organization. The course was intended to emphasize everyone’s inherent value and was given in Chinese. I filled in the gaps of my understanding with my best guess. Sometimes, it was easy: the 100 kuai bill has the same value crumpled or new, just as I have intrinsic worth. A seed can grow into a giant tree, and I have the same, unlimited potential. Other times, the breadcrumbs I followed led me to a cliffhanger, and I stood teetering on the edge of understanding: “I feel most loved when ———”, “I was so scared that ———”, “my daughter ———”, “my parents ———”, “I ———”.
As I saw my coworkers’ faces both crumple and light up, I was filled with a desperation to understand Mandarin that I’ve never experienced. Before, my desire to learn was completely selfish— knowing the language felt like a way to become more Chinese. But the language provides more than the lofty, elusive, and perhaps futile idea of being Chinese. It would help create something real, here and now and with actual people, and this something real is the answer to the question of my strange alienation. It is the simplest of answers, one that I’ve been fortunate enough to have been taught since birth. I am again brought back to the Bible: “And now these three remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love.”