The book in my hands was heavy, its binding fraying around pages the color of tea stains. This was a book my sister and I had wanted to see for ages, what we called The Book, a rare heirloom we couldn’t believe belonged to our family: pages detailing my lineage through my mother’s side, filled with names and portraits going back so many centuries that my great-great-great-great-something-grandfather’s portrait was an ink painting of a man in scholarly robes and eyes like flicks of a brush.
In my uncle’s big white house in suburban Pennsylvania, I didn’t feel a profound connection with this ancestor, nor did I feel any gratitude at the notion that I shared one millionth of the blood coursing through me with him. Instead, an uncomfortable, yawning gap opens up between me and him, between me and my parents, between me and China. The portrait would’ve looked better in a museum.
In an attempt to reconnect and explore this confusing landscape of identity, obligation, and inexplicable guilt, I sought out the company of Chinese-American kindred spirits, lingering in Reg rooms and in basements and on Skype lines to talk about something we never bother to, or want to, discuss in any kind of depth.
Most conversations start with trying to remember when we last set foot in China. We go from
“The past two summers, with my entire family, too, which was bizarre”
“Now that I think about it, I haven’t been back in a while”
to the one I share,
“The summer before college started.”
“Every single time I go back, I vaguely recall walking in these rooms as a really small child. But I also see my cousin’s room, and she actually grew up there. Growing up it had been a room full of stuffed animals, but now it’s her bedroom and private space. She goes to school, comes back to eat lunch before heading out again. Maybe that’s who I would’ve been if I stayed.” –Willa Lin
Our moments of overlap were significant. How were our parents’ journeys shaped by their ideology and circumstances, cultural and individual? Willa’s parents, who run a Chinese-American takeout restaurant, sent her back to China for the first four years of her life so that they could both work full-time and make enough to properly raise her. My sister and I were sent back for only two years, but Willa and I both wondered at the pain our mothers felt when they missed our first words, when we didn’t recognize them at the airport upon our return.
I used to believe in the all-encompassing power of shared experiences. And yet when I set foot in another Chinese friend’s home and share a meal with their parents, I feel familiarity with a zing of dissonance.
“You are supposedly like my parents, but you’re not. You talk to your kids differently. You’re too strict about this, and not strict enough about that. Your rice isn’t soft enough, and your ‘luck’ sign is the wrong way up.” –Lucy Chen
Suddenly, I remember the utterly ridiculous fact that China is big, and people are different.
I remember more than hazy visions. I remember the little grocery shop on the corner, with dirty plastic drapes instead of doors.
“…the gust of freezing cold air as you pass through, the muck on the floor of the fish market, the butcher doing his work right in front of his customers, who point out the cuts they want and exchange recipes with their neighbors.” –Richard Wu
“I remember those summers, walking up that staircase, setting my suitcase down in front of that door, and pressing that doorbell. I always had That feeling, with a capital T. I really want to go back to China.” –Angela Ma
Maybe Richard is right; maybe “the nostalgia thing is because they treat you so well in China, a child returning from abroad. Everyone’s super excited to see you.”
Or maybe it’s a strange longing for one or the other: America or China.
“This was so long ago, I must’ve been seven or eight. I don’t know why this is stuck in my memory, but my grandpa asked me: ‘Do you like China or America better? Where would you stay?’” At that point in my life, I couldn’t decide.” –Angela
The China I know doesn’t exist, for two reasons: I have never experienced the mundane in China and the stories and visions told to me are from my mother. My mother refuses to go back to China because it is nothing like she left it.
“My mom hasn’t been back in 20 years.”
“My mom would love to go back, but my dad hates the politics.”
“One of my mom’s greatest regrets is leaving China because her parents now live there alone, aging.”
“My dad’s old school doesn’t exist; where there once was grass, there are huge buildings.”
The tangibility and realness of the States is subtly underpinned by these diverse, yet similar experiences. When Willa went to celebrate the birthday of a Hong Kong native, to any untrained eye she could have been one of the Chinese girls. “They all started singing karaoke to Chinese songs, and I had no idea what was going on. I didn’t know who the artist was, what the song was, why it was famous…. Those are the moments I feel ridiculously American.”
It’s not like we don’t know that “Chinese American” or “Asian American” are concepts in and of themselves. It’s that this is a concept I swallowed easily the first time I heard it without actually tasting its implications. Nobody was there to tell me that it could mean feeling culture shock in China and then have a classmate pull his eyes out at me, or that strangers would chant ni hao ni hao ni hao in front of my confused parents and make me (and Angela and Lucy and more) flush with rage and humiliation—or that it could make me feel incredibly out of place in the landscape of race relations in America.
Irena calls herself Chinese, Irena’s brother couldn’t care less, and Lucy rejects it: “I’m not. Not legally, not culturally. Asian is a modifier for American, because I’m American, and I can’t be Asian, no matter how much I want to be.”
But no matter how surprised I am by the differences in all our experiences, one thing remains the same. We want to teach our kids Chinese.
“My dad tried to teach me Chinese. He had this big roll of paper and would flip the pages, and it had Chairman Mao’s famous proverbs, like ‘Study hard, and keep on improving.’ But I never stuck with it; I went to Chinese school, which I hated, because I felt different from the Chinese school kids, too.” –Richard
Inherent to this desire is a desperate need to preserve some inkling of a culture whose significance we can only barely grasp. My parents have never told me to pass it on, but, as Angela says, “It’s so incredibly sad that we have this heritage to be proud of, but we’re inevitably letting some part of that go.”
I wonder if I’m cynical about our ability to make China familiar, a reality already made semi-false in its construction: mere fragments, week- and month-long vacation trips. My parents’ broken English meant I wrote my own absence notes for elementary school, called insurance companies and credit card companies when issues cropped up, and placed all the orders around the table at restaurants. Now Chinese grows ever more distant, and there is only frustration, then resignation, when I cannot write characters I used to have memorized.
“For some reason, I just feel really stupid when I try to talk in Chinese. It’s the same feeling I get when I try to speak French by myself, and I’m speaking it out loud for the first time. I feel stupid.” –Angela
“I feel guilt every day that I’m losing touch with the language.... My mom is very devoted to her parents, so she knows all the stories, but it hasn’t transferred to me, so I feel like I was the one where history vanished.”
History will vanish, but I guess that’s how time works. There was a reason my mom kept brushing off my excited pleas to see the book of family lineage. When my sister and I flipped eagerly through the pages, searching for our names and hers, she told us, softly chastising, to remember that she was a daughter with only daughters. My uncle, her brother, had two daughters as well. Just like that, my grandfather’s line, at least as it is recorded in The Book, has ended.
Not making it into The Book is the start of a new era, one where I’ll have to record my own lineage moving forward. Unpacking “Chinese American” is both a complex and simple thing. It’s what we do everyday. It took Willa a while to realize that her friends here didn’t see her as “The Chinese-American girl whose parents run the takeout place.”
Her days as a preschooler, uncapping her lunch tin only to find, horrified, that her mom had packed Kraft Singles (American cheese!) as a snack, are over. Her days as a kindergartner, swinging her feet off a stool, playing Legos and checkers with customers by the window, are over.
Now, she chats with them about university and career interests. Her parents’ restaurant is quintessentially Chinese-American, with the standard fare of sesame chicken and egg rolls. But when her dad steams an entire fish with ginger and scallion for her to eat at the counter, customers glance over, and wonder if that was ever on the menu.
Anne Wang is a second-year in the College majoring in economics and visual arts.