Defining

Finding a place in the past, present, and future.

My mother was born in Shanghai, China. In 1990, she arrived in the United States with $500 and a suitcase full of books. Her first meal was pizza at the airport, which she had never had before, and thought the cheese on top of the bread was egg. She spent her first few months working as a waitress at a Chinese restaurant in Boston, Massachusetts, so she could support the next few years of graduate school at Murray State in Kentucky.

She had left behind her parents and a younger sister in Nanjing. Back then international calls were incredibly expensive, and therefore few and far inbetween.

This past October I left Boston, Massachusetts, and arrived in Shanghai, China with considerably more than $500 to my name — thanks in large part to the groundwork of my mother. I would spend three months working at the Shanghai office of a Boston-based robotics startup. I arrived with the comfort of knowing I had a few relatives in the area, but still uncertain of what the next few months would bring.

I performed the reverse journey of my mother, and I got a taste of what she went through — the struggle of having a language barrier, of dealing with all the necessary official transactions (visas, bank accounts, etc.), of feeling homesick and lonely. My mother embedded herself in a community of international students when she started graduate school — many of them Chinese, but many of them not. Her roommate was Venezuelan, and she met my father, Ethiopian. In Adichie’s Americanah, a character remarks, “you might make friends more easily with other internationals, Koreans, Indians, Brazilians, whatever, than with Americans both black and white. Many of the internationals understand the trauma of trying to get an American visa, and that is a good place to start a friendship.” I found myself surrounding myself with other foreigners too, in particular, African international students, who understand a similar “trauma” of being a black person in China.

The Shanghai I arrived in is unrecognizable as the place my mother left behind. When I look at my aunts and family friends, I see what my mother might have become if she had stayed here. While I did find a community of Africans, I find myself in an in-between place. I visit my relatives and speak with them exclusively in Mandarin. Shanghai, while more diverse than other cities, is also self-segregated — there are places where you find many foreigners and places where you will find none. I occupy both; at teahouses with my aunts, at interesting bars with graduate students. And then, I begin to mix the two. I take some Zambian friends to Hai Di Lao, a famous hot pot chain, and they laugh, saying only their Chinese friends take them to places like this — but I am Chinese, I remind them, I just also happen to be Ethiopian, and American. This is one of those places that few foreigners frequent. We enjoy dinner as a couple at another table spends their whole evening staring at us.

I visit my grand-aunt’s house — “I’ve missed you, Maomao!” — she says. I am complimented on finding work so soon after graduating, on being important enough to send to China. Never before in my life have I felt so uncertain of what the future will be like, but she tells me about before, when I was five, and there were too many people in Shanghai, and I would cling to her arm, a little scared but excited, as we crossed the road.

When I talk to my grand-aunt and many other relatives, the picture painted of my mother is a bright one. My parents are always larger figures in their hometowns than they are in America. She was the best student; she had the best English; she is the hardest working person. She is everyone’s favorite daughter and cousin; she is the sweetest and most respectful. The memories of my parents, the respect people have for them in their home communities is larger than life — they remember, and they keep telling me, how hard it was to leave, “back then”. How accomplished and determined and intelligent you had to be. I keep asking myself why, now that we’ve “succeeded”, we don’t move back. There is nothing like your own country and your own people. I do not have any “one” of my own, but my parents do. I know my father contemplates returning to Ethiopia, but my mother doesn’t wish to return to Shanghai. It’s so different now, she says.

At least my mother was identifiable as something, as Chinese. I still confuse people, everywhere in the world. I explain again and again to people the story of my heritage, of my past, while thinking about where I will go next, how I will establish my future.

A taxi driver asks me why my Chinese is so good, and I tell him that my mother is Chinese. Another taxi driver asks if I’m an international student, and I tell him no, my mother is Chinese. He asks why my Chinese is so bad, then, and I tell him I grew up in America.

I take my coworker, a Chinese-American who does not speak Mandarin, to buy bubble tea, and the cashier keeps directing questions to him while I keep responding and translating.

It’s strange to feel like an anomaly. On good days I feel important, like I have a unique ability do anything anywhere in the world. On bad days, I feel homeless and shunned.

I keep meeting mixed people that I don’t actually get along with all that well — that is to say, I have rarely become very close friends with another person who identifies as mixed. This is often because mixed people share a very limited set of experiences — we understand what it’s like to feel lonely in a sharply categorized world, but it ends there. It’s always nice to come together once in a while with someone else who understands, but we do not necessarily share the same cultures or experiences, and we certainly may not have similar or compatible personalities. I meet one person who is Beninese and Slovakian, and talks about the struggle of Slovakians denying him his identity based on his skin color. But he has no attachment to Benin or the African continent, though he laments this. At the same time, he feels the same homelessness that I do, trying to overcome it by traveling many places and seeing if one sticks. “I want to go to South Africa — I’ve heard there’s the most mixed people in the world there.” I also want to go to South Africa some day, but not for this reason.

I look back at what is behind me — opium wars and tea merchants, kingdoms and coffee farmers. Hard work and ambitious dreams, that keep coming up among us, generation after generation, despite defeat or difficulty, again and again.

I look down at my hands — what has produced them? What did God see fit to bring together, to bring them here. And what might they, in turn, produce.

I look out of my window; I look up at the sky; I look straight ahead. Where am I meant to go. What am I meant to do.

I sketch a portrait of myself, an unfinished outline, uncertain of how to fill in what remains.