To Be Fragmented, To Be Overflowing
The eighth or ninth time that I remember feeling incurably foreign in America was when Madison P. told Hannah J. that she shouldn’t invite me to her birthday party for fear that I would eat her golden retriever. Frankly, I wasn’t dying to go to her sleepover anyway. American mothers would always make a show of pronouncing my name, adding inflections and drawing out vowels when in fact it is just the same syllable twice. The other girls would grab and marvel at my hair, which never curled nor frizzed, and would ask me to teach them swear words in Chinese. I didn’t know any, so I named vegetables instead. Shrieking in delight, they declared people we knew to be tomatoes, cucumbers, and cloves of garlic. As the only student of East Asian descent in my fourth grade class, I rationalized these instances as harmless, though a bit embarrassing, and based in reality. After all, I didn’t have an English name and the other kids had heard my parents speaking to me in Chinese before. But Madison’s accusation struck me because it seemed to be entirely apropos of nothing. “Why do you think I’m going to eat her dog?” I asked, confused. In the absolutely certain tone with which she characterized Miss Monahan a head of cabbage two weeks prior, she replied, “Because you’re Chinese. Chinese people eat dogs. Don’t you know that?”
Twelve years later, I sat in the undergraduate library typing up my application to teach Spoken English in China for the upcoming year. My essay revolved around identity and that it was largely a mystery to me: the blood and custom that sunned my skin yellow, that trained my ears to hear in four tones, that baptized my tongue in salt and ginger. Such differences set me apart from most of the people I had met while growing up in America, yet I always felt as though they existed without context, as if only to make me an oddity in grade school and paint me exotic in college sociology courses. While I had spent a lot of time studying modern China from an academic perspective in school, my sense of heritage with regard to it was nebulous. I recall looking at a picture of a girl villager in my textbook about the Cultural Revolution and finding similarities in our dark eyes and round faces. I felt a vague connection to her image, even though I knew our lives could not be more different. The children of Chinese immigrants, language barrier looming in the dial tone before fumbling through a faceless interaction with extended family, so often must form kinship not with who they know in China, but with what they are told by Americans. Living in China, I determined, would be in part a personal act against a lifetime of listening to other people tell me who I, as a Chinese girl, should be and finding out for myself.
Fast forward another year and I am sitting on the passenger side of a Changsha taxi whose driver doesn’t have enough change to break my hundred. I can now speak Chinese beyond the names of vegetables and, thanks my job teaching English to a bunch of teenagers, that includes quite few swear words. Given my working-proficiency language ability and appearance, I seem like a born and bred Chinese citizen in passing. This assumption falters when the driver asks if I can pay via WeChat, a Chinese messaging app, instead. I’m unable to do so, since my bankcard-for-foreigners can’t be linked with any online accounts. He suggests a few other apps, of which most Chinese people have at least one, none of which I had heard of before. He looks at my face inquisitively. “You don’t even know what that is? You must not be Chinese. What country are you from?” I prattle off my condensed life story in the time it takes to find a convenience store to break my bill. Since moving to Changsha, this is far from the first time I’ve been told that, contrary to Madison P. and every creep that’s ever introduced himself by saying nihao to me at a party, I’m not Chinese. After telling people a bit about myself, most people in Changsha think of me as an American, albeit with a few Chinese characteristics. But I have always felt like a foreigner in America, like someone who didn’t belong there naturally. In other words, I am much closer to being neither than both.
Living in Changsha has shown me that I am only Chinese in fragments. The most obvious evidence of this is that I don’t speak Chinese fluently. When I first arrived, I could hold basic conversations and handle transactions. But when topics shifted beyond small talk, I simply nodded along. While other more clearly un-Chinese foreign teachers were content to mime through an interaction, I would impose a tremendous pressure on myself to feign comprehension. What a turnaround this was from myself at fifteen, refusing to bring stir-fried leftovers for lunch as if that could turn my eyes blue. Though in a way, it is the same chameleonic action in a different surrounding. Being reminded so often that I was only skin-deep Chinese made me reflect on the rootlessness of my upbringing. Sometimes I still feel as though I am a creature with no history, conjured during the first flight my family took across the Pacific. This feeling will never dissipate, even if I choose to live in Changsha for longer or become completely fluent in Mandarin. Being Chinese, despite what is impressed upon many children of immigrants, is infinitely more than slant-eyes and lighting-fast mental math. And it is more than unruly lines, squat toilets, gawking at white people, and all the other redundant symptoms of culture shock. I have indeed found the modern Chinese girl in Changsha. She is many: two students braiding each other’s hair in the cramped school dormitory; my second cousin filtering her skin whiter on the Meitu app; my colleague’s six-year-old practicing her Chinese characters in our office, her feet dangling off the edge of a chair; a stranger in the elevator double-taking when she hears me speak English on the phone. But I have never lived that girlhood.
In Virginia Woolf’s Moments of Being, she writes, “If life has a base that it stands upon, if it is a bowl that fills and fills and fills — then my bowl without a doubt stands upon this memory.” In this passage, she reflects upon her first memory of hearing waves break on the shore in her nursery. I don’t have any recollection of my own base. In fact, I don’t remember anything from before when I could speak English. As I walk around in Changsha now, I am obsessed with the idea of encountering a sentence or a curve or a fragrance that might bring about some deluge of memory. It’s a fantasy, of course. But I still try to make it a habit of noticing the smallest things around me here, even when their novelty fades. If life is indeed a bowl that fills and fills and fills, mine has been overflowing during the time that I’ve lived here. The contents spilling over the brim comprise of particularly frenetic moments: weaving through a fleet of motorbikes at rush hour to cross the street, clusters of monkeys at national parks chasing tourists upon hearing the rustle of packaged snacks, the shouts and slurps of a noodle shop during lunch hours. While witnessing this sociocultural electricity, I try to absorb what is going on around me without scrutinizing. Indeed, I’m not about to find the last piece that will make me whole tucked behind a bottle of vinegar or at the bottom of a box of chestnuts. But what I have collected in my bowl or heart or brain is something I can use to continue building without a blueprint dictated by nationality.
I have admittedly not done enough to shape much coherence from everything that I have gathered. Clocking in at one-point-five years in Changsha, it’s about time I begin coming to my most immediate conclusions. The first is that the thesis of This is Water rings particularly true when gaps in language and culture come into play. Conversing in my limited Chinese literalizes the fact that for the vast majority of people I meet, I will only know them in the fragments that I have the capacity to understand and vice versa. When people I meet in Changsha question the degree to which I am Chinese (not Chinese enough or too Chinese depending on the situation), whether it be a storeowner in passing or a security guard singling me out among a group of visibly foreign fellow teachers, I know I don’t owe them an explanation. Given that they acted on a mistaken race-based assumption, I’m within an all-American right to indignation. But there is no macro- behind this micro-aggression; in fact, as a foreigner, I hold social, economic, and legal privileges over ordinary Chinese citizens. I have a steady job with a paycheck comparable to other first-year teachers at my school simply because there is an eagle embossed on blue somewhere in my apartment drawer. So in these instances, I think, it is better to answer their questions. And of course, I should mention that I am far more comfortable talking about my background to the curious RN at Changsha Number One Hospital than immigration officer at the Detroit airport asking if I eat chicken feet. Surrounded by H&Ms and iPhones in this city, it’s easy to forget that censorship and state-sanctioned social engineering have shaped the lives of most Chinese people in a way that I will never feel. Which is all to say that I try very hard not to homogenize without justification.
The second is that I’ve come to know who and where I am from for myself. Although this knowledge is by no means full or unprecedented, it is so important. I have spent more time with my extended family in this year and a half than I have for the past ten. These most recent visits have been the only ones that I’ve been able to have actual conversations with my aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents, none of whom speak English. Discussing family minutia — my cousin quitting cigarettes, my uncle’s new bright red leashes for his three dogs — comes with it a sense of unquestioned inclusion. In other words, unlike all the other instances in which I have had to validate the degree to which I am American or Chinese or otherwise deserving of inclusion, all that is required of me is to be present and listening. I am just that — present and listening, intently — as my oldest uncle reminisces over Skype with my father in America during dinner. It is Spring Festival, which Chinese people traditionally spend with their families in their hometowns. “You had failed the college entrance exam,” recalls my uncle, whose words finally have meanings. “And were prepared to take a job in construction until I came back from doing just that for a few months and told you how tiring it was. So you took the exam again and passed, went on to medical school, moved to America. I still remember dropping you off to your first day of college. You didn’t even have a watch! If I had come back to visit even a month later, you probably would have never left Hebei.” I turn to my father on the screen and remark, in English, “It’s kind of a miracle.”