I was born on June 2, 1989. It was, as the story goes, a terribly stormy night. My father rushed from the hospital to the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, where Lao Lao had just arrived. I wonder what my grandmother must have thought as she got into my father’s beat-up Mercury station wagon and sat in silence on the way to the hospital, feeling the soft velvet seats, breathing the crisp Texas air, watching as the streetlights flashed by, one after another on a seemingly endless stretch of highway.
There are no streetlights in Lao Lao’s village. There weren't any in 1989 and there aren't any today. When one’s primary source of subsistence comes from farming the land, who needs light anyway?
As a child, I developed a fundamental opposition to my father’s fried rice. I hated the way it looked (squishy), I hated the way it smelled (choking, pungent), and most of all, I hated the way it tasted (a confusing medley of discordant carrots, eggs, and MSG, like a blind man with a wok set loose in a supermarket). And as a result, I frequently fought with my parents at the dinner table.
“Ugh, can’t we just order pizza?” I would ask.
“Absolutely not,” my father would proclaim. “You are not American. You are Chinese-American. You should learn to like Chinese food.”
Growing up in suburban Kansas, I was among a handful of non-white kids in my elementary school. Until I moved to New Jersey ten years later, I didn't realize that fortune cookies were invented in San Francisco and green tea was traditionally served without sugar. And when I went over to my friends’ houses for dinner — frequently coerced occurrences, I might add — I ate fiendishly. Meat loaf? Yum. Green bean casserole? Why, of course I’d like some more! Lima beans? Exquisite.
The Sirloin Stockade was my oasis. Haphazardly plunked in a nondescript strip mall between a Wal-Mart and a decrepit furniture store, the steakhouse-buffet hybrid housed a myriad of culinary Americana — succulent steaks… buttery mashed potatoes… tooth-achingly scrumptious cherry cobbler. Tuesday night was kids-eat-free night, and Lao Lao was my partner in crime.
“I think we should save some money tonight,” Lao Lao would say to my parents in Chinese. “Let’s go to Sirloin Stockade.”
It became a routine. Tuesday nights, after piano lessons, my family would make the weekly pilgrimage across town to gorge on American delights. My parents, deeply concerned that my grandmother was homesick, were pleasantly delighted as Lao Lao gobbled down slice after slice of pepperoni and extra cheese.
Lao Lao lived with us for almost ten years — from the day I was born until my little sister started kindergarten. I’m not sure she knew when she landed in the United States that it would be her surrogate home for the next decade of her life. I don’t think she understood that she wouldn't see my grandfather, my cousins, or my aunts and uncles, for the majority of her sixties — a period of life when people desperately hold onto their loved ones, not leave them.
But she came, and she stayed. She stayed for us — for Lisa and I, the granddaughter and grandson that would straddle two cultures, two distinct identities in an entirely foreign place — a place where she did not know the customs, the language, the history, or a single person besides her daughter and son-in-law.
I looked up from my book as an old couple walked into the train compartment. They had been visiting their son in Beijing. He was 23 and had a steady job at a software company and a pretty wife. No grandkids yet, but hopefully soon. Soon. I watched as the old woman climbed up to the top bunk. Her frail body trembled with effort as she thrust herself higher up the ladder.
“Ah, just come down here,” beckoned her husband. “You can have the bottom one.”
She shook her head as she reached the top. No need, she seemed to say. I’m perfectly fine up here. Strong. Resilient. No excuses — just like my grandmother.
As I lay in my hard sleeper berth, I smiled at the prospect of seeing Lao Lao a few days later. The train squealed to a halt, another stop on what seemed to be an endless journey to Xi’an, a city famous for its terracotta soldiers and industrious pickpockets.
It was my third trip to China, and the first without my parents. I was journeying from Beijing to Xi’an, and ultimately to Nanpi — my ancestral village, nestled in the cotton fields of Hebei Province — where Lao Lao eagerly awaited my arrival. My travel companion was my friend Aaron — an 18-year-old cross-country-runner-cum-musician with an elegantly disheveled mop of brown hair and the uncanny ability to fall asleep anywhere, anytime. He was very much tall and very much white, so we stuck out terribly in Chinese crowds. People frequently walked by us in wide-eyed amazement — wow, so shuai, so handsome, they thought. All tall foreigners are handsome in China.
We arrived in Xi’an on an early Tuesday morning. The train station scorned us. Tourists, it seemed to say, the word reverberating in the tracks as another train rumbled through. We searched for the exit, but all of the signs were completely incomprehensible; we submitted to the wisdom of the crowd, following the throngs out onto the street. For the umpteenth time that trip, I mentally kicked myself for quitting Chinese language lessons when I was 14.
We were to participate in a two-day, one-night whirlwind tour of the city with one of the government-run guide companies. Understanding the ironically capitalistic nature of such excursions, I resigned myself to spending countless hours in gift shops where prototypical saleswomen would try to sell me prototypical knick-knacks. But given that we only had two days in Xi’an, Aaron and I figured it wasn't worth the effort to try and organize the trip ourselves — after all, low-budget, no-frills, capitalism-heavy, pre-packaged tours are a Chinese specialty.
The tour was conducted only in Mandarin. We hopped from place to place, from the Huaqing Hot Springs, where romantic stories of emperors wooing concubines abounded, to Mount Lishan, where Emperor Qin Shi Huang’s famed terracotta soldiers were assembled. I was expected to translate for Aaron, but I only managed to understand about a quarter of everything our tour guide was saying. I made up the rest. Thank God for Lonely Planet.
One of our scheduled “attractions” was a gift shop that specialized in jade. Humoring a saleswoman, I pretended to be impressed with bracelets and tea sets without expressing any intention to buy. It was an elaborate game — one that both of us knew well.
“You speak Mandarin brilliantly,” she commented. “I get a lot of ABC [American-born Chinese] customers, and most of them have accents, but you sound like you grew up in China from the day you were born!”
I knew that she was lying. She was only interested in selling me that bracelet; her commission and her livelihood depended on it. Yet, I wanted to believe her. I wanted it to be true. I wanted to be validated as Chinese. Deep down, I knew that I was Chinese but, at the same time, I knew that I wasn't Chinese enough.
Born in the United States to immigrant parents, I've always felt drawn to China, my zu guo — my motherland. Having grown up with a spoon in my left hand and a pair of chopsticks in my right, I don’t consider myself to be completely American, yet I do not consider myself completely Chinese, either. Society’s need for clean categorization has dubbed me Chinese-American. Suspended between two cultures, two identities, two languages, two histories, two heritages. I must reconcile both, yet so often I cannot. Such is the problem with leading a hyphenated existence.
I spent the majority of that trip searching for things that I could relate to. I didn't understand Chinese television (too dramatic — like a 24-hour marathon of As the World Turns, except much, much worse). I didn't particularly take to Chinese music (I had no idea what anyone was singing about). Chinese fashion looked strange to me, and Chinese history was so complicated that it became largely unintelligible. The most familiar thing was a caramel macchiato at Starbucks. I didn't want to be a tourist, yet I didn't want to be a traveler, either. I wanted desperately to be a resident, to be an insider — and I hoped that I would find that in Lao Lao’s village.
My mother once told me that whenever she goes back to Nanpi, she always feels at home — that no matter what stresses she has in her life, she can completely fang xin — be at ease. As I got off the bus in the village, I wondered if I would feel the same way. After all this was her home, but was it mine?
“Ai! Eddie hui lai le!” my aunt exclaimed, enveloping me in a deep embrace. Hui lai le — came back. Lao Lao stood behind her, wrinkled hands on her hips, beaming.
“Pang le,” she said. You got fat.
That night, I went on a walk with my grandfather, strolling past chickens and roosters and the yelps of little kids quarreling in the fields. I gingerly stepped around piles of cow dung and the knee-high mound of garbage in front of my grandparents’ clay-brick house — “I burn that every Sunday morning,” my grandfather said, a hint of pride in his voice. We walked for almost an hour, stopping only to glance up at the boundlessly starry sky and to occasionally say hello to my grandfather’s friends. It was the same China that I remembered from my visits as a little kid.
Sitting at the kitchen table in Lao Lao’s bedroom a few days later, I listened to her ramble as she absentmindedly cut up a watermelon.
“I didn't want to stay in America,” she said, using the Mandarin word for the States, mei guo — beautiful country. “But what choice did I have?”
“It wasn't easy. I didn't know anyone. I had to leave these kids,” she announced matter-of-factly, gesturing at my cousins. “Eight years I was gone — eight years.”
I asked her why she did it.
“You and Lisa. Who else was going to take care of you? Your mom was working all the time, your dad lived in a different state because of his job. And day care…?” She harrumphed. “That’s ridiculous. There was no other choice.”
I didn't think much of it at the time, but over the next few months I realized that, for the first nineteen years of my life, I had taken for granted perhaps the most Chinese characteristic of all — a tireless willingness to sacrifice for the betterment of the family. My grandmother, a woman who could not read or write, who survived a world war and the horrors of the Cultural Revolution, sacrificed eight precious years of her life — and her happiness — in order to ensure that my sister and I grew up in a warm, nurturing environment in the United States. In her eight years in America, I think she only learned four English words: sirloin, stockade, pizza, and boy. My grandmother sacrificed to give us opportunities — opportunities for education, opportunities for career advancement, and ironically, the opportunity to one day return to China and negotiate the politics of a hyphenated existence.
The night before I left, Lao Lao made a gargantuan feast. Heaping plates of pork-and-cabbage dumplings, braised chicken feet, fried tofu, and bok choy filled the room with their tantalizing aromas. The rice wine was brought out, and the conversation grew increasingly boisterous as the night wore on. Jokes were made, backs were slapped, and I eventually found my calling in a steaming bowl of fried rice. Looking around the dinner table at my aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents — three generations in total, I slumped in my chair, completely satiated, understanding what my mother was talking about — about being able to fang xin.
When the phrase fang xin is broken down into its constitutive elements, the word fang literally means “to free;” however, xin has a dual meaning — “heart,” as well as “mind.” That night at the dinner table, I found both my heart and my mind in Lao Lao and the rest of my family. Chinese-American? Chinese? American? It didn't matter.
I was at ease.
[The first time I visited my relatives in China, I was five years old. Exactly twenty years later, I’m back in the motherland visiting my grandparents. I first wrote this piece for a creative writing class in college, but I’m posting it today — on my 25th birthday — to express my gratitude for my family. They don’t speak English, so they’ll probably never read this, but I’d like to think that on some strange, transcendent cosmic level, they’ll get the message.]