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This Is Not My Father’s China

The country I returned to was nothing like the place that had formed my tough, resourceful parents

Lucy Tan
Lucy Tan
Jul 10, 2018 · 7 min read
Credit: Yongyuan Dai/The Image Bank/Getty

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My first trip to China had been billed as a family homecoming — a way for my parents to reunite with their mother country and for me to see it for the first time. I was seven years old, and the only country I’d ever known was America, and when I stepped off the plane on the other side of the world, everything seemed louder and more chaotic. Cars wove in and out of traffic, stirring up dust in the streets. I met relatives and in-laws whose relation to me I quickly forgot. We stayed in their homes, where I was quietly horrified by the lack of clean water and vocally horrified by the squat toilets and showers that drained into the middle of the bathroom floor. I ate almost nothing but suffered from fever and diarrhea in a weeklong bout of illness. Shui tu bu fu, my mother called it, a short way of saying that a certain place didn’t get along with your digestive system.

My parents grew up during the Cultural Revolution, when food was rationed and saying the wrong thing could get a person sent away, never to be heard from again. They slept in clay huts where rats fought in the rafters; it was common to be woken from sleep by a rodent landing on your chest. Most immigrant children have heard some version of this story—the one that begins with hardship and ends with you, fortunate recipient of a better life. My parents were proud of my privilege because my privilege was proof of their success. But I understood every story as a reprimand: They were tough — tougher than I would ever understand — because they had survived China.

What I immediately liked about China was that people were familiar with one another, even if they had never met before. They gathered collegially to witness arguments on the streets, asked about each other’s salaries, and discussed the rising prices of produce. They related to one another without the distance politeness creates, something I had never experienced in America. This familiarity, however, didn’t extend to me. I couldn’t open my mouth without being stopped for questioning. “Where is she from?” people asked my mother, and a look of awe crossed their faces when they heard the words United States. Once, when I tried to order beef and broccoli at a restaurant, I was outright laughed at. “We’re in China, not Chinatown,” another Chinese-American said. I had gotten used to my parents’ foreigner habits; it hadn’t occurred to me that here, I would have some of my own.

One of our last stops was the grave of a great-grandmother I had never met. She was buried on a hillside, and we bought fake paper money and incense to light in her honor. My family members each approached her grave to offer prayers, but when it was my turn, I was too shy to do it. It seemed wrong to perform such a private act so publicly, and for someone I’d never met. “She’s your relative,” my mother urged me. “Don’t you want to say something to her?” All the emotion I’d been trying to hold back came pouring out; I began to cry and couldn’t stop for hours. I was crying for my dead great-grandmother, but also for me — for being forced to look at death so directly and being told that it was my blood buried in the ground. For the disappointment of feeling so out of place in a country where my parents had belonged.

It took me years to understand the concept of “home” as not necessarily a physical place, but a set of relationships. It took me even longer to understand that a person’s home can shift. Like many other Chinese in the 1980s, my parents had moved to the United States as graduate students in pursuit of the American dream, believing that America stood for safety and superior education. By anyone’s standards, they had assimilated well. They settled in northern New Jersey, making careers for themselves as a biostatistician and a librarian. They enrolled me in one of New Jersey’s best public school systems and worked off a mortgage. Over time, America had become their home.

So I was surprised when they decided to move back to China in 2006. My dad was offered a job in Shanghai working as an expatriate for an American company. Shanghai, he said, was “a land of opportunity” — a resonant phrase, repurposed from the American dream they had sought all those years ago. I was anxious about the move. I had always imagined that my parents planned to stay in the United States for good, and I worried that if they moved to China, they would never move back. The last thing I wanted was our family’s fragile sense of “home” to be tested in that way.

I began making twice-yearly trips to Shanghai to visit my parents over college breaks. The Shanghai I’d visited as a child was totally redone. Skyscrapers didn’t just scrape the sky — they pierced it, disappearing into the smog. In Pudong New District, aboveground walkways connected one commercial tower to the next and heated toilets were available for public use in retail malls. There were Michelin-star restaurants and a train that ran up to 268 miles per hour. The city’s residents were much more international. My parents had become part of a community of expatriates whose accommodations were sponsored by foreign companies. Their lives in Shanghai became more “Western” than they ever were when living in the suburbs of New Jersey. My mom got into the habit of drinking afternoon tea with milk. My dad learned to play golf. China, it turned out, was the place where the American dream was realized.

For me, my Americanness had gone from being conspicuous among locals to invisible in a crowd of multinationals. After graduating from college, I moved to Shanghai and began picking up odd jobs: law intern, copy editor, content developer, voiceover artist, talk show co-host. Suddenly, China was starting to seem more like me: part Western and part Eastern, something still trying to define its identity.

But this did not feel like the place my parents were from, the version of China that had made them tough, stubborn, and resourceful. I wanted the raw awakening that my parents had experienced when they moved to America.

The next spring, I took a job teaching English at a public high school in Wuxi, a smaller city about 80 miles from Shanghai. Things were slower. There were farms and marketplaces that resembled the China I’d seen in my youth. Western restaurants were rare, and few people spoke English. In Wuxi, strangers would sometimes stop me to ask me where I was from, but this time, my parents weren’t there to answer for me. I pushed the limits of my language skills, trying to keep a conversation going with my just-short-of-fluent Chinese.

Conversation was easier with my fellow teachers, who were bilingual. We discovered that a personal connection can sometimes even be richer with two languages and cultures to draw from. They left bags of oranges on my desk and took me out to dine on frogs’ legs. We talked about American movies, our dating lives, and future career plans. Finally, I felt that I was gaining entrance to a local community, which I had so craved as a child.

As different as Wuxi was from Shanghai, this city was also in the middle of rapid change. The number of students enrolling in the international studies department, learning English, and planning to go abroad was increasing. The government was building a metro system, and, like Shanghai, the streets were in a constant state of construction. A foreign supermarket had opened, catering to Western cravings — Haribo gummy bears, imported coffee, and Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. I found myself wondering what the city would be like two years from now, or five, or 10. I was already nostalgic for what Wuxi would soon no longer be.

A few years later, I moved back to the United States. I missed my first home and needed a break from being abroad. In grad school, I wrote a novel set in modern Shanghai, and working on it meant that I got to relive what it had felt like to be there — that mix of hope, chaos, excess, opportunity, and industry. As I wrote, I discovered that, for the first time, my understanding of the place was not limited to the stories I’d heard my parents tell. My relationship with China was no longer a derivative of theirs. It couldn’t have been—the country they grew up in does not exist anymore.

I had arrived in China the first time in search of belonging, not understanding that most ways of belonging are not given, but earned. I didn’t work nearly as hard at assimilating in China as my parents did when they moved to America. In terms of gut and grit, there is no comparison. Still, I like to think that part of what binds us as a family is our expatriate spirit. I picture my father in 1985, on the plane ride to America to arrive on the East Coast ahead of my mother. He is younger than I am now. In his pocket is a Pittsburgh address and less than $100. This is not enough for a plane ticket home — turning back is not an option. He will live with other graduate students in the home of a language teacher. When she welcomes him into her house, the largest he has ever seen, one of the first things she will ask him is, “What’s it like to be from China?” With an exhausted and anxious smile, he will tell her.

Lucy Tan

Written by

Lucy Tan

Author of the debut novel, WHAT WE WERE PROMISED, in stores 7/10/18. Find her at lucyrtan.com