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.