Plastic containers of dehydrated tofu, dense packets of black bean paste and glass jars of chili oil marked with red simplified characters line the second shelf of the pantry in my parent’s kitchen. Every year for the 29 I’ve been alive for, we stand around the linoleum counters and roll well over a hundred dumplings for the Chinese New Year. The particularly umami-filled scent of ginger and scallion sautéing in sesame oil, soy sauce and vinegar recall childhood for me—similar to how the odd mix of worn leather and pipe smoke evoke early memories of sparring or practicing kata in the dojo where my Dad was a respected hanshi. An immigrant, he told me stories of the China he remembered: the tatami mats they slept on, the rice paddies and chicken farm his grandfather owned and the time he spent roving around through tea fields as a child.
All this to say: I’m Chinese. I am very clearly—by looks and blood alone, sans any other qualifiers—Chinese.
And yet, despite a cultural background I’m now proud of, I spent a good deal of my childhood and teenage years minimizing it. “I’m mixed” I was sure to remind anyone who ever asked the age-old question “Where are you from? No really, where are you from?” My mom, an American Jersey girl with a superlative-smile, has blonde hair and blue eyes, and so the answer was a fact-based response and a prideful one even—I do adore my Mom and I am indeed an American Jersey girl—but I think it was also a way of arguing, “Don’t typecast me” and saying “I’m also white, you know, I’m not what you think.” It’s taken me some time to not give a shit about what anybody thinks. Growing up, though, our community and friends, while largely open-minded, were also largely white; we had no Chinese family nearby and my Dad didn’t speak the language to us. It was the 90s, well before “micro-aggressions” were a known thing, and I didn’t even have Lucy Liu in my view yet.
It is complex. Being a mix of two races but only looking like one in an area and world where almost everyone else you see looks like the other is complex. The older I got, the more I resisted the heritage I looked like and leaned into the one I didn’t. That is, until I went to college.
Outside my Jersey bubble and only slightly below the Mason-Dixon line at the University of Maryland, I realized very quickly that while I was slow to define myself as Chinese, everyone else was hyper-quick to the punch. As I party-hopped around campus those first few days of school, I received more bows and konichiwas and microaggressions than I did in 18 years in New Jersey. I was floored. Some encounters were so blatant and public they brought on bouts of intense second-hand embarrassment. Instead of snapping back something smart and quick-witted in my usual way, I paused, cringed and felt sorry for the stupid men who said stupid things, a response that is both ridiculous and typical and for sure psychoanalyzed extensively somewhere.
In partial response to all of this, I signed up to minor in Chinese. I had always been interested enough in learning the language to broach the topic of Chinese school with my Dad as a kid, but never so interested that I actually went. Now, in a new environment, surrounded by people who saw me primarily for my ethnicity, I decided to turn the offense on its head. The world saw me as Chinese, so maybe I should try to again too; I took it as a prompt.
I spent a year struggling through Chinese classes made admittedly more difficult by the stressful assumption by many teachers that I had been taught the language at home someway or somehow, despite my best efforts to clarify otherwise. I was never a standout in class, but I persisted and learned the basics gradually.
A year later, somewhere on the fourth page of Google, I came across an English teaching program run by U.S. college students who partnered with colleges around the world to co-teach English in various countries and foster unique volunteer-abroad experiences. I applied on a whim, heard back and interviewed in a Georgetown coffee shop. That June, I found myself exchanging a humid Jersey Shore summer for two months in the sweltering provinces of China.
The swine flu epidemic was at its peak when I landed in Shanghai. A cohort of Chinese officials in head-to-toe white space suits came on board with thermometer guns used to laser-point every single passenger’s temperature before we were allowed off. After being cleared, I tiptoed off the plane and maneuvered my way to the Maglev, the world’s fastest train at a speed of 430 km/h. On my way to the city center, I watched as the world outside the window panes smeared together and noticed, for the first time in my life, that I was surrounded almost entirely by people who, well, looked like me.
Once in Shanghai, I met 3 or 4 other arriving volunteers. For $5 a night the first week, we stayed in twelve-bed rooms at the Captain’s Hostel awaiting the arrival of the rest of the fifteen-twenty students from around the States. For maybe $3 a person, we feasted at Grandmother’s restaurant across the street on huge spreads of rabbit, jiang dou and the most divine entree of all, mapo-doufu—an insanely spicy, mouth-wateringly delicious dish full of flavors I had only a baseline concept of growing up, but never experienced. Ten years later living luckily in New York City, I eat it every week.
Early mornings I walked the smog-filled streets, ate handmade dumplings for breakfast and sipped fresh, hot and slightly sweet soy milk out of a plastic bag. I sweat constantly. The city was humid and wild—I thought I knew a thing or two about cities having grown up going to Manhattan and Chinatown often with my Dad, but that was nothing. In Shanghai, you had better watch where you’re walking. A hundred citizens on bicycles would round a bend in a second’s time. And with seventy-five of them smoking cigarettes. Traffic signals and lights? Don’t count on them. Of course, a block away, an equal number of 80 year-olds might be exercising at the pace of a terrapin practicing Tai-chi. Yin and yang pervaded. Baskets of snakes and frogs were sold on any given corner next to enormous watermelons, crates of eggs and live chickens. Everyone, everywhere, was always squatting. Squatting by their crate of snakes, squatting to smoke their cigarette, drink a beer, or brush their teeth right there on the street in broad daylight. There was a massive and jam-packed underground mall hidden beneath People’s Park. Facebook and Twitter were blocked. And everyone smoked—did I mention that? Everyone smoked, everyone yelled, and personal space was not a given. This was a city.
I had wanted to put myself in an uncomfortable situation. I had wanted to visit the place I was partially from, and here I was accomplishing both goals. But I couldn’t help but notice the irony: because I am Chinese and look it, the people—especially those of the older generation who grew up in an extremely filtered society—expected me to speak the language and were confused when I couldn’t fluently. In many ways, I was othered just as much, if not more, than in America. Cab drivers, market women, bus passengers, even some the Chinese volunteers and government officials we partnered with—essentially all the people I interacted with—were shocked at my accent and incompetence with the language, and further confused by my tanned skin. Why was I so dark? Or, as one Chinese volunteer, a student from Nanjing University innocently translated: Why was I so damaged?
Again, I found myself in the same position I had been in my whole life, explaining my mixed heritage. Hùnxuè I repeated, Hùnxuè, for “mixed blood.” Damaged, I am not, I held firm.
The better part of the trip and summer were spent farther south into the countryside. To get to our respected villages, we took a fourteen hour overnight train; this was not the Maglev. We bought first class tickets for the ride for a nominal fee considering the exchange rate. That meant we’d have beds to sleep in, but with columns of three narrow mattresses stacked one atop the other spaced maybe 20 inches apart in any direction and in a train cart with poor air circulation, it was an experience less akin to riding the Orient Express and closer to testing out what public catacombs might be like.
But the village, when we finally arrived, was spectacular. In the recesses of Jiangxi Province with two other volunteers, I found myself in what I still believe to be—ten years and many countries later—one of the most beautiful places on earth. Here were the tea fields my father told me about, a hundred emerald tiers of perfectly trimmed leaves. Here were the geometric rice paddies, lined as far as the eye could see, reflecting sunlight through the shallow waters. Chickens ran free and gardens flourished. We took bucket showers and woke up to the sound of roosters, ate congee three times a day. A spoon of sugar or a mixing in of fat, bones and string beans could alter the entire dish.
It wasn’t glamorous. I spent a lot of time sweating and frustrated, missing home and—at least quietly to myself—drawing cultural comparisons and complaints. Class only demanded 3-4 hours a day and after lining up the lesson plans for the rest of the week, we were left to explore the mountains, walk an hour to the downtown area for a few minutes of internet or boiled peanuts, or otherwise wile away the day in the village. Truthfully, I often felt bored.
And so naturally, conversation prevailed as the most usual way to pass the time. Avery, a fellow American girl in the same village as I and from GWU, bonded quickly over the band “Vampire Weekend,” New Jersey and our failed attempts at communicating in Chinese. We complained to one another about our Nanjing University living partners—who we slept beside in the same small bed each night. My living partner, who chose the English name “Cherry” had brought a scale all the way to the village just to weigh herself daily. Having endured my own issues with weight and western beauty standards in high school a half-a-decade earlier and half-a-world away, I again noted the irony. Avery’s partner, on the other hand, often cuddled her in the middle of the night or accidentally threw an odd limb in her direction, waking her up. Our adventure to this massive country was marked in a series of small spaces.
When we met with other volunteers on weekends—both from the U.S. and Nanjing University—we’d discuss everything from the funny mishaps in class to the fiction we were reading to the more delicate subjects like post-911 nationalism and censorship in China. From the start, we had been warned against discussing or criticizing Chinese politics and culture, but we were kids so we did anyway. I remember a particularly heated debate between an Asian-American volunteer I’ll call Lyn and a Nanjing University volunteer. What began as a conversation about the Chinese Civil War devolved into a very dicey argument over Taiwan. It ended with Lyn in tears, adamant she was Taiwanese, not Chinese; adamant that Taiwan was a separate entity from mainland China. A fault line was made clear. It shouldn’t have been brought up at all, but I couldn’t help feeling a bit of both empathy and admiration for Lyn. She struggled for the right to define her identity, but at least she was certain of what it was.
I mused mostly about the spectrum of female freedom and restraint, both in China and back at home. Nearly all the female Nanjing University volunteers, except one particularly adventurous and tomboy-esque one whose name escapes me, wore sun-sleeves and walked around with parasols in an effort to keep their skin ivory white. The symbolism of class divide that this drew between them and the villagers, all dark, all farmers, was stark. They seemed vain and unaware, victims of their own equally antiquated and asinine standards of eastern beauty. I was as brown as any summer, and while that worked against me in Shanghai where shop owners and professionals glanced over or ignored me, ignorantly assuming I was poor or uneducated, it conversely helped draw a bond between my students and I, as well as the other villagers. I think my host mother and sister saw themselves in me; I know I saw myself in them. I liked it in the village more than in the city – and the views, the mountains, tea fields and rice paddies that recalled my father’s stories, they never did get old.
The days began to edge past at a quicker rate. I made less trips down the mountain to the internet café and spent more time talking to villagers, drinking thimbles of green tea with my host family, and playing with the students after class. Watching my host sister cook was one of my favorite activities. I tried to help on several occasions but, being the guest, was always waved off. The one time I insisted and was brought into the kitchen near the wok, I weakly succumbed to a coughing attack brought on by all the hot peppers. It was embarrassing, but my host family laughed so hard it was worth it.
Soon enough the experience was over and I was hugging my host mother goodbye, surprised at the tears in her eyes, and then at the ones in mine. By all accounts I was definitely ready to go back to being a dumb American teenager drinking beer with my friends; but I was also definitely different. I became a little more aware and a lot more independent. Ten years later, I have only continued to realize the drastic effects a two-month stint in China at 19 years old really had on my life. Instead of delivering the answers I’d hoped for, China inspired more questions and a sense that such uncertainty was okay; that the process of discovery was never meant to be final.
I started paying attention more to politics and the world around me; I noticed a new sense of empathy for the individual restricted by her collective circumstances. I gained some understanding of my heritage and a new appreciation for my home, America. I grew up a naturally talkative and articulate person and in China I was unable, for the first time in my life given the language barrier, to really say what I felt. I think that may have humbled me just a little, made me a better listener just a little. In long stretches of silence and the immeasurable mind space I called boredom, I faced my insecurities and questioned both western and eastern beliefs deeply and without distraction.
China is vast; it defies defining and it rejects a single identity. It is the small, hidden tea house atop the evergreen mountain, the banquet table overflowing with fish heads and tobacco smoke, the grief-heavy bones trapped in the Great Wall and the tanned men and women selling bottled water in its shaded corners. It is the silk suits and magnificent skyscrapers and the erasure of historical fact in government-made museums and books. It is the fearless youth and the modern artists and activists that can be found right now on display in the Bilbao Guggenheim.
China is vast, and in examining its dynamism, I find myself again arriving at my own. How far does heritage take us in the retrospective of the soul? And is its importance only measured in how strong we hold onto it, how close we are to it, or how much we look like it? Is there a framework or a formula to make any of this more concrete? I don’t have clear answers and I might be weary of anyone who does. But I do have hùnxuè. I do have the tea fields of my memories and the inherited iterations of my father’s. I have the taste of sugared congee early in the morning. I have my father’s eyes and my mother’s smile. I have my China, and when I think of it, I remember most my host mother and sister, and I think about the nights spent journaling beside my host sister in the bedroom, the mosquito coils burning near our feet. We would often mirror our text; she would practice English and I would try my hand again at Chinese. Between sentences and words, we showed one another to verify.
One night she held up her notebook: America, it read perfectly. So I thought about the word for China and wrote it in pinyin on the page–Zhōngguó: English translation, Middle country. And I, in between.
Kirsten Shu-ying Chen was recently shortlisted for the 2018 DISQUIET literary prize and was a semi-finalist for the Tomaz Salamun chapbook prize. Her poetry & nonfiction has appeared in Anamesa, Bodega, Hanging loose, PANK, Florida Review: Aquifer, The Seventh Wave, and more.