On Being an ABC in Beijing

Sanlitun

Sanlitun

Upon arriving in Beijing, I was entirely unsure of what the summer would bring. Despite having come to China many times before, this was really my first time in China on my own terms, untethered to family (even though I was living with my uncle). My relationship to China as a second-generation Chinese-American is a complicated one. Having grown up in the South, I always felt like an outsider because of the way that others viewed me as foreign, as exclusively Chinese; in China, it was always the opposite. My extended family and friends used to tease me by calling me mei guo lao, which on its own was a fairly harmless term (simply meaning American), but in context, further alienated me from a country that I often felt I had no claim to. This was all in spite of my relative fluency in Mandarin and my parents’ dialect, and the multiple summers I spent in China. It’s not an uncommon story among Chinese-Americans, especially those who grow up in spaces where they see almost nobody else who looks like them.

This time, I returned to China with a more thorough, academic understanding of Asian-Americans and my own experience, so I knew this summer would be particularly important in both my studies and my own identity formation. Beijing was, in many ways, a perfect city for my endeavor to understand the relationships between place, belonging, cultural memory, and migration; as the cultural, political, and artistic capital of the country, Beijing offered an insight into Chinese life and society that contrasted what I already knew from my childhood in my parents’ hometown of Xinzhou (a city of only a few hundred thousand).

On a surface level, Beijing offered an easy adjustment for me because of its world class public transit system, Mandarin focus, Davidson alumni network, and friendly people (that is, compared to the notoriously grumpy people from my mother province of Hubei). On the other hand, the heat, air quality, and, surprisingly, my own Chinese, were hindrances in settling in completely at the beginning. Specifically, my lack of an American accent, decent conversational skills, and of course, my Chinese face (though people often said I looked Japanese because of my long hair), meant that I passed as a native, at least until the awkward and comical situation arose where my pre-K level literacy revealed itself. Nonetheless, I quickly became accustomed to the sights and smells of Beijing, like the sweating salarymen on the subway, and raucous elders in the park – the grandmothers, bumping heads over lost poker bets, the grandfathers, silently gathered around nail-biting games of xiangqi, waiting for a watershed moment –, every gray head a world unto itself, without doubt of the raptures and sorrows of the next day, when they would still be there in all their flesh, all their jubilee.

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