New-wave Big Tobacco participates indoors: inconspicuous mint-mango clouds puff up inside Davidson as the entire population of the Panhellenic community seems to be performing a choreographed vape session. But outside, nicotine fuels an entirely different world. Just outside Davidson library, oceanside, is a small smoking area where gatherings of students rejoice quietly in the sweet relief of nicotine, sheltered by an enclave of coral trees. The smoking area is dotted with Chinese international students chain smoking, draped in all of their Gucci glory, softly chatting in Mandarin as the glow of their cigarettes burn through 2 a.m.
I’m addicted to walking by the smoking area. The wafer-thin wisps of tobacco smoke are pungent with memories of my childhood. As I overhear bits and pieces of Mandarin in the overlapping conversation, I’m overwhelmed with the searing image of my uncles’ Zhonghua cigarette packs, red and gold, spinning on the Lazy Susan as they threw back another tiny thimble of sorghum liquor at dinner. “Another toast!” they’d say. “Gānbēi!”
My formative years were spent in Dalian, China — a seaside city where the skies were a perpetual lovely yellow color — at a time when I didn’t know the English alphabet. It was a time when my Mandarin was fluent, I did not know Cheetos existed and my classmates and I wore little, red scarves to elementary school as a promise of our allegiance to the Party. The back of my first grade classroom was graced by a small framed image of Mao Zedong, and I spent summers learning brush calligraphy. I drank hot water, not iced; I watched soap operas about the glory of the Tang dynasty and idolized Zhang Ziyi. My grandmother even found me a ping pong coach.
When I returned to the U.S., I learned English and quickly adapted to my birthright identity. I rejected parts of my culture that weren’t so palatable to white suburbia, understanding that the price of white acceptance was to conform to their criticisms of my identity. I stopped eating chicken feet, I pretended not to hear accusations that I had an unfair advantage in math class and I internalized the colorblind racism that seemed to be the backbone of country club civilization. Privilege shielded me from certain truths about my identity in America that I could not understand until I escaped childhood.
To be an East Asian-American is to bear the burden of the model minority myth in exchange for privileges of American colorism, to participate in society as quasi-white. In some ways, I even benefit from the constant fetishization of my body; I welcome the hypersexualization of the ‘Orient’ if my desirability harbors me from white hate. The constant worry that my partner likes me for the color of my skin is bearable background noise to the atrocities that other marginalized groups in America suffer at the hands of white supremacy. I live like a sheep in acceptance of my oppression because “it could be worse.”
Today, my unfortunate preference for white men suggests that my assimilation to American culture is all but irreversible and complete while my faithful devotion to Confucian filial piety suggests the opposite. Was I born Chinese or was I born an American citizen? I struggled to answer this age-old question of nature or nurture, fearing that choosing one would invalidate the other. Hyphenated-American feels like a betrayal to both sides of my identity, belittling both my ethnic heritage and my right to an equal place in American society. I feel like Schrödinger’s cat, supposedly American or Chinese, simultaneously both and neither.
So this summer, I made a three-month pilgrimage, a repatriation to the Motherland. It had been 10 years since I was last in China, 10 years since I last saw the people and the home I had left behind. Surely we had grown apart. When my plane landed in Beijing in the middle of blistering June, I was immediately surrounded by swarming crowds of people who looked like me. From luggage claim to customs were all black-haired, almond-eyed, yellow-skinned people. At the company I worked at, we used WeChat instead of email and Didi instead of Uber. I enthusiastically huffed in my boss’s cigarette smoke as she smoked her skinny mint menthol Esse’s. Submerged in a rich, homogenous soup of my culture at its purest, I revelled in the feeling of true belonging for the first time since my childhood. This must be what it feels like to be white in America.
Privilege shielded me from certain truths about my identity in America that I could not understand until I escaped childhood.
The Chinese friends I made at work welcomed me without second thought. Many fellow interns were “sea turtles,” international students studying in England and the U.S., while others had spent their entire lives in China. They were excited to meet an American who spoke Mandarin fluently. I spent my weekends with them as they showed me everything that had changed within the last 10 years I spent away from China, everything they had grown up with that I had not. The glory of modern China defeats all expectations. The impossibly low cost of labor ensures that after dividing every RMB price by six to convert to the dollar, every luxury suddenly became accessible.
I felt intense waves of guilt as I enjoyed each freedom the powerful dollar allowed, but to my nouveau-riche colleagues, this lifestyle was to be expected. The wealth disparity was welcomed. It made for fierce competition; I was told it is the reason why I seemed to love almost everything in China. Case in point, I failed to eat an unsatisfactory meal while in the Motherland. Hot pot, barbeque, homestyle cooking and street food that I had eaten in the States for the past 10 years were weak imitations of the real deal. Perhaps the most important experience of my life was waiting in a two-hour line in Chengdu and missing my bullet train so I could devour a bowl of red-oil wontons inside some grandma’s first floor apartment. Even Kentucky Fried Chicken is transformed beyond perfection in China: perfect pastel de natas, lightly battered shrimp and the flawless execution of an American-style chicken that defined succulence.
Maybe it was American of me to fall so madly in love with China, to see its good and look past its faults, to enjoy its mastery of pork and to forget its human rights abuses. I slurped on noodle soup made by Uighur cooks. I chugged Tibetan yak butter tea. I participated in capitalism with vigor and consumed its unethical fruits, all while not feeling particularly homesick for the U.S. My summer, in its retellings, appears glorified and unblemished. I wonder if I was more tourist than local, more propaganda than reality.
My colleagues told me that Americans stride with unreasonable confidence. Perhaps because of this ego, it’s obvious I am American. Street vendors knew to approach me in English and I was easily swindled for reasons beyond my naiveté. I did not join my female colleagues’ constant war against the sun as they opened their umbrellas in broad, dry daylight to shield UV rays. While I gladly ate every iteration of offal, I refused to take the constant dieting advice from strangers. Was it wrong to pick and choose the parts of my culture that I loved? Maybe. Perhaps then it would be fair to categorize my love for China as appropriation: Was I so foreign that I could warrant such a label? For too long, I had envisioned a perfect home without questioning if it still had room for me.
Surprisingly, this home had room for people who identified as expats. China’s cities are full of cop-outs for such people. Coffee shops and bars are remodeled with non-squatting toilets and full English menus to simulate American spaces. The time I spent in the Sanlitun district in Beijing is a near perfect reflection of my identity crisis as I ate hot wings with Ivy League white boys and other American-born Chinese. To the excitement of my coworkers, I could navigate both spaces with similar ease. They wanted to know if I’d date white men back home and would tell me how beautiful my babies would be if they were mixed. I think of the hell that mixed-race Asian Americans go through, their genetic expression a visual representation of the hyphenated-American experience as they face ostracization and fetishization all at once. I guess my only hope is that my children can speak to their grandma in Chinese, I tell them, knowing full-well it’s almost set in stone that in my late-twenties, I will probably marry some white boy who listens to too much indie rock.
Maybe it was American of me to fall so madly in love with China, to see its good and look past its faults, to enjoy its mastery of pork and to forget its human rights abuses.
My coworkers’ question came from a place of hope and love: For them, America is the dreamland, the prized visa, the answer to all of China’s troubles. For me, the answer is China: I continually fail to see beyond my privilege, beyond my First Amendment rights and the salvation that is my navy-blue passport. I feel nourished by the land and by the food my people had perfected over millennia. Mine is a stupid, primitive, tribal reaction akin to seeing long-lost family. I look to China and see the warm embrace of 1.4 billion people who look like me, look like my mother and my mother’s mother, people whose ancestors fought in wars with mine, who lived through dynasties with mine, and I wonder if my deep love for China is a nod of forgiveness to all of its wrongdoings. In a selfish way, I saw hope from China.
I had always believed that I could claim my land and culture based on some predestined ethnic right. My dissatisfaction with the in-between space for Chinese Americans could not justify the blatant ignorance of my class privilege. To be the child of Chinese immigrants means to enjoy inherent privileges and opportunities; to afford the experience of repatriation this summer is a privilege; to go and leave as I pleased across borders and firewalls was an immeasurable exercise of power. I reaped power from the in-between space that I so resented, forgetting that my love for China was a decision, while the people of China had no alternatives. Patriotism, which I had rejected so vehemently in the U.S., was not a choice for my Chinese family and friends. I could never be qualified to call myself Chinese without living through the evils and flaws of the country I so loved. The loss of certain human rights was a sacrifice I couldn’t make: my mother made that decision for me when she immigrated to the U.S. The age-old question of nature or nurture was finally answered: I was born different.
When I walk past the cigarette soirée after another fruitless night at Davidson, I breathe in deep. The tobacco smoke is Beijing smog; it is my love for China and its people, my people— it is me and my pursuit of home. While I continue to long for that home, it’s time for me to make peace with the in-between space. And when Chinese international students continue to talk to me in English during lecture while I continue to respond in Mandarin, I can remind myself of cigarette smoke.
Katherine Chen wants her fellow Chinese Americans to eat chicken feet and text their moms back on WeChat.