by Elaine Lou
The first thing I noticed when I got off the plane was the ubiquitous English translation on every Chinese sign.
Granted, that’s probably because I was still at Shanghai International Airport. But throughout my stay, I was repeatedly surprised at every English translation I didn’t expect on a menu or a signpost – because generally, I thought nobody was around to read it but me.
Later, my aunt told me matter-of-factly that Chinese people put a premium on English speakers. They treat you differently if they hear your mouth produce the telltale, fluid monotone that is the English language. At one point, I even had people asking if my younger sister and I were half-white because we were loudly joking around in English– which, I’m disappointed to admit, made me feel guiltily pleased.
The reason I tried not to speak my lopsided, broken Mandarin unless absolutely necessary went from wanting to downplay my ethnicity to wanting special treatment. Milking my American identity: this is how I began my two week adventure in China and Taiwan.
I can’t remember when I decided that I hated being Chinese. I do know that I was aware of the stereotypes early on, and they insidiously wound themselves into my self-perception at a very young age; so much so that I don’t ever recall a time when I felt like I was one hundred percent American, despite being born here and living here for the my entire life.
If I look back I see the defining moments like frozen movie stills on a projector screen. Here’s ten-year-old me in the kitchen at home, asking my mom to not pack me dumplings for lunch again. Click. Here’s me again, age 16, fake-smiling at my teacher’s apologies after the seventh time he’s accidentally called me by another Asian girl’s name. Click.
Here’s me, regardless of age, playing with my dolls or watching TV or browsing magazines and just wishing my hair was lighter, my eyes bigger, my nose taller, myself whiter.
I thought I knew everything there was to know about China. I thought it was the land of rampant pollution, math nerds, emasculated men, and bubble tea, maybe. My ignorance, combined with my desire to put as much distance as possible between myself and my homeland, meant that it took a lot of convincing to get me on the fourteen-hour flight to visit.
The only thing I knew about democratic, unpolluted Taiwan prior to visiting was that nobody is sure what to call it officially, for genuine fear of starting a brawl. I can recall snippets of my mom’s words about Taiwan’s political status from a conversation long ago, as she dismissed it like a parent dismissing rebellious teenage antics. To put it simply, Taiwan is a conversation no one wants to start.
If Taiwan is a pair of tightly zipped lips, Hangzhou, China, is a half-formed sentence that everyone is racing to finish. It knows what it wants to be – a bustling, young, fashionable icon of modernity. For now, according to my cousin, it is a “developing minor metropolis,” marked by countless hard hats and jackhammers juxtaposed against glitzy supermalls filled with designer stores. This city, in all of its hopeful aspirations and obvious imperfections, strangely reminds me of myself.
My cousin and I went to a deserted riverside. In Chinese cities, the skies are never blue and the smog is omnipresent; so that when the feeble afternoon sunlight hits the polluted air, it creates an ethereal glow around everything. I have a strange sense of near-sightedness as I look out over the Qiantang River. It’s like how you see things through a murky, soupy distortion in dreams.
While surveying the unfamiliar city skyline across the water and listening to him tell me stories about the city pre-industrialization, I feel keenly aware of my American-ness for the first time in my life.
At that moment, I suddenly became a foreigner in a place where everyone looked just like me.
I have this feeling as me and my family walk through the lonely, quiet backstreets of Taipei that lead to the little Airbnb we are staying in. The air is so swollen with moisture, even in the capital, that the skin on my hands has angrily broken out in rashes.
I see many of the things I expected to see on this trip: a group of the elderly practicing tai chi in a tiny park sandwiched between two streets; rundown noodle shops next to bubble tea stands; terrible, terrible driving.
What I don’t expect is a kind of fondness for the scenery, for the part of me that I had casually dismissed before as shabby and grimy and not good enough.
Despite my efforts, I begin to accept the parts of myself that I found in the tapioca bubbles at the bottom of my drink, in the last spoonfuls of rich beef soup in my bowl of noodles.
I am at ease as I sprint wildly up the dark, hilly streets of quiet mountain village Shifen, sausage-on-a-stick clenched in hand. My dad is yelling after me while I frantically make a beeline for the stray dogs that had captured my heart earlier. Strangers around me cheer as they take turns releasing their deepest desires, painted on huge, hot-air-fueled paper sky lanterns, into the dusky night.
Squatting in the damp gravel, I feed greasy meat bit by bit to pungent, sweet-smelling black fur and glowing chocolate eyes that glitter with the colorful bright lights in the sky. A little while before, I’d sent up a pure white lantern of my own, hopes and dreams scrawled on with a brush and ink in French so that none of my nosy relative could read it.
That was the last night I spent in Taiwan; as I laid in bed that evening, I thought about the blazing lanterns drifting away. I thought about Taiwan’s rain and Hangzhou’s haze, one’s charming authenticity and the other’s humming chaos. I wondered how there could be so many fundamental differences between Taiwan and China, yet somehow, they are contesting whether or not they could be part of the same thing.
As I had that thought, it struck me that this is exactly what the Chinese and American parts of me are currently wrestling each other over – coexistence, and mutual acceptance as the two equally valuable halves of my identity.