Journey to the West
HANNAH MIAO & CATHY YANG 1
Acknowledgements We would like to thank the Stanford Arts Institue and the Honors in the Arts program for sponsoring this project, our mentors Jennie Yoon and Dr. Jessica Piggott for their unwavering support and wisdom, our friends who shared their stories, and our families. We have grown so much as students and artists this past year, and we could not have done this project without the work of countless Asian American activists and artists who inspire us every day.
THE THE THE THE THE THE THE THE THE THE THE THE THE THE THE THE THE
YELLOW YELLOW YELLOW YELLOW YELLOW YELLOW YELLOW YELLOW YELLOW YELLOW YELLOW YELLOW YELLOW YELLOW YELLOW YELLOW YELLOW
WOMAN WOMAN WOMAN WOMAN WOMAN WOMAN WOMAN WOMAN WOMAN WOMAN WOMAN WOMAN WOMAN WOMAN WOMAN WOMAN WOMAN
Before I named myself Lily, I was known to other students as Licking, a nickname that stuck with me after an unfortunate incident with a substitute teacher who was so supremely confident in her butchered pronunciation of my foreign name as she took attendance from the class roster that she couldnâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;t be bothered to listen to my half-hearted attempts to correct her, even while the rest of my classmates struggled to contain their giggles and I shrunk down further and further into my seat. But before I was Licking, back in the days when I still felt some form of an attachment to my given name, when I believed that the proper vocalization of two Chinese characters was something people would be willing to take five seconds out of their day to learn, I introduced myself as Lee Ching. And before I changed my name for the first time to Lee Ching, I was Liqin, beautiful zither, except in the mouths of every non-Chinese person I met in America, the name was grating and impossibly unmelodious and probably sounded like the complete opposite of what my parents had intended for me. 5
I was not an Emily or a Madison or a Caroline, I would most likely never be one, and the universe made sure I knew this as soon as I began school in America. My mother and I had moved permanently to Houston in the spring of first grade to join my father, who was pursuing his PhD at a local university. When my parents attempted to enroll me in elementary school and the administrators discovered that the only English phrases I knew were, “My name is Liqin,” “I am from Beijing,” and “Nice to meet you,” they placed me in the school’s ESL program. On the 14-hour flight across the Pacific, I had meticulously whispered these three phrases over and over to myself, to my mother, to the baby in the seat across the aisle who stared curiously at me whenever she wasn’t bawling, testing out the ebb and flow of the strange new vowels and consonants. But apparently, it wasn’t enough. For ESL, I was pulled out of homeroom twice every week to sit in a room with a teacher whose job it was to point at pictures of common objects—apple, dog, house, car, pencil—and pronounce the associated English words in an obscenely exaggerated manner, her mouth dragging out each syllable to the extent that I worried she would one day dislocate her jaw. The first ESL classmate I met was Akiko, who had long, inky black hair and even darker eyes and who looked similar enough to the children I saw on the streets of Beijing growing up that I instinctively said, “Ni hao,” even as the Japanese phrase “Konnichiwa” rolled off 6
her tongue. We then glared at each other in mutual betrayal, a sour feeling blooming in our stomachs as we realized we had both been deceived by an image of home we helplessly longed for. The rest of my ESL class consisted mostly of Hispanic students who chattered among themselves in their native tongue every time the teacher left to use the bathroom while the rest of us sat sulking in our chairs, wanting to communicate but not knowing how. You couldnâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;t string together a sentence with apple, dog, house, car, pencil. We wanted words like play, game, race, and sometimes, get me out of here. I didnâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;t love ESL, but it was a refuge. There was a sort of camaraderie in our collective estrangement from what was supposed to be our new home, our new identity. We spoke English tentatively, uncertainly, the strange new words catching in our throats as they struggled to make their way out into the world. Meanwhile, in my regular homeroom, I watched resentfully as my classmates responded to the teacherâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s questions with answers in perfect, unblemished English. How was it fair that I had to struggle to translate the English words to Mandarin, then think in Mandarin, then translate my thoughts back to English in my head before I dared to even vocalize them, while my classmates were able to simply blurt out the first uncensored ideas that came to mind without even pausing to consider the vocabulary, the pronunciation, the verb tense, the pronouns, the nuances of the grammar? What right did they have to be so confident, 7
so quick and self-assured while sometimes I paused for so long in my uncertainty that the teacher would give up and simply move on to the next student as if I were some worthless nuisance, an unnecessary anchor that dragged down the rest of my classmates? My father’s scholarship was barely enough to support himself, much less a family of three, and before long, we were all subsisting on a diet of instant ramen noodles and almost expired pizzas from Walmart’s frozen food clearance section while praying that my uncle’s wire transfer from Beijing would clear in time so that we could pay our rent every month. As a result, in the summer after first grade, my mother found a job as a waitress at a local Chinese restaurant while my father continued his research in a mechanical engineering lab, which meant that I spent most of my days cooped up alone in our one-bedroom apartment looking for ways to entertain myself because we were too poor to afford daycare or a babysitter. My parents eventually took pity on me after I spent an evening sobbing and begging them to please, please, send me back to China, because at least I have friends there, at least I have toys and dolls to play with and TV to watch, while here, all I can do is stare blankly at the clock on the wall and count down the minutes until the two of you come home. On the first weekend of July, my father took me to the Houston Public Library. I brought home two canvas bags worth of books—slim picture books with the same words I learned from ESL, 8
chapter books that entranced me with their brightly illustrated covers, and an English student dictionary with accompanying pictures for every entry. For every word I understood, there were two more that I was completely unfamiliar with. But every time I turned a page, I felt a strange sense of accomplishment. I didnâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;t care about apple, dog, house, car, pencil, but I did care about schools that taught witchcraft and wizardry and children living in boxcars who solved mysteries and elaborate golden tickets sent out by the eccentric owner of a chocolate factory. During the day, I made my way slowly through each chapter, squinting at the foreign words and flipping to their respective pages in the dictionary. At night, squeezed between my parents on the only mattress we owned, I repeated the stories to myself and shivered in exhilaration as I thought about the new world I had discovered. By the end of the summer, I was able to go through full chapters without consulting the dictionary. Somehow, I felt victorious. When school started up again in August, I entered my new homeroom with a sense of belonging. I had tested out of ESL, and there was no longer a language barrier between me and the other students. I recognized some of my classmates from last year and we had even exchanged friendly waves, and if it werenâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;t for my distinctly Chinese face, I felt like I could easily have passed for American. That notion was destroyed within the first five minutes. Mrs. Jensen, my new teacher, stared intently at the class roster. We had 10
gone through Thompson, Vasquez, and Wellington, and since my last name was Zhang and I was the only student who hadn’t been called, she was obviously stuck on my name. I squinted fiercely and tried my hardest to send her telepathic brain waves. Liqin. Liqin. She continued to stare down at the roster, and I slumped in my seat as I prepared for the worst. Mrs. Jensen opened her mouth, then closed it, then opened it again. First attempt. “All right, I have no idea how to pronounce this, but I’m going to do my best. Lee King?” Second attempt. “Lie Ken?” Someone giggled. A couple of kids turned this way and that, looking curiously for the owner of this monstrous name, the perpetrator who had confused their all-knowing teacher and put an abrupt end to the steady, efficient rhythm in which she had previously gone down the roster list. I didn’t need to hear a third attempt. I raised my hand. Relief washed over Mrs. Jensen’s face as she spotted my wavering hand, and she gave a self-deprecating little laugh before nodding at me to speak. “It’s Liqin.” “Sorry, I didn’t catch that. Can you say it again?” I dragged out each syllable. “Lee. Ching.” Mrs. Jensen repeated the words back to me. “Lee Ching.” 11
She grabbed a pen from her desk and made a little note on her roster sheet. “Lee Ching, Lee Ching,” she muttered to herself. Shut up, please, just shut up. I knew she didn’t have bad intentions, that she was genuinely uncertain of the pronunciation of this foreign name and that she was sincere in her attempts to learn, but the more she repeated my name, the more attention was drawn towards me, the stranger whose name was a tangible confirmation of her outsider status, and at this moment, I wanted nothing more than to shrink into myself and become invisible. The girl sitting at the desk next to me looked over. “Why did your parents give you such a weird name?” My face flushed. “Cao ni ma,” I told her, repeating one of the curses my older cousin had taught me when I still lived in China. Fuck your mom. “Excuse me? What did you say?” “I said, I don’t know.” She shrugged. “That must suck for you. They should’ve just named you something normal.” “Cao ni zuzong shiba dai.” Fuck your ancestors to the eighteenth generation. “Huh?” “You’re right. Why didn’t they think of that?” Throughout the rest of second grade, I felt like I was constant12
ly on edge. The mispronunciation of my name in the previous year hadn’t particularly bothered me because my English was so terrible, I could barely understand what others were saying. As a result, my ignorance served as a shield against the probing remarks of classmates who had grown up thinking that names originating from Europe were the only valid names in the world, and why would anyone in their right mind want to be called something different? But now that I understood what people were saying, I felt bare and exposed. I introduced myself tentatively when I tried to make new friends during recess and breathed a sigh of relief whenever these prospective friends didn’t bother to comment on my name. If they did get that weird look on their face or ask, “How did you get that name?” or “Where is your name from?” I had a whole spiel prepared—yes, it’s a Chinese name, but I’ve lived in America since I was six, and that’s why my English is so good, and no, my name isn’t meaningless, it actually means “beautiful zither,” and a zither is a historical Chinese instrument, and don’t worry, of course I won’t get offended if you pronounce it incorrectly, it’s a hard name for sure, just do your best to say Lee Ching. There were moments when I almost felt apologetic—why did I have to be such an inconvenience to people? Why did I have to waste people’s precious time to tell them my life story while people named Emily or Madison or Caroline could get away with saying their name only once, and no one would question it or ask them to repeat them13
selves? And almost instantly, that sense of apology shifted into anger. If I could gain fluency in a foreign language in the span of a year, then why couldn’t people bother to learn a singular foreign name? Where was the goddamn fairness in that? The worst days were the ones in which Mrs. Jensen didn’t show up and a substitute teacher came instead. It was like a repeat of the first day of school all over again. The first few times the substitute read off the roster to take attendance, I sat in excruciating agony as they attempted to piece out the nuances of my name. After several half-hearted attempts, I would raise my hand, mutter “I’m here,” and hope that my face hadn’t transformed into the color of an overripe tomato. After a while, it became easier to just speak up before an attempt at saying my name had even been made. I was doing us both a favor.
A year after we first moved to America, I stopped speaking to
my parents in Chinese. It wasn’t intentional. When we first arrived, we had conversed solely in Mandarin, but as I continued to attend school and immerse myself in the English language, my responses came across in the form of a hybrid language---Chinglish—and eventually, it just became easier to skip the extra step of translation in my brain and respond solely in English. I still understood what they said, but for some reason, it had become much more difficult for me to articulate my own thoughts in Chinese. 15
“She’s a lost cause.” My mother was exasperated. “How is she
going to communicate with her grandparents when we visit China?”
“It’s OK,” I tried to comfort her. “I don’t like talking to them
anyway.” Except that was the wrong thing to say, since my mother immediately burst into tears and began to rant heatedly about how the American public schooling system was useless because it didn’t teach the important stuff, like respecting one’s parents and grandparents and upholding the sacred values of filial piety.
My father, fearing the wrath of my mother, quickly enrolled
me in Chinese school. Chinese school wasn’t a traditional school— rather, it was an informal series of classes organized by the local Chinese community held every Saturday at a Chinese-American church in downtown Houston. I was enrolled in the beginner level Mandarin class taught every morning by Lin Laoshi—Teacher Lin, a middle-aged woman who had studied Chinese literature at Peking University but who had switched disciplines to accounting in graduate school after immigrating to America and realizing that no one actually cared about the Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese Literature.
There were about a dozen other students in my class, ranging
in age from eight (me) to twelve (Kelsey Zhao, who had apparently been held back a year in beginner Chinese class because she was just that terrible). Some of the students introduced themselves with English names at the beginning of class, but Lin Laoshi was quick to 16
remind them of just exactly where they were.
“None of that Rachel Tang silliness.” Lin Laoshi picked up a
piece of chalk and began writing on the blackboard. “Your name is Tang Yanting.” She jabbed a finger towards the board, where three intricate Chinese characters had appeared. Her eyes raked across the room so that it appeared like she was singling each of us out. “Whenever we’re in this room, you’ll all use your Chinese names. Understand?”
We understood. What this meant was that Kelsey Zhao
became Zhao Jiaying and Michael Wu became Wu Cheng and even Sarah Guo, who had been born in St. Luke’s Episcopal Hospital and had lived here her entire life, had to ask her parents after class what her Chinese name was so that the next Saturday she could come back to school and report that her name was in fact Guo Liwen.
“How come you never got your name changed?” Jiaying—
Kelsey—asked one morning as we waited in the church parking lot for our parents to pick us up. I sometimes had trouble remembering the fact that she preferred to go by Kelsey, since the only time we really interacted was when we were within the confines of the Chinese classroom and under the watchful gaze of Lin Laoshi.
“Like, changing to an English name?”
“I dunno. Never really thought about it.” 17
“Well, you should. It’ll make life so much easier. I don’t care
what Lin Laoshi says—the old lady is batshit crazy. Try introducing yourself as Jiaying at school, and just wait and see how many friends you’ll make.”
“Oh. Oops. Sorry.” Kelsey attempted to backtrack. “I mean,
Liqin is a really beautiful name. Way prettier than Jiaying. And I’m sure you’re super popular! I would totally want to be your friend, you know, if we went to the same school.”
I tried to look unaffected, but the truth was that her initial
words were almost too accurate for my liking—of course, no one was interested in making friends with the girl with the weird name. It wasn’t like I didn’t have friends—I did, of course, but my school friends were all Chinese or Korean or South Asian, kids who had grown up with these “weird names,” whose loved ones were the owners of these “strange names,” and who had gotten so used to them that they were no longer viewed as abnormal.
“Well, if you ever do wanna change your name, maybe I can
help,” Kelsey offered.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, I didn’t just wake up one day and start calling myself
Kelsey,” she replied, rolling her eyes. “I was Jiaying for all of second grade. And it sucked. So I found a book of popular baby names in 18
the library at the end of the year and I made a list of all the names I liked and then I picked the one that sounded best to me. And I told my parents that they could still call me Jiaying at home, but anytime we were outside, they had to call me Kelsey. And on the first day of school in third grade, I told Mrs. Patterson that I preferred to go by Kelsey. And I just kept on calling myself Kelsey and I wouldn’t respond to anything else so eventually, that just became my name.”
“Huh.” I raised an eyebrow, impressed by Kelsey and her fear-
Kelsey shrugged modestly, but I could tell she was secretly
pleased by my reaction. “It’s not just me, though.” The ego boost made her generous, and she was more than happy to offer up additional information. “If you ask Michael or Rachel, they’d tell you the same thing. Michael and his parents met with their pastor to pick out a new name barely a week after he began school here. And Rachel asked her mom to help her find a new English name, so her mom just named her after some character from this popular TV show. Sometimes, you just need to make that choice for yourself.”
A couple months later, a substitute teacher accidentally pro-
nounced my name as “Licking,” and for the rest of the school year, my peers took a perverse sort of pleasure in calling me by that unfortunate mispronunciation. “Whatcha licking, Licking?” some jeered, while others would open their mouths and make an exaggerated 19
licking motion with their tongues whenever I passed by as if there was some invisible lollipop in front of them. Kelsey was wrong. I didn’t make the choice for myself, but rather, the choice was made for me. There was no way I was willing to subject myself to a lifetime of supposedly innocuous teasing, and when third grade began, I announced to my teacher and classmates on the first day of school that yes, my real name was Liqin, but I preferred to go by my new name, Lily. I didn’t even remember where or when I had discovered Lily; it was one of those names that you just knew had been an American name and would always be one in the annals of history. I liked that the last syllable of the name sounded like the first syllable of my Chinese name—a tangible connection to the part of myself that I was leaving behind. I liked that the name was simple and clean, easy to spell and easy to pronounce. It didn’t catch on unsuspecting tongues, it didn’t cause strangers to stumble over the syllables, it was inoffensive and harmless and provided me with a degree of security I had never known before. Back then, it often felt like I was a defective puzzle piece slotting myself into open spaces but somehow never properly fitting. I was too much, or not enough, or sometimes I would fit for one joyous second before being unceremoniously pushed out. Lily smoothed my hard edges, replaced all the imperfect angles, and molded me into someone who looked like if they tried hard enough, they could 20
When my sister was born, my parents decided to name her
Lirong, after the lotus flower. “She’s going to hate you forever,” I warned them after they came home from a check-up at the gynecologist. “If you just give her some stupid Chinese name, she’s going to hate your guts and find a way to change her name and she’s probably going to move far, far away from you after she grows up and never talk to you again because you made her childhood miserable with that dumb name.” My mother nodded distractedly and murmured a vague sound of agreement. My father didn’t even bother to react. They were too busy dismantling the apartment, looking in every nook and cranny for the documents they needed to complete our family’s application for WIC—a governmental program which provided vouchers for free groceries to families with infants who had a household income under the national poverty line. No matter how much my parents worked and skimped and saved, no matter how many sleepless nights and part-time jobs my mother endured, no matter how many scholarships and funding sources my father applied for, it was never enough. We seemed destined to be poor forever—and in the face of such financial insecurity, how could my parents allot even a modicum of consideration to my childish worries and concerns? “Fine, give her a Chinese name,” I conceded. “But you have 22
to put an English name on all the official documents. That’s what actually matters.” Three months later, my fears were assuaged when my parents came home from the hospital with my baby sister in tow and the birth certificate they carried back clearly said Lauren Zhang in glossy black ink. Later, I realized that my fears should never have materialized in the first place. I wasn’t the only one who had been struggling with a constant bastardization of my given name. At the Chinese restaurant where she worked, my mother introduced herself as Jenny rather than Jin because it was much easier to converse with customers and receive tips for good service if she seemed like an American. Meanwhile, at my father’s mechanical engineering lab, his fellow students and professor referred to him as Andrew—a far cry from his Chinese name, Zihan, but a name which flowed much more smoothly off the tongue as his colleagues discussed research and experiments with him. My parents knew that an English name would make the lives of the people around them much easier—and in return, those people would treat my parents much better. Lirong never had a chance. Not against Lauren. My parents never complained about how difficult it was to fit in and shed their immigrant status—they merely shouldered the burden and tried to move on. But they had learned. They realized that practicality and assimilation should be prized above all else. They knew how difficult 23
it was to survive as an outsider, and they wanted to make sure their second daughter had all the advantages I had done without—American citizenship and an American name.
Lily, my new name, was supposed to be the solution to all
my problems, but I soon discovered that my American name couldn’t fully camouflage my outsider status. In middle school, my homeroom hosted International Day, which meant everyone in my class had to bring some artifact from their cultural background and give a short presentation on it. Rachel Tang and I were the only Chinese students in the class, and because we were both in Chinese school together, we took the opportunity to kill two birds with one stone. One of our homework assignments for Chinese school was to submit two full pages of calligraphy, so we decided to give a partner presentation where we would showcase our calligraphy homework and talk briefly about the history of the art. I spent Sunday afternoon at Rachel’s apartment, where we laughed at our own cleverness as we drew careful strokes on the paper and waited impatiently for the ink to dry.
At school the next day, Akiko Suzuki presented right before
us. She talked about katakana, one of the Japanese modes of writing, and at the end of her presentation, handed us all sleek white index cards on which she had painstakingly written the Japanese transliteration of our English names with a phonetic key for pronunciation underneath. Everyone ooh-ed and aah-ed and tested out their Japa24
nese names while Akiko stood beaming.
“Crap, how are we gonna top that?” I muttered. Rachel
shrugged, but I could tell she was nervous as well by the way she gnawed on her nails.
At the end of our formal presentation, we passed around the
sheets of paper on which we had attempted to produce our own calligraphy and asked the audience if they had any questions.
In the front row, Mark Jackowski raised his hand. “So what’s
my Chinese name?”
“You don’t have a Chinese name,” I told him.
“But I have a Japanese name.”
“So, what’s my Chinese name?”
“It would just be a literal transcription of your English name
to Chinese,” Rachel cut in before I could say anything. “It wouldn’t have any meaning.”
“So you can’t translate Mark to Chinese?”
Rachel’s face was an unflattering shade of red. “I literally told
you, there’s no way to do a direct translation and keep the meaning.”
From her desk in the back of the room, our homeroom teach-
er clucked her tongue in a show of disapproval. “Rachel, Mark’s just trying to learn. He’s doing his best.”
“Sorry,” Rachel muttered halfheartedly. And to me: “If this is 25
his best, then I’d hate to see him at his worst.”
Ashley, who sat two seats behind Mark, raised her hand.
I called on her, hoping that her question would be slightly more intelligent. “But if you had to try,” Ashley pressed, “what would my Chinese name be? What’s Ashley in Chinese?”
I opened my mouth to attempt to give another feeble expla-
nation of how Chinese didn’t actually operate the way they thought it worked, but Rachel beat me to it. “Fine. Whatever. You asked for it. Ashley, your Chinese name is Chun Juan,” she said solemnly. I stared at her, aghast—chunjuan meant spring roll—but Rachel ignored me.
“Yes, perfect,” Rachel confirmed. I snickered.
“OK, so what’s my name?”
“Hmm,” Rachel stared at Mark in concentration. She snapped
her finger. “Ok, I got it. Your name is Zhu Jiao.” Pig trotters.
Rachel proceeded to name the rest of our class as if she were
reading off a Chinese restaurant menu. Tiffany became Chao Fan, fried rice, while Eric became La Mian, pulled noodles. I stood at her side, trying my best to keep from giggling as the names became more and more ridiculous. In the back of my mind, I knew that this was cruel and unfair, that my classmates were only asking out of curiosity they deemed to be innocent and harmless, but my heart had been 26
hardened since childhood, and I had no intention of speaking up for them when no one had ever spoken up for me.
At the end of eighth grade, my father graduated from his PhD
program and found a job as a hardware engineer. That summer, we moved from a shabby two-bedroom apartment prone to cockroach outbreaks to an elegantly built townhouse in the sleepy suburbs of Houston. The new neighborhood was popular among Chinese-American families, and a couple weeks after we moved in, we received an invitation to attend a potluck party at our neighbor’s house. “Ayi hao,” I muttered, acknowledging Mrs. Liu with the formal Chinese greeting I had probably repeated about a hundred times in Chinese school. Our new neighbor was a short, stout woman in her late 40s, with permed hair reminiscent of the characters from Hong Kong dramas in the 1980s. What she lacked in height she made up for with her voice, which was impossibly high and shrill. I had to consciously stop myself from wincing as she continued talking.
“Your Chinese is so fluent! So precise and clear. If I didn’t
know any better, I would’ve thought that you grew up in China!” I almost snorted at Mrs. Liu’s exaggerated compliment, but one stern glance from my mother quickly turned my snort into an underwhelming cough.
“Nonsense. Her Chinese is terrible. She’s been taking lessons
for years, but it’s been a complete waste of money. We can barely 27
understand what she says.” Enter my mother, on the other side of the spectrum. This was how conversations between two Chinese mothers usually played out once their children were involved. One party would praise the other’s child to the heavens for the slightest accomplishment; the other party would have to demolish their child’s achievements to the brink of nothingness lest they seemed too arrogant or self-assured. “Chinese mom politics” was the term Kelsey Zhao had coined for this type of behavior during one lazy afternoon at Chinese school, and I couldn’t have agreed more.
“At least your daughter is willing to learn. I tried to sign Jason
up for Chinese classes, but he refused. He just wouldn’t budge! So now, he only takes swimming and tennis lessons. Here, let me show you.” Mrs. Liu whipped out her phone and swiped on the screen. She showed us a couple pictures of her son’s swim and tennis teams—a sea of white faces broken by the appearance of her son, a scrawny and tanned teenager with a shock of spiky black hair and square-framed glasses.
“He’s so handsome and tall. And athletic! You’re so lucky to
have a son like him.”
Mrs. Liu waved her hand dismissively, but I could tell she was
secretly pleased by the slight upturn of her mouth. “You’re too kind. He’s just a typical American boy, you know? When my parents came over from Anhui to visit us, they could barely communicate with 28
him. His Chinese is terrible, but what can you do? He’s lived here his entire life. All his friends are white. I know a lot of the Chinese students like to stick together at school, but Jason isn’t like that. He’s just American.”
I glanced at my mom, but I couldn’t gauge her reaction. Her
expression was one of steely politeness. But something about what Mrs. Liu had said made me uncomfortable—although she sounded disappointed that Jason couldn’t speak the Chinese language properly, there seemed to be a weird sort of pride that seeped into her tone. Pride in his ignorance? Pride that all of his friends were supposedly white? What was wrong with having friends that were mostly Asian? There was a special type of friendship that could only be developed through the lambasting of harsh parenting methods, the discovery of similar traditions and values, and the constant insecurity of never completely belonging. But Mrs. Liu treated all of that like some appalling virus that should be avoided at all costs.
My mother went on the counterattack. “You might as well
enroll him in Chinese school now, before it’s too late. Don’t you want to be able to communicate with your son?”
Mrs. Zhao bristled. “That’s not a problem. I’m not going to
make him learn Chinese, not when we don’t have any plans to go back to China permanently. We might as well just fully adapt.” The summer before I begin high school, I visit China for the 29
first time since moving to Texas. My parents had taken individual trips there since we first moved to America—to visit and take care of ailing parents, to attend weddings and funerals, to recharge and spend some much-needed time in the only place they knew as home—but we had never gone together as a whole family. On the first night of our trip, my mother’s sister takes us to a fancy restaurant famous for its Peking duck and extensive alcohol collection. “Liqin, are you enjoying the food?” My aunt uses a large porcelain spoon to place more shrimp into my bowl, and I swat at her hands haplessly. “Yeah. Really, this is more than enough!” She ignores me, and I sigh in resignation as she continues ladling food. There’s no way I’m going to leave China without having gained at least an additional ten pounds. My aunt puts down the spoon once she’s satisfied with the overflowing appearance of my bowl. “By the way, what did you say your English name was again?” “Lily.” Stuck in this room in this foreign country, with my Aunt Ping and Uncle Xiaosheng and cousin Wenhan, my mother Jin and my father Zihan, I suddenly feel out of place. “Lee-Lee,” my aunt repeats, and I wince at the obvious bastardization of the name. Why is it that I can never seem to win? “You can just call me Liqin,” I mutter. “It’s not like we’re in 30
America.” Somehow, the name that I once thought would solve all my problems has become an obstacle in itself. Lily is useless here. “Liqin, don’t you remember all the adventures you had with your cousin?” Aunt Ping jabs a finger towards the gangly college student sitting across from me at the rounded restaurant table. “Do you remember that time when the two of you peed on the new hardwood floor of our apartment? And then you both decided to drag a rug over the puddle so neither of you would be found out?” She continues speaking, blissfully unaware—or blatantly undeterred—by the humiliation sprouting beet-red on both of our faces. “But you felt so guilty about it that you went to me and confessed. Except rather than telling the truth, you told me that it was all your cousin’s fault. Apparently, you’d simply been an unwitting bystander to his crime!” The adults at the table, all of whom are fully ensnared by the influence of baijiu, laugh loudly. “Even when she was young, she was already so clever,” my mother laughs. My uncle hoots and slaps me on the back. My father, whose face is flushed like a persimmon, liberally pours himself another drink of Maotai liquor and raised it towards me as if to toast my craftiness. In this moment of embarrassment, my cousin and I can’t help but exchange looks of misery. Since our first meeting at the airport, when Wenhan and his family had come to pick us up so that we wouldn’t have to wait for a taxi big enough to fit all of our luggage, my cousin and I had been awkward and uncertain 31
around one another. He was four years older than me and had been my constant playmate before I left for America, but in the years since, we had only kept in touch sporadically over phone calls. But the story my mother tells brings us back to a time when Wenhan would buy me ring pops from the convenience store the block over, when I would wait eagerly for him to come home from his evening cram school so that I could tell him good night, when he was my closest friend and confidante. “Wenhan got her back, eventually,” my uncle interjects. “Remember when Liqin’s father moved to America? And you told little Liqin over here that he was gone forever? That he had abandoned her because he no longer loved her?” Aunt Ping cackles. “Liqin, you cried for ages. We could hear you sniffling even at night! The sound just went straight through the walls. And finally, Wenhan felt so bad about what he had done he wrote you a letter and pretended it was from your father. And he made me read it to you, do you remember? Before you went to bed one night, I entered your room and sat at your side and told you that your father had gone to America to make a better life for you. And he’d be back for you soon.”
Something heavy catches in my throat. I open my mouth to
respond, but the only sound that emerges is a thin wheezing. Fortunately, no one seems too concerned. My father finishes the drink in
his glass and stirs the conversation towards another nostalgic topic. I’m thankful for his unwitting kindness.
Gone to America to make a better life for you. Yet how many
times had I complained to my parents for uprooting me from my idyllic Beijing childhood, for forcing me to suffer through secondhand clothing and unheated apartments and the constant worry about not having enough money for the week’s groceries? How many times had I berated them for placing me in a new country with a given name that seemed to mark me for a life of failure and misery? How many times had I rued my circumstances aloud to my parents, even as my mother grew blisters on her feet from all the walking she was doing as a waitress and my father tutored privileged, ungrateful undergraduates who unabashedly told him he needed to spend more time studying English whenever his Chinese accent made an appearance? They had tried so hard for me, but I hadn’t ever thought about repaying their sacrifices. Instead, I had even rejected one of the most important things my parents had given me—my name. On our last night in China, I crawl into the same bed in my aunt’s apartment that I slept in nearly a decade ago. The bed sits in its old place under the windowsill, in the same room where my mother and I stayed after we sold our family’s apartment to finance my father’s studies abroad. The hardwood floor has accumulated a faint layer of dust, but the blankets are just as heavy and downy as I 34
remember them to be, and the walls are decorated with the beloved entertainment of my childhood—fading posters of the Monkey King, the half-human and half-pig Zhu Bajie, and the sturdy Sha Wujing, characters from the cartoon adaptation of the classical Chinese novel, Journey to the West. It feels like a lifetime ago that I was playing with my dolls under the watchful gaze of the figures on the posters or practicing my Chinese characters in the desk opposite my bed, or even prancing around on the hardwood floor, daydreaming about what America would be like. The untouched state of the room makes it feel like a shrine. I head over to the desk and pull open a random drawer. There’s a stack of papers stuffed inside, and I slowly thumb my way through them. I can pick out phrases, a couple of sentences, sometimes even whole paragraphs, but the majority of the text is incomprehensible to me. A couple hours of Chinese school each week can’t make up for seven years of Chinese language classes, daily conversations with classmates and friends and family, the constant consumption of Chinese media and music and entertainment. I dump the pages back into the drawer and open another one. The contents bring a smile to my face. It’s another stack of papers, but this time, they’re not heavily jammed with miniscule printed text. Instead, the papers contain 10 by 10 squares, and down each column, in gawky and uncertain childlike handwriting, the same character ap35
pears ten times. 我. I. 他. He. 她. She. 它. It. I flip through the pages. Progressively, the characters get harder, but the writing becomes more self-assured. 妈妈. Mother. 爸爸. Father. 姐姐. Older sister. 妹妹. Younger sister. 哥哥. Older brother. 弟弟. Younger brother. Old homework assignments from my elementary school days, when I had just begun learning the Chinese language. Each line is so carefully wrought, each character painstakingly crafted—how was I to have known that in a decade’s time, they would be worthless to me? I pause at the last sheet of paper and trace the characters down the page with one trembling finger. 张丽琴. Zhang Liqin. When was the last time outside of the confines of my Chinese school that someone had called me that? That I had referred to myself with that name? How could I have thrown away something so intimate and precious? I think of my six year-old self, meticulously tracing out each line and curve, then going back to the beginning and repeating the process all over again so that I could cement the characters in my brain. And for a moment, the paper heavy in my grasp, I think that maybe I’ll return to my roots, that when I go back to America, I’ll change my name again. Except this time it’ll be final, and I’ll have returned to the very start, and this will be some sort of poetic justice. But my thoughts are interrupted when I hear my mother and father from the living room, ready to go now that they’ve said their goodbyes. “Lily,” their voices call in sync, and I stuff the papers back into their home, slam the 36
drawer shut, and retreat in silence, the name Liqin a half-remembered dream on my tongue.
THE THE THE THE THE THE THE THE THE THE THE THE THE THE THE THE THE
YELLOW YELLOW YELLOW YELLOW YELLOW YELLOW YELLOW YELLOW YELLOW YELLOW YELLOW YELLOW YELLOW YELLOW YELLOW YELLOW YELLOW
WOMAN WOMAN WOMAN WOMAN WOMAN WOMAN WOMAN WOMAN WOMAN WOMAN WOMAN WOMAN WOMAN WOMAN WOMAN WOMAN WOMAN
â&#x20AC;&#x153;We know by now that Asiatic femininity in the Western racial imagination has never needed the biological or the natural to achieve a full, sensorial, agile, and vivid presence. Asiatic femininity has always been prosthetic. The dream of the yellow woman subsumes a dream about the inorganic. She is an, if not the, original cyborg.â&#x20AC;? â&#x20AC;&#x2022; Anne Anlin Cheng, Ornamentalism
F O R
O U R
M O T H E R S
“You’re here, supposedly, in a new land full of opportunity, but somehow have gotten trapped in a pretend version of the old country.” ― Charles Yu, Interior Chinatown
THE THE THE THE THE THE THE THE THE THE THE THE THE THE THE THE THE
YELLOW YELLOW YELLOW YELLOW YELLOW YELLOW YELLOW YELLOW YELLOW YELLOW YELLOW YELLOW YELLOW YELLOW YELLOW YELLOW YELLOW
WOMAN WOMAN WOMAN WOMAN WOMAN WOMAN WOMAN WOMAN WOMAN WOMAN WOMAN WOMAN WOMAN WOMAN WOMAN WOMAN WOMAN
CONVERSATIONS WITH CHINESE AMERICAN WOMEN
Sophia H. For me, being Chinese American means to be located at an intersection. It’s not a stable identity. It’s a constant oscillation between what it means to be American and what it means to be Chinese. Every New Year’s, my family and I participate in ancestor worship. We would always go outside and burn money to the ancestors. So, you’re standing outside on a cold New Year’s day, and you’re bowing, and there’s smoke and incense, and you’re not really sure about whether an ancestor is really listening. But you do it anyways because your parents are doing it. I think that state of being ambivalent or unsure is something that really captures the Chinese American identity.
In relation to broader discourse, I think that the Chinese American body is portrayed in a very feminine way. But what that does to individuals is to make you feel like you’re not enough. To be Chinese American—and especially a Chinese American woman—means to be fearful, too, in many different ways. I remember when I was traveling to med school interviews, I would often be terrified, especially in the beginning. I would call a Lyft and then I would try to call people on my phone and wait for them to pick up in the Lyft because I didn’t want to be in the car and not have my driver know that someone else knew I existed. And that is incredibly debilitating. You can say that it’s not specific to Chinese American women, that maybe this is an experience that women have in general, but I think that Chinese-American women are seen to be particularly vulnera-
â&#x20AC;&#x153;I think that state of being ambivalent or unsure is something that really captures the Chinese American identity.â&#x20AC;?
ble. They’re seen as victims. Traditionally, they’ve been sites of fetishization and sites of erotic desire. They’re the ones who are gazed upon.
In response to the fetishization of the Chinese American female body, I’ve been trying to be more aggressive about responding. I think it makes a difference. It takes bravery as well. I think those guys actually recognized that, and they were like “What the fuck?” But I still don’t feel comfortable engaging in actual verbal dialogue with someone who catcalls me on the street. And quite a bit of that has to do with the vulnerability of the female body. You’re scared that someone is going to hurt you. There’s a fear for your literal physical well-being. You don’t trust society to respect the fact that you have ownership over your own body.
“sites of fetishization and sites of erotic desire. They’re the ones who are gazed upon.” 54
Cindy K. On one hand, I think I’ve always felt like the Chinese part of me—this particular heritage—was something special, because there’s not really as strong of an “American” culture to grasp onto as there is with Chinese languages or food or other components. But with being Chinese American, I think there’s always going to be this sense of being stuck between two sides. And increasingly, I find myself at odds with my parents who represent more of the Chinese side of me. The more time I spend away from them, the more I feel that I become integrated into American culture. I don’t think we will ever resolve that conflict, but the relationship isn’t something that I can throw away. I am Chinese; my parents are Chinese. There’s no way that I could ever just excise that part from myself entirely. To be Chinese American is to accept the fact that you’ll be pulled towards two different directions all the time. I believe the root of the conflict between me and my parents is this sense of generational debt. The more I understand the sacrifices they’ve made to bring my brother and I here, the more I feel gratitude for what they did and for moving us from an environment that they were familiar and comfortable with all the way to America. They took a loss and sacrificed a lot of the opportunities they might have had as adults in order to lay this foundation for us. So, there’s always going to be this sense of debt—of guilt—present, and that’s another part of being Chinese American. Or maybe of being an immigrant. It’s something we’re never going to be able
to get rid of. At the same time, although I do feel this sense of closeness to my parents and gratitude for the sacrifices they’ve made, we run into this issue over and over again. From their end, they don’t see gratitude from me. The contexts in which we grew up—and our understanding of what we owe to our families versus what we owe to ourselves—are so fundamentally different that there’s always going to be some friction between us.
“To be Chinese American is to accept the fact that you’ll be pulled towards two different directions all the time.”
Melinda W. To me, being Chinese American means trying to straddle both Chinese and American cultures at once. I know a lot of people who, in order to fit in more with American society, will avoid things that are related to being Chinese, such as speaking Mandarin. Because taking the time to speak Mandarin or to learn Chinese will take away the time you can spend on becoming a better writer in English. On a more personal level, the Chinese I speak isn’t good enough for me to fully converse with my relatives in China, which means I won’t ever fully fit in in China either. So, to be Chinese American means you can’t fully be Chinese or American. But even though you’re straddling these two different worlds, I’m still super proud to be Chinese American. It just means you can adapt to and deal with this trade-off. The first thing I think of when I think of Chinese American women is the word “strong.” Because many of the Chinese American women I know are hardworking, opinionated, and very thoughtful in what they do. And I think it’s because the previous generation of Chinese women who immigrated here were tagged with being docile and not outspoken. As a result, my generation of Chinese American women has had to be more vocal and thoughtful in order to combat that kind of view. I went to Palo Alto High School, and the popular Asian kids were the ones who hung out with the white people. Your social status was kind of determined by how many white people you were friends with. Maybe
it was because of internalized racism? I felt the need to distance myself from the stereotypical Asian group, a group that was kind of looked down upon. Also, because there are so many Asians in the Bay Area, the mentality—especially in terms of getting into college—is that because there are so many other Asian-Americans who are good at math, have a good GPA, and do well on the SATs, you have to set yourself apart in some other way. The Asians that did social impact organizations or were more well-spoken were looked upon as the ones who were going to get into the better schools. Personally, I tried to attain attributes that were not associated with being Asian, such as participating in art and sports. Yet at the same time, I still attended Chinese school, and the art studio I attended was composed of all Chinese students. I feel like I benefit from being an Asian woman in the dating pool. Because unlike Asian men, we’re not looked down upon in a certain way. At the same time, when you’re an Asian woman and you’re not dating someone who’s an Asian man, you think to yourself, “Oh, is this yellow fever?” There’s a lot more judgment of your relationship as an Asian woman, no matter who you’re dating. If you’re dating an Asian man, people think, “Oh, just another Asian couple; they didn’t branch out. They’re so Chinese.” If you’re dating a white man, people think, “Another Asian woman-White man couple. She must be ashamed to be Asian, or maybe she’s trying to level up.” There’s always some sort of judgment going on.
“She must be ashamed of being Asian.“ 60
My mom tells me, “You should just be healthy,” but her definition of healthy is just working out and being skinny. I’ve never thought that the ideal body is someone with curves. That mentality comes from my parents and looking at a lot of beautiful Asian women who are very thin. I had a very healthy body image in high school because I was a swimmer, and you really don’t have time to think about that stuff when you’re an athlete. You’re just thinking about fueling your body and going faster and performing better. In college, I kept up that mentality for a while—working out every day and caring only about health. But it got worse after joining an Asian-interest sorority because a lot of the girls were focused on being skinny.
Lisa W. Being Chinese American means being in the middle of two distinct cultures, for better or worse. Of course, there are struggles and difficulties that come with that—not feeling Chinese enough for my relatives in China, feeling too Asian for the white people at my school. But to me, it also means being in the middle of two worlds and trying to grapple with that and carve out my own identity and figure out what that means. On a deeper level, being a Chinese American woman means trying to overcome two barriers as I try to forge my career and live my live as an adult in the US. One thing, of course, is dealing with the stereotyping and discrimination and biases towards Asian people. But another hurdle I have to jump over in many instances is being a woman. But I think I take pride in that—because for anything I do, it’s something for both the Chinese American community and for women to be proud of. So, it’s cool to be able to represent and learn from both groups. In high school, I was coming back from a rave and I was at In-N-Out with my friends, and we were around 17 years old. I remember some older white males were catcalling us, and some of the comments they were making were related to our Asian backgrounds. I remember being super belligerent to them. This guy was 6’3”, and I was in his face yelling, “Don’t say that shit!” People often comment that maybe it’s not smart to do that—especially in an aggressive way—because these guys could hurt you and you should worry about your safety. But, if no one says
“not feeling Chinese enough for my relatives in China”
“feeling too Asian for the white people at my school” 63
anything, people are just going to keep doing it. But in the moment, I get so hurt. Every time. It hurts me, but it also hurts me to think about people doing this to other young women that can’t really defend themselves, so I just have to say something. A lot of children of immigrants or of minorities feel there’s kind of a generational disconnect. Perhaps their parents, grandparents, or people older than them don’t really have the same understanding of what it means to go to therapy or deal with improving mental health. And I definitely have seen that in Palo Alto, through my experiences. I would say my parents are pretty Americanized. They came here a while ago and have adopted a lot of Western culture. They’re very supportive about taking time off for your mental health. But even so, there was this one time where my mom was talking about how my sister is more emotionally fragile than me when it comes to schoolwork and stress in academics. She made this comment: “But you’re so much stronger than your younger sister. I don’t think you would ever get depressed.” It can put a little bit of a hamper on making progress with your own mental health. I can only really speak for myself, but after what happened with Gunn and the suicide clusters, my parents became more aware and cognizant of what fatigue and stress can do to people—especially young people. There’s a noticeable shift in the way my parents have gone about parenting my sister. They’re much more careful to check in with her and see how she’s doing mentally and with her stress levels and workload. I re-
member my mom fighting with my sister and saying something like, “You should take fewer AP classes! It will be better for your mental health!” Time has definitely changed the way they view mental health and how it should be taken care of. The first time I realized I was Asian was when I was nine years old. I remember this so distinctly. In elementary school, I was on the softball team. One day after practice, it was really hot, and we were going to get ice cream. Our coach was one of my friend’s moms. And both she and her mom were Caucasian, but around one-third of the kids on the team were Asian. And as we were walking to get ice cream, there were these older middle school guys on their bikes crowded around the ice cream place. And I remember hearing one of them say, “Why is this white lady with a bunch of chinks?” I didn’t even know what the word meant at that point, but I could just tell from the feeling of it that it was alienating and derogatory. I was so embarrassed, and I tried not to think about it. It’s only later that I learned what the term meant. In college, I’ve only dated East Asian guys. But my first serious relationship was with an Indian American who was Muslim. There were definitely a lot of cultural barriers and struggles with our parents approving. A lot of people will say it’s easier to date someone within your own culture because they understand the same traditions and values. I hesitate to make that claim, but I do think after dating in college, I’ve started to notice elements of my Chinese American identity affecting the choices I make. Val-
ues like respecting your parent, tenets of Chinese culture that my parents would mention and which I used to just brush aside. I’m starting to notice and appreciate more and more of that. In high school, I used to think, “It might be kind of cool if their mom is calling and they just don’t pick up.” But now I’m like, “Pick up the damn phone and ask her how she’s doing!”
“A lot of children of immigrants or of minorities feel there’s kind of a generational disconnect.”
Angela L. If you think about in on the surface level, being Chinese American is pretty objective. Your ethnicity is Chinese; your nationality is American. But I think there’s a lot of nuance to that. My parents, who are immigrants, consider themselves Chinese American, but they’re very different from me, even though I also consider myself Chinese American. My high-level understanding of what it means to be Chinese American considers how my Chinese background, culture, and ethnicity influence my experience in America. Those two cultures come together and affect the way I live my life and how. I experience different things. For example, with Covid-19 going on right now, to be Chinese American is to face a lot more xenophobia. I hear a lot of stories about Chinese Americans who are going about their everyday lives being shouted at and spat on just because of the way they look. And obviously, it’s not the fault of Chinese Americans that Covid-19 got started, but in a lot of people’s minds, we’re the ones to blame for that. I built up a lot of internal embarrassment around being Chinese, just from some very implicit things. In kindergarten, back when I lived in Pennsylvania, we had this show-and-tell event where we were supposed to bring in a food that represents our culture or home. My parents handmade dumplings for that show-and-tell, and I brought them to school, and the teacher served dumplings to everyone. We were all eating them, and I remember this one kid asked, “Wait, does this have spinach in it?” And I told him it did. And then he said, “Ew! I hate spinach!” And all the other
â&#x20AC;&#x153;I built up a lot of internal embarrassment around being Chinese, just from some very implicit things.â&#x20AC;?
kids were like, “Ew! I also hate spinach!” And after that, no one wanted to eat those dumplings. And I remember that being so traumatizing for me. I don’t think at that point I thought, “Oh, it’s because I’m Chinese,” but I just felt very different from the other kids. By the time I was nine years old and moved to a predominantly Asian place—San Ramon—I had built up a lot of hatred and embarrassment towards being Chinese and being non-white, essentially. And that’s why I never learned Mandarin. I complained to my mom so much, telling her that I didn’t want to learn the language. I really rejected that part of myself. I took one year of Chinese school, and after that, I was like, “I’m done. I don’t want to do this anymore.” The first nine years of my life were so vital to me in terms of rejecting my heritage. It was all the implicit things—just looking very different, being embarrassed by the way my parents spoke English in public, that kind of stuff. In high school, most of my friends were Indian American. And towards the latter part of high school, I started to become very envious of how deeply connected they were to their culture. I went to my best friend’s sixteenth birthday party. It was an Indian birthday party, so it was very festive and everyone was dressed up in traditional Indian clothing. I saw them being so proud of their own culture. They would always talk about Bollywood music and songs during school and during lunch. And I didn’t really have anything to speak about for my own culture. I think that made me realize there isn’t really anything to be ashamed of. I saw all of my friends being so deeply entwined in their heritage, and I felt almost left out in that kind
of experience. And that made me wish I hadn’t rejected my heritage when I was younger.
“I don’t think at that point I thought, ‘Oh, it’s because I’m Chinese,’ but I just felt very different from the other kids.”
THE THE THE THE THE THE THE THE THE THE THE THE THE THE THE THE THE
by hannah miao
“You’re skinny. Much too skinny. I can almost see the bones.
What were they feeding you over there?” My mother jabbed a finger at my chin. Her voice erupted in rapid-fire Mandarin, and for a moment, it was as if I were back in Beijing. “Your face used to be round, yet now it’s all angles. But why? You were only away for two months. And there’s so much good food to eat in China. Street vendors, restaurants, night markets. This is the first time that I’ve seen someone lose weight after visiting. And of course, your aunt must have cooked for you. I told her to take good care of my daughter, not to send her back as a skeleton. So how did this happen?”
“Missed you too,” I muttered. I shielded my face against the
sunlight leaking in through the living room window. Slivers of red and orange still managed to sneak their way into the spaces between each finger, and I scowled. It was mid-afternoon in Houston, which meant that it was around dawn in Beijing. I should have been fast asleep.
My mother knelt on the floor, unzipping the bulging suitcase
in the center of the room. Haphazardly folded clothes, trinkets from various tourist attractions, and a glossy black photo album spilled out. The last item was from a portrait studio session my aunt had paid for as a goodbye gift during my last few weeks in Beijing. Professional glamour photoshoots—complete with traditional outfits like 74
qipaos and hanfu—were popular among girls in China, and my aunt had been horrified to discover that my parents had never taken me through this rite of passage. My mother’s attention instantly latched onto the photo album, and she began flipping through the pages. “These photos turned out so well,” she cooed. “You look so pretty here. All grown up.”
“Oh my God. Stop it. You’re embarrassing me.” I sat down
next to her, face flaming up as I spotted a photo of myself dressed in a tight-fitting qipao with a dainty floral design. In the photo on the next page, I wore a flowy pink dress and carried a white paper parasol. The stark red lipstick and rosy eyeshadow the stylist had applied had seemed overwhelming at the time, but the colors had mellowed out in the printed photos. The freckles and acne on my face had also been digitally removed, and my skin, tanned by summers spent jogging underneath the harsh Texas sun, had somehow turned an entire shade lighter during the editing process. It was still me—but a polished, refurbished version of myself. I could have easily passed for one of the many teenage girls I had seen that summer strolling around Beijing. Pretty. Pale. Skinny.
“I look fine in these photos.”
“I agree. You’ve really matured.” My mother turned the page.
“But they were taken just a few weeks ago.”
“I’m the same amount of skinny. I looked exactly like this”—I
stood up and gestured down the length of my body—“when I was at the portrait studio.”
My mother closed the album and began to organize the pile
of unfolded clothing. “Well, you know what they say. You always look fatter on camera.”
“But you said I looked too skinny.”
“Maybe for America.” My mother laughed. She craned her
head to look up at me. “I think I’ve gotten too used to this country. So many pangzi. Fat people.” She examined me, her eyes scanning up and down methodically. “Of course I don’t want my daughter to look skinny. You’re growing, so obviously you need to eat more. So you can be healthy. So you can have energy.” “Never mind.” I felt lightheaded. The tell-tale signs of a headache were starting to form. It was if my brain was rattling within the confines of my skull, ready to burst out at any moment. I picked up the photo album and held it tight to my chest. “I’m tired. I’m going to bed. Don’t wake me up for dinner.”
A couple years before I visited the city, I saw Beijing for the
first time on a television screen. I’d seen references to the city before—a pristine little dot on the massive map hanging in my father’s study, the occasional mention in a world history textbook, the place that my parents referred to as “home,” even though we’d been living 76
in the suburbs of Houston for the past decade and had no plans to upend our lives and move anywhere else. But that August, Beijing was relentless: a fixture in every newspaper and talk show and news program. The image of Beijing National Stadium, a lofty arena designed in the shape of an elegant bird’s nest, was broadcast so many times that by the end of the month, I felt like I could have drawn the building with all its intricate steelwork from memory.
At school, all anyone could talk about was Michael Phelps
and his record-setting swim times, but at home, my parents marveled at the ingenuity of Zhang Yimou and his direction of the Opening Ceremony. We splayed ourselves across the sofa with a bowl of popcorn, staring in awe as spectacle after spectacle unfolded across the gleaming screen of the TV—2,008 drummers beating their instruments in stunning synchronization, Lang Lang pounding out an animated melody on his piano, lithe black-clad dancers leaving behind elaborate ink paintings as their long limbs curled across a scroll of white canvas paper. The whole ceremony had an almost cinematic quality to it—and when retired gymnast Li Ning ran across the rim of the stadium in theatrical splendor and lit the enormous Olympic torch with a flourish of flames, I wasn’t quite ready for the show to end. It was the complete opposite of Chinese school, where I usually spent Sunday afternoons gazing longingly at the clock hanging above the blackboard and waiting for the hour hand to hit three. I attended 77
class mainly out of a sense of obligation to my parents, who had no trouble doling out hundreds of dollars a month for Chinese school because it was “an investment in my future,” but there was no one keeping me glued to the sofa, shoulders hunched forward as I sat in anticipation before the TV screen. It was one thing to learn in class about the Four Great Inventions of ancient China—papermaking, printing, gunpowder, and the compass—but another thing entirely to see them displayed visually with such fanfare and glamor. As if the culture that originated these inventions was something to be proud of, not something to be kept furtively hidden in public and released only in the privacy of my own home. At night, I dreamt of fireworks erupting against the Beijing skyline, spilling their glow across the metallic framework of the Bird’s Nest and illuminating the city underneath. “My mom says their ages are all faked.”
“It’s so obvious they’re lying.”
“What else would you expect? They’re from China.” A burst
of laughter. “All they know how to do is copy and cheat.”
My face heated up. The accusations weren’t directed towards
me, but I felt embarrassed all the same. Even guilty. My friends looked at me expectantly, waiting for me to join the chorus. They were kind people, good people. We went to sleepovers at each other’s houses and shared snacks at lunchtime and stealthily passed notes in 78
class whenever things got too boring, and I didn’t want to disappoint them. “They look like twelve-year-olds,” I spat out with as much vitriol as I could manage. My voice cracked slightly, but no one commented on it. I continued, my sense of self-preservation kicking in. “They should all be disqualified.” I had to make it obvious that I was in complete agreement, that my loyalty was indisputable. Never mind that I had been born in Houston Methodist Hospital, that the rest of my family had gone through the naturalization process to become American citizens, that I only spoke English at home, that I had received the highest score—a perfect score—on the American geography exam in my social studies class the year before. None of that mattered. Physically, there was very little to separate me from those Chinese, the wiry teenage gymnasts who had been heralded in the media as the enemies of Team USA. We were mirror images of each other, short and scrawny, and our rounded faces still carried the remnants of baby fat. It was difficult to believe that these girls with their slender, bird-boned bodies could be viewed as threats. Years later, I would recognize how ridiculous the entire situation was, how utterly absurd it was that six Chinese teenage girls, none of whom were over five feet tall, could inspire such unbridled paranoia and fear of the type that bordered on outright xenophobia. But in that instance, all I could think about was drawing as little attention to myself as possible. I 80
didn’t want to be associated with them, even though I could easily have passed for one of them.
My friends nodded in approval. I was the only Chinese girl—
in fact, the only Asian at the lunch table—so if I agreed with them, then they must be right. I exhaled a sigh of relief I didn’t know I was holding back. When I went home that day, I briefly mentioned the incident to my sister, in the same tone of voice reserved for talking about a test that didn’t go very well or a tardy warning received because I was dropped off late at school or some other minor inconvenience that was barely worth mentioning. Lily’s eyes widened incredulously, and she launched into a tirade about Sinophobia this, xenophobia that. I ignored her and headed into the kitchen to make myself a sandwich. Her rant rose in volume through the walls and worked its way into my ears like the buzzing sound of a disgruntled bee whose hive has just been disturbed. I concentrated on methodically stacking cheese and lettuce upon a slice of bread. Eventually, her voice transformed into background noise before fading away entirely.
The Beijing Olympics are the ones that resonate most strongly
in my memory, but the first Olympics I remember watching was Salt Lake City 2002, when Michelle Kwan fell on the ice in her glossy red dress and settled for bronze and then barely a day later, skated to “Fields of Gold” with devastatingly poignant artistry and grace. Even 81
then, I knew there was something audacious—something brilliantly defiant—about the act. The bronze medalist, who should have been an afterthought, staking her place in history. There was something about Michelle’s lithe, graceful figure, the quiet steeliness of each jump and spin, and the way she continued to smile and wave at the audience even as the tears streamed down her face that prompted me to beg my mother for skating lessons until she was so fed up with my incessant whining that she relented and signed me up for beginner classes at the nearest ice rink. For nearly a year after the end of the Winter Olympics, she drove me to that rink every Friday afternoon so that I could glide tentatively across the ice and fulfill my childish ambitions of being the next Michelle Kwan. At home, my mother altered an old yellow dress of my sister’s so that it would better fit me, and I pranced around the house in my makeshift figure skating dress, waving graciously at the walls and blowing kisses at an adoring invisible audience as if I, too, had just finished the performance of a lifetime. On my wish list for Christmas, I listed Michelle’s 1997 autobiography, and over the course of a week, I listened in rapturous silence before bedtime as my sister Lily recounted the beginnings of her exceptional career. Sometimes, I wondered at my own attachment to her. There were so many accomplished American athletes, so many potential role models, but none of them mattered. Not when Michelle existed. None of them were petite, black-haired, 82
and brown-eyed, with East Asian features and a surname that was considered atypical among her peers. The gold medalist that year had been Sarah Hughes, but I didn’t want gold. I just wanted to be Michelle. When I first landed in Beijing, I went shopping with my aunt after a bottle of lotion in my suitcase leaked and ended up permanently staining the majority of the clothes I had brought. I hadn’t slept at all on the 15-hour flight, too worried about how exactly I would get through customs and immigration with my elementary school level Mandarin, nor had I eaten any of the meals the flight attendants delivered, in the fear that I would have to pee in a dirty airplane bathroom. I was sleep deprived and hungry, and Beijing’s brutal humidity and heat only served to make me more irritable. “Don’t you want to pick some clothes for yourself?” My aunt browsed through the racks, occasionally selecting a blouse or T-shirt that she thought might suit me.
“It’s OK. I’ll be fine with anything you pick.” I spotted a shirt
with the words RUN YOUR DREAMS splattered in large black letters across the front. A tank top next to it displayed the phrase ALWAYS MUST BELIEF YOURSELF. I snickered. “Actually, please don’t choose anything with English on it.”
My aunt frowned. “It’s hard to get refunds in China. If you
don’t like something, we probably won’t be able to return it.” 83
“I’ll wear whatever you buy me, I promise. Really.”
“All right, all right. What size are you?”
“Small. Or extra small. I can usually fit into both.”
“You sure you don’t want to try anything on? Last chance.”
I shook my head, and she sighed in resignation. We left the
store half an hour later, each of us carrying a large canvas bag stuffed full of new clothes. That afternoon, after I had taken a much-needed nap in the guest bedroom, I rummaged through the contents of our shopping spree. I tried to slip on a casual striped T-shirt, but while my head went through easily, it took me several seconds of maneuvering and frustrated grunting before I could get my arms through the too-tight sleeves. Instead of falling all the way down, the hem of the shirt stayed bundled up beneath my chest. When I finally pulled the shirt down, I could full the heavy cotton fabric pressing uncomfortably against my skin, as if I was caught in some stifling vice-like grip. The effect was even worse when I peered in the mirror. The shirt was wrapped around me like a second skin, highlighting the slight protrusion of my stomach and the newly developed breasts I still wasn’t fully comfortable with. It wasn’t form-fitting—it was suffocating. I quickly removed the shirt, tossed it aside, and picked out a loose-looking tank top from the afternoon’s trip. The appearance was deceiving—al84
though it fit better than the first item, it was still rather constricting around my chest and waist. I decided to try on a skirt. Even with the zipper all the way down, I still had trouble pulling it up around my hips. It was evident that everything my aunt had purchased was too small—much too small—for me. I switched back to the clothes I had been wearing on the plane. Someone knocked on the door. “Come in!” It was my aunt—she wore a sleek silk blouse and a pair of stylish-looking high-waisted pants. “Did you have a good nap?” “Yes.” I eyed her clothes. “Why are you all dressed up?” “Your uncle and I are taking you out to dinner. We have to celebrate your first day here, of course.” She nodded towards the clothing I had left in a jumbled mess on the floor. “Do you want to find something nice to wear? It’s a pretty upscale restaurant.” “Nothing fits.” “What?” I blushed. “Everything you got me was too small.” My aunt pursed her lips. “Didn’t you say you’re a small? I specifically only picked items in that size.” “I am, I swear.” A whine had entered my voice. It was almost as if I were trying to prove something, but just exactly what, I wasn’t sure. 85
“You might be fatter than I thought.” The word she used was pang. It wasn’t one that I was unfamiliar with—my parents threw it around all the time to describe people’s appearances or to talk about health-related matters, but there wasn’t any real cruelty behind the word. It was said in the same matter-of-fact tone they used to describe someone’s height or the color of someone’s eyes and hair. But it had never been directed towards me, and I felt oddly defensive. I wasn’t fat. Far from it. If anything, I was on the petite end, at least in America. Skinny, even. My aunt glanced at her watch. “Well, try to find something nice from the clothes you brought yourself. The restaurant fills up pretty quickly, so we should leave now. We can go shopping again tomorrow.” As I stared out the window in the taxi ride over, I noticed that many of the passerby on the sidewalk were teenage girls and young women who had the same body type as me. There was even a decent number of girls who were noticeably skinnier than me—practically walking twigs. No wonder a small in the US wasn’t a small in China. I wasn’t thin here; I was the norm. At home, I thought my weight was a rarity. I wasn’t traditionally pretty—my nose was flat, I had monolids instead of double eyelids, and my chin jutted out a little too much. But I was skinny, and that made up for the rest of my physical defects. I’d grown used 87
to hearing compliments about my weight and slim frame, had gotten accustomed to coyly saying, “I just have a fast metabolism.” But why would I be complimented if everything about me was ordinary here?
The year I made my first solo trip to China was also the year
I began high school. The month before school started, I spent nearly every Saturday and Sunday at the local park, running around the fenced perimeter four times, which was the exact equivalent of 5 kilometers. I was joined by Mia and Lena, my two best friends for as long as I could remember. Not only had we gone to the same elementary school and middle school, we were also on the cusp of entering the same high school. Mia, the athletic one, was dead set on joining the cross country team, and she had somehow persuaded Lena and I to accompany her on her grueling practice runs. We’d begun our training in the spring, but after I had left for my summer vacation in China, the two of them had continued to run together. Now that I was back, I was eager to make up for last time.
“Jesus, you lost so much weight.” Mia didn’t bother to greet
me, instead pinching the side of my stomach. I could almost feel her finger against my ribcage. She pulled back her hand and shook her head in disbelief. “You look so good. Seriously though, how’d you do it? Are you anorexic or something?”
“Mia!” Lena’s mouth dropped open. “You can’t just say that.”
I tried not to preen. They had noticed. “Of course I’m not
anorexic. I just pay a lot more attention now to what I’m eating.” That wasn’t a lie. My aunt and uncle had taken me to all sorts of fancy Beijing restaurants and had practically cooked feasts for me in their apartment, and while I had sampled practically every dish they offered me, I now placed a lot more emphasis on the control of my portion size. Gone were the days of gorging myself to my heart’s content on my favorite foods. Instead, I was careful, deliberate. That was the only way to ensure that I could remain skinny. Not just on a level that was considered skinny in America—no, I’d realized that wasn’t enough. At least not for me.
Mia grinned mischievously. “Or maybe she lost weight
because she didn’t want to eat any dogs.” She and Lena both stared at me, waiting for my reaction. I didn’t say anything, and the silence dragged on. Mia’s lips slowly curved into a frown. “Sorry; it was just a joke.”
I hadn’t eaten any dog meat in China. In fact, I hadn’t even
seen dog meat on the menu at any of the restaurants I had gone to, including the ones in the countryside that were known for serving more exotic foods. What I had seen were plenty of owners walking their dogs on sidewalks and in alleys, as well as pedestrians feeding scrawny strays. Where had this reputation even come from?
Lena’s eyes darted between the two of us. “Mia didn’t mean
anything by it. It’s just a joke,” she parroted nervously. 89
I gave her a tight smile. “I know.” I began to jog, as if by
running away, I could leave all the tension of the past minute behind. Judging by the pattering of their footsteps, I could tell that Mia and Lena had followed me.
The first lap was fine. By the end of the second lap, I had be-
gun to feel breathless, as if something was constricting my lungs, and midway through the third, I was trailing several hundred feet behind Mia. Lena’s position was halfway between the two of us, and every so often, she turned around, as if to check in on me, worry evident in her furrowed brow. The stitch in my side began to sting, and a wave of nausea washed over me. My legs felt leaden, and every time my feet hit the ground, I could feel the impact burn all the way in my calves. I was tired, sluggish, as if I had somehow used up all my energy though I had been running for less than ten minutes. I felt as if I was moving through water. Slowing to a stop, I hunched forward, my hands clamped onto my knees as I struggled to breathe. Inhale. Exhale.
“Lauren! Are you all right?”
“I’m fine,” I wheezed. “Keep going. I’ll catch up.” I tried to
jog again, but my feet and lungs wouldn’t obey. I could only walk. I felt strangely out-of-shape. It was true that I had only exercised intermittently while I was in China, but there was no way I should have regressed so much over the course of two months. There wasn’t even 90
any real physical exertion—I was just jogging, something I’d done with ease countless times in the past. Halfway through my freshman year, my sister returned home from college for winter break. One evening, she slipped into my room without knocking. Lily and I weren’t particularly close—we had an eight-year age difference—but her presence made me feel like I had an ally of sorts. She was the one who convinced our parents to let me buy school lunches rather than bring homemade Chinese food that would cause me to become the center of unwanted attention amongst my peers. She was also the one who encouraged our parents to give me an allowance when I first began middle school, who urged them not to freak out when I came home with my first ever B on my eighth grade report card, and who answered all my questions patiently after I returned home from my middle school’s mandatory sex ed class.
“What’cha doing?” I pointed to the pile of freshly laundered clothing on the
floor. For a while, we sat in comfortable silence on the carpet, folding laundry launching into the occasional small talk—how my classes were going, the progress she was making on her full-time job hunt, boy problems, and the like. When the pile of laundry shrunk to only a pair of faded gray running shorts and a sweatshirt with the slightest hint of a coffee stain, Lily cleared her throat. I waited for her to speak up, but she remained silent, fiddling with a loose thread on her jeans 91
“What’s the matter?”
She chewed on her lip. “Are you starving yourself?”
Lily heaved a sigh and shook her head. “You’ve changed so
much. For starters, you definitely look like you’ve lost weight. And your portions are tiny. Mom told me you didn’t try out for cross country this fall, even though you’ve been training since spring. And you moved the scale from Mom and Dad’s bathroom into your bathroom. I didn’t want to overstep my boundaries, but if I don’t say anything, no one will. Body positivity—I don’t even know how to translate that into Chinese. I don’t even know how to explain to our parents what an eating disorder is. You need to get help. This isn’t healthy. You do realize that, right?”
I opened my mouth to deny, to deflect, but the words
wouldn’t come out. It was as if my sister had slapped me, and I was still reeling from the pain. I wanted to hit her back, to say something as blunt and callous and stinging, but absolutely nothing came to mind. Finally, after several fumbled attempts, I sputtered, “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“You know exactly what I’m talking about. Stop playing
I stayed silent. Once, in elementary school, I had asked Lily
to help me study for a spelling test. At first, she’d been eager to help out, but there was one word that I kept on spelling wrong, no matter how many times she attempted to drill the correct letters into my head. Each exasperated sigh and disapproving frown made me even more nervous, and by the end of those three hours of practice, I was misspelling even the most basic of words. I knew she had good intentions, but all I wanted was for her to stop.
“It’s nothing serious. I was just trying to lose some weight.” I
tried to piece together a convincing smile. “You don’t have to worry about anything.” “I don’t want to worry about you. But if you’re going to continue lying to me and to yourself, then it becomes my problem. You can fool Mom and Dad. Whatever. But you can’t fool me. You look fine. You look skinny. Actually, you’re starting to look a little scary. Isn’t this enough? At what point are you going to stop?”
My fingers dug into my palm, forming four red crescents.
How was I to explain to her that every morning, it felt like I woke up enveloped in a giant suit of skin and flesh that wasn’t actually mine, and with every pound I lost, it was as if I were slowly unzipping that suit, inch by inch, and one day, I would eventually be able to step out of it and reveal the body that was truly mine? How would she react if she knew that sometimes, when my mother was watching Chinese dramas at home, I would sit alongside and watch with her, not 93
because of any interest in the storyline or the characters but because most of the women on screen had the type of body that I aspired to? Just a few more pounds, and I would reach my goal. Just some more time.
My sister stood up and walked towards the door. Her voice
softened. “Look, I’m not going to act like I understand what you’re going through. But you need to eat. You can lose weight in healthy ways. Go to the gym. Start running more. But in order to have the energy to do those things, you need to start eating more. I’m not going to sit idly by and let you ruin your life.”
My mother told me a story that went like this. In 1960, her
father and his brothers dug up the roots of every single plant and weed and herb within walking distance so that they could have something to fill their stomachs, and after the landscape of their village turned brown and barren from the scavenging of too many grasping, greedy hands, they scraped the bark off the trees until their fingernails ruptured and their fingers bled and boiled the bark so that it would be easier to chew, and when even the trees were stripped bare and reduced to scrawny, naked skeletons, they settled for eating dirt and clay and soil, before retching the inedible remnants back up in the once-fertile field behind their home. It was 1960, and they were living in the very midst of the Great Chinese Famine. My grandfather died three decades later in Beijing, several years before I was born, the 94
anticlimactic ending to a life—rather, a cycle—of malnutrition and hard labor and poverty, but he instilled his stories in my mother.
“He used to get so mad at your aunt and I if we didn’t fin-
ish our food. I remember one time, my mother cooked fish. And I refused to eat even the tiniest portion. I was a child back then, maybe six or seven. Like all children, I had strange, peculiar fears—I was terrified that I would accidentally swallow a fish bone, and it would pierce my throat, and I would no longer be able to breathe, and then I would die. But your father refused to let me have my way. He would sit at the table with me, and I wasn’t permitted to leave until I’d finished my entire portion of fish. I told him I was scared, but he didn’t understand. How could he? His entire youth, he’d been terrified of not having food, of starving to death. So how could he understand the fear of something that he valued so much?”
After Lily’s intervention, I started eating more. Not because I
had completely changed my mentality, but perhaps more out of the fear that if this continued, then my parents would get involved. They loved me, there was no doubt about that. But I couldn’t imagine them understanding. I had no idea how to talk to them. Body image, body positivity, eating disorder? Like Lily said, the Chinese words didn’t exist naturally on our tongues, and I knew for certain that my parents would never be able to fully grasp the meaning of these English terms. 95
I don’t know if my mother noticed on her own, or if Lily
brought the subject up, but after winter break, my mother would sit at the table with me until I’d completely finished my dinner. The same way that her father had done for her, all those years ago. She stopped giving me money for lunch, and instead, packed a bento box of food that probably weighed as much as my math textbook. Slowly, I grew reacquainted with eating—chewing, tasting, the comfortable fullness that accompanies a satisfying meal. I still didn’t like the effect that it had on my body—the expanding of my stomach and the return of the fat of my cheeks—but at least I had the energy to run again. In my senior year of high school, Lily sent me an article about the A4 Waist Challenge. Look at this, she texted. Aren’t they crazy????!!!!! I scrolled down the page, which featured similar sets of two images. In the first photo, a girl held a sheet of A4 paper vertically against her stomach. The girl’s waist was completely covered by the paper, as if to demonstrate that yes, I am impossibly, insufferably skinny—so skinny, in fact, that just 8.5 inches of paper are enough to hide my entire stomach. In the second photo, the girl removed the paper, revealing her flat, toned stomach. Apparently, the challenge had gone viral on practically every single Chinese social media platform, and as a result, women all over the country were eagerly uploading photos in an attempt to earn some virtual badge of honor. 96
I grabbed a piece of printer paper and stood in front of the full-length mirror in my room. Squeezing my eyes shut, I sucked in my breath in an attempt to constrict my belly as much as possible and gingerly pressed the paper against my stomach. When I opened my eyes, I could see flab peeking out on both the right and left sides of the paper. I had expected as much. There was a term for it: skinny fat. My weight was now considered normal—maybe even a little low for my height, but my body held too much fat and not enough muscle. Like a chemistry formula that had gone wrong, and this was the resulting concoction. I pressed my fingertips against the loose flesh and pushed inwards as if I were molding playdough. As soon as I released my fingers, my stomach reverted to its original state, and I heaved a sigh. Sometimes, I wished that I could expel through my mouth whatever it was that made my stomach so bloated, in the same way that helium is released from a balloon. The swell of flesh was the one blemish in the uninterrupted straight line of my body. I wanted it gone. It wasn’t as if I hadn’t been trying—I spent an hour jogging around the neighborhood every morning before school, had an app on my phone that meticulously counted the calories for every item of food I ate, and stringently avoided any type of junk food. I was no longer starving myself. But occasionally, I thought of the girls I had seen in China during the summer vacation I had spent there all those years 97
ago, the girls in the article my sister had just sent me, and felt a pang of envyâ&#x20AC;&#x201D;for the type of lean and skinny bodies they had, bodies that would inspire the envy of others. But, still. I thought of Michelle, my childhood idolâ&#x20AC;&#x201D;her grace, her power, the thin, athletic line of her body that was the result of countless hours of strenuous training. I was making progress. Maybe not as fast as I had hoped, but I no longer felt tired and nauseous over the smallest bit of physical activity, my legs no longer dragged when I walked, and I had the energy to go running again without feeling out-of-breath within the first five minutes. Faintly, I could hear my mother calling me to come down. I checked the time on my phoneâ&#x20AC;&#x201D;it was a little past six. I headed downstairs, ready for dinner.
Thank you for reading!
Hannah Miao & Cathy Yang 2020