Mei Guo -- creative non-fiction by Lynn Chen
Sometimes, for a moment, you didn’t feel like you came from there.
It’s not that you hated the place. The psychedelic Chinese street-signs at night, the smoke of road-side lamb skewers, quaint stationery stores that sold bobble-head pens and snow-globes, old women walking tiny but ferocious terriers on pink leashes, brutally honest strangers on subways, the meditative chime of a local middle-school school bell preluding the daily melodic “eye exercise” broadcasts.
It’s not the traditions or the thousand-year culture. You once lined up five hours outside the Forbidden City just for a glimpse of an ancient artist’s scroll that wasn’t even the original. It was a restored copy guarded behind a glass case, because the huffing, heated mass of a thousand scuffling tourists pressed inside a narrow hallway was probably going to ruin any hundred-year-old cloth-paper and antique watercolor. You remember your mother muttering breathtaking praises as you both shuffled along past the artwork, and you remember peeking at the painting, looking for what extraordinarily mei li, jing cai elements garnered such appreciation. Was it the tree with the flowers? The bridge with people on it? Or the other bridge with people on it? Or was it the squiggle of calligraphy whose poetry only your mother understood?
There was also the Lunar New Year festival, and the trains on chu xi night to Shen Yang bursting with people as the attendant fought to shove your suitcase into the overhead compartment against the tidal wave of the homesick. You thought you might get swept away too, but you change your mind.
Before the Year of the Sheep, your family (including your lao ye, lao lao, xiao yi from your mom’s side) sits at the round table for the last dinner as the annual CCTV New Year’s broadcast blares from the TV. Since you can barely understand what everyone else is saying, and you’re not really allowed to join in when the adult’s talk, you try to decipher the staticky xiao pin on the television. “masdfnjdsk–doing? Ditasyef,” says one man in a brown coat. “Mblsdkefbv yes!” Replied the other woman in a red scarf.
And it doesn’t help that you have to smile when your auntie says something incomprehensibly in their Dan Dong dialect and deposits a juicy pork-rib into your bowl. Your mother graciously translates for you–as if your regular Chinese wasn’t already bad enough–and you stutter a “thank you” before giving another watery grin to your auntie and the sauced morsel in your bowl.
How about the secret guilt you harbor? The one you feel when you attend Chinese class, but you never really tried hard about learning the language. And when you actually felt embarrassed by your last name one time when the camp counselor at YMCA announced which kid’s parent was here for pick up over the microphone. Or when your parents have to explain to another relative why your Chinese slogs even though you look and are from the same place as them?
When their explanation stops on America, you linger a bit on the word, letting the shimmering silence after their voices wash over you. Something changes in the air, and you don’t know what it is, but even when your family resumes talking, you’re already transported somewhere else. Summers and winters and childhood years in mei guo, where you didn’t feel disembodied anymore, with TV and Netflix and art and people with personal space that you understand.
You suppose all the places where you are from have their own languages and light and color and maybe and yes and no. You suppose all the places we are from are still with us even when we’re far away from it. You still somehow have jiao zi, Beijing streets, old warbling Chinese songs deeply buried inside of you, but you remember the first stories of Chinese immigrants who crossed entire seas to America for the California gold rush. Something shimmering called them, and they answered.
Lynn Chen is a 12th grader at the International School of Beijing, Shunyi in China. She hopes she can convey the Asian-American experience to others as possible. When she’s not studying for Chemistry, she’s reading books, watching nature documentaries, peeling tangerines, or scrolling through WeChat. This is her first publication.