I sat stiffly at the table full of adults. They chattered loudly, occasionally taking note of my presence, but more often, disregarding me as the foreign girl from America. I stared helplessly at my bowl of white rice and my plate of miscellaneous dishes. I wanted to join the other cheerful children at the separate table, but I lacked the courage to leave my parents’ side. Resigning to my fate of isolation, I picked up my chopsticks and took my first bite.
The dinner scene occurred two weeks after my arrival in China. It was the first time I had set foot in my native country since my departure when I was five. For months, I had looked forward to the trip as my summer adventure — I would make friends, travel to ancient landmarks, and finally fit in among people like myself. It would be a nice break from America, where pestering friends would ask for that phrase in Chinese, or would stare at me strangely when I spoke to family on the phone.
Yet somehow, after ten years of emigration, I was no longer as Chinese as I had thought. Standing among the pale girls that I envisioned as friends, I felt wildly out of place. The hot Arizonian sun had tanned me to an unacceptable brown, and their Chinese eyes looked at me with disapproval. My native language, which I had spoken so fluently in my second country, stuck at my throat. With a self-conscious shyness, I remained silent wherever I went.
The ancient landmarks that I had so looked forward to meeting only disillusioned me further. In my jean-shorts and flipflops, I walked resolutely up the steps of the Tower of the Golden Crane, the most famous temple in all of Wuhan. The ancient texts on the walls that explained the tower’s significance loomed over me, but I found myself unable to comprehend with my limited reading skills. As my gentle aunt, whom I was meeting for the first time since I was five, explained to me the general gist of the words, young boys and girls giggled at me behind my back. To them, I no doubt represented a dumb, illiterate teenager.
I didn’t fit in. I felt more of an outsider in native China than in America. My black hair and black eyes didn’t earn me the acceptance I had thought they would. To my chagrin, friends of my parents often asked me to speak in English to their sons and daughters.
Too disheartened to continue hanging out with my parents’ circle, I began spending more time with my aunt and my grandparents. We frequented the small breakfast stands in the mornings and bought bowls of “re gan mian,” or “hot, dry noodles.” Although not nearly as fancy as food from expensive restaurants, it became my favorite dish. My grandparents also took me to the back alleys of Wuhan that sold cheap merchandise — hair accessories, t-shirts, etc. — and we would spend hours negotiating with the sellers. I could never contribute much to the negotiations, but I loved standing at the side, watching my grandparents bicker over thirty yuan shirts for ten percent discounts.
My favorite place in Wuhan, however, was the park. Unlike the Tower of the Golden Temple, it was hardly magnificent, and free entrance allowed the common people a shady area to relax. I happened upon the park one morning, and fell in love with its large trees and fake gardens, modeled after the expensive ones in the Emperor’s Forbidden City. Its modern sidewalks were inhabited by old men and women who brought their radios and danced traditional fan-dances. The park wasn’t entirely Chinese though. It had amusement park rides, like the revolving teacups and splash mountain of Disneyland. Exhilarated children rushed to the rides like bees to honey. I watched from a distance not as an outsider, but as one of the many park-inhabitants.
Two weeks into my trip, I sit at the dinner table and try to frantically hide from the cigarette smoke. The adults smile at me in a condescending manner, inquiring into the smoking habits of America. To them, I would always be the girl from another country.
Yet, I am more than that. Like the park of Chinese gardens and American rides, I am intermixing of cultures. As I sit typing this story before my computer, I long to soon return to Wuhan with its breakfast stands and back alleys, its dancing old ladies and its bickering salesmen.
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