There’s a bright gleam at the foot of my bed.
The little children in the classroom chant the verses in Mandarin, dressed in small Gap hoodies, Hello Kitty tees, and Adidas. It’s the Tang dynasty poem nearly every Chinese six year-old knows by heart, jing ye si. They’re standing at Chinese school, where anxious immigrant parents send their children in fear that they’ll forget the language when they grow older.
I started despising Chinese school at a young age. There, we memorized how to write hundreds of characters and took weekly writing tests. We read obscure stories and poems about mountains and heavens, of rivers and earth, of swallows and monkeys and dragons. I spent weekends reviewing for poetry recitations, studying solely to spare myself the embarrassment of standing among my Chinese classmates and blanking, cheeks burning with shame.
But when I headed back to my public elementary school and was asked, “What did you do this weekend?” I froze. How would they react to Chinese school if they had held their noses as I dipped dumplings into black vinegar sauce? They were so free from memorizing small characters and unintelligible poetry, so liberated from their skin. But I nevertheless responded with the same burning cheeks. “I studied for Chinese school.”
Thus, Chinese school, with its burdens and my shame, became the target of my hatred; I begged my mom not to send me there anymore, but my efforts were to no avail. Now, I laugh along to bat jokes and sip my boba with vague, burdensome feelings swimming in my subconscious.
Maybe it’s just frost.
I cringe whenever someone says Communist China. It conjures images of famine and red banners. I want to laugh at them and say, “China isn’t communist. I’ve been to China.” And I have. I’ve seen the glimmering skyscrapers, the new Beijing airport, my uncle’s high-rise apartment downtown. I’ve ridden the bullet trains and watched as my grandparents moved out of their rural village and into apartments, watched as they held up the QR code scanner on their smartphone to pay for groceries. But that doesn’t alleviate the uneasiness I feel underneath the grey sky.
The Instagram infographics certainly don’t either—nor do the social credit scores, the muffling of poets, the yellow umbrellas, or the cultural genocide. My grandma’s favorite CCTV pundits speak in rapid-fire Mandarin about the new world order, free from American tyranny. My five-year-old cousin sings along to her national anthem, waving her own small red banner, dotted with stars. I wonder if she’ll someday be embarrassed to have a relative in the States. And I am awake on my bed, dreaming of a home in the sky.
When I look up, I see the bright moon.
Sesame oil, ginger, scallions, Shaoxing wine–-fragrance permeates through the air. I sit waiting at the table with my family while the waitress brings out a few dishes. “Chairman Mao’s Red-Braised Pork,” she says, placing a steaming dish onto the Lazy Susan.
“Here, have some of this,” my grandfather says. “I bet you haven’t tried it in America.” He spins the tray and places a few pieces onto my plate with steady chopsticks. I stab a piece of pork belly with my fork and sample it in small bites. It’s savory and fatty and delicious, and my mind lingers on its name.
I remember asking my grandfather about it later. “Y’know, our country became great under him. Before him, China was so backwards,” he explains. “You see our progress now? It’s thanks to him.”
He told me about Mao beating back the Japanese and the Imperialist-backed Kuomintang, uniting China under one banner. About the British colonialism and exploitation of the previous century. About class struggle, about the rural peasants and the urban proletarians uniting in a People’s War. And I wondered if it would be ungrateful to cheer on my parents’ homeland during the Olympics when America had raised me.
I lower my head thinking of my hometown.
I often try to picture my parents’ dreams of China—the shades of their childhood, the tones of their adolescence, the hues they miss the most. I imagine my mom and her brothers walking to school, navigating through busy street networks. I picture my dad in his youth, looking up at the moon in wonder, its glow illuminating the countryside. But when I ask them about it, they shake their heads. “Everything’s changed.”
My mom recalls how on our last trip back, she found her old home demolished, the streets renamed, and her neighborhood nearly unrecognizable. When my dad gazed back at the sky, the moon’s outline was only weakly visible underneath layers of smog and light pollution. Some part of me wants to reminisce alongside them, to see my heritage reflected in theirs. But then I remember that my hometown is not provincial China, but white suburbia; I realize that this is what makes me Chinese-American, not Chinese.
But what does that mean for my heritage? Is heritage the blood that courses through me or the dumplings I eat? Is it the stories of my ancestors or the five on the AP Language and Culture exam? Sometimes, I want to divide my identity—“culture, not politics,” and say that my heritage simply consists of innocuous red packets and moon cakes with little bunnies stamped on them. But then I think back to my family, our history, and our land, and I wonder if I’ll have to deny them as well. I flip between loathing the burdens that I wear and openly embracing them along with their political repercussions. I wonder if I’ll ever strike a balance without rejecting these aspects of my identity, if I’ll ever reach a harmony between yin and yang against the backdrop of an international struggle for global hegemony.
But my quiet night thoughts do not contain answers.