Andrew K, 15-years-old | Quiet Night Thoughts

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.