By Clara Changxin Fang
In Chengdu, I realize my fiancé is a foreigner. We both speak English and Mandarin, but after six months of living in China, his English has deteriorated and he speaks mostly Sichuanhua, which I don't speak, while my Mandarin has gotten no better.
It is winter here, and the overcast sky shrouds the city in grey smog that looks like smoke mixed with mustard. The smell of sulfur, gasoline, and tobacco assault my nose in the street, and I'm breathing shallowly in order to not have to smell the air. Even the hotel room smells like smoke, as I attempt to air out the unheated room with the windows open.
I forgot that the last two times I came to China it was summer. The last time I had been in China in the winter was in 1991. In those days, there wasn't even running hot water in my neighborhood, much less indoor heat. I think I blocked those details from my memory.
Lei is from Chengdu, went to college in South Africa, and graduate school in the United States. I immigrated to the United States from Shanghai when I was nine years old. After four years at Smith College and two years at Yale for a master's degree, I consider myself pretty well assimilated, among the liberal arts crowd, at least. The two of us met on a bus in Albany, New York, where Lei was working as an economic analyst for the New York State Senate and I was working as a sustainability consultant for the mayor's office. On our first date, over Chinese tea and Mediterranean wraps, we bonded over our criticism of the Chinese education system. After several months, Lei's visa expired. After a frustrating long-distance relationship, we decided to get engaged so that we could live together in the United States. Marriage is not a very romantic affair at all when the Immigration Department is involved, but being able to finally be together is.
On my second day in Chengdu, Lei's mother, aunt, uncle, and cousin invited me to hot pot. Lei introduces me by my Chinese name. They smile and begin spouting a flurry of phrases that I don't understand. Lei explains that I do not speak Sichuanhua, but I speak Mandarin, so would they please try to speak that at the table. They attempt a few phrases but revert back to Sichuanhua. Soon everyone is talking glibly to each other and occasionally saying something to me or about me, while I tug at Lei's arm to get him to translate.
"You are not used to eating our food right? Too spicy for you?" his aunt says to me in Mandarin in a tone louder than necessary. Yes. Too spicy. The chili hotpot burns my mouth and leaves me gasping for water.
The relatives are surprisingly uncurious about me, not even asking simple questions such as how did you meet? What do you do for a living? What are your parents' occupations?
On the way back, the taxi drives along Renmin Nan Lu.. Advertisements with Western models glow from the windows of luxury retail stores, luring passerby with a world of glamour, beauty, and sensual delights. Girls wearing UGG boots with furry liners walk while holding the arms of lanky youths with dyed brown hair and cigarettes. The women in the shops are always angry with the shoppers, their desperation apparent in their voices as well as faces. I much preferred the narrow side streets where in the evening you could find a vendor selling soup in a pot with a spout shaped like a dragon on a cart.
"I don't like China," I tell Lei as we prepare for bed.
"I don't like China either," he says, "but I am Chinese."
"So am I," I say.
But am I, really? The Chinese people I meet regard me as a foreigner no matter how I might convince them that I was once one of them. I regard them with a mixture of condescension and envy. I am aware that they are not as well educated as I am, but I also envy their security and their rootedness. Lei's friends still have the same friends they had in elementary school, live in the same neighborhoods, and hang out at the same places. They do not have to question their identity or be stretched over and over again beyond the limits of their comfort zone. They do not have to pause or ask for clarification when people ask where they are from. They are comfortable in this environment that dictates to them their desires and the path they should follow to be a member of this society.
In China I am painfully aware of the Westernization of society with all its accompanying inequities, consumerism, narcissism, and health problems. Chinese people worship luxury brands and covet these products as badges of prestige, signals that the wearer is modern, cosmopolitan, and elite. Perhaps they know that the Louis Vuitton bag or the Estee Lauder anti-aging cream won't remake their world or transform them into a different person. But in a city with this much air pollution and with this much post-war architecture, perhaps that Coach bag is a real consolation.
The other day Lei and I visited an old village near Chengdu where people still live in traditional compounds, grow their own vegetables and slaughter their own meat. A few stray dogs wandered among the aging buildings, and a couple of little boys threw pebbles at them for amusement. They were dressed in puffy jackets against the cold weather, and their cheeks were rosy as they ran from house to house in their games. I was reminded that I had once been one of them, just another Chinese urchin who regularly went without a bath and wore the same outfit every day. I suddenly felt myself a monstrous hybrid, ashamed of my nice clothes, good education, and my inability to speak Chinese. I may have all the privileges of being an American, but I have no roots. China does not nourish me, and America may be home, but it is not my family.
I want to tell Lei, I'm taking you with me to America and we are never coming back. I wish that I could have American in-laws, with siblings and PhDs and a beach house in New England. But here, in Chengdu, I find the pieces of my past that I have almost forgotten. I'm beginning to recall the overcast skies of my childhood, the streets that constantly flowed with traffic, the simple gatherings with people one has known all one's life. While these are almost unbearable to me now, I cannot help but feel toward them a sort of attraction tinged by regret.
There is no continuity in immigration; the present displaces the past like colonialism displaced the indigenous cultures of America. Only not completely, it lives on tucked away in cupboards, in the admonition of mothers, in the landscape of modern China with all its atrocities, and the voice of a loved one speaking in a language I recognize.
Clara Changxin Fang is from Shanghai and immigrated to the United States when she was nine years old. She earned an MFA from University of Utah and a master's in environmental management from Yale University. Her poems have been published or are forthcoming in Pank, Permafrost, Quiddity, The MacGuffin, Visions International, Adirondack Review, Cream City Review, Meridian Anthology of Contemporary Poetry, and Verse Daily, among others. She lives and works near Philadelphia.
This article was first published in CHENGDOO citylife Magazine, issue 53 ("reflections"). Photos courtesy of Clara Changxing Fang