This is an excerpt from a chapter of the memoir I’m working on; it’s such a slow process writing & editing & getting rejected by agents that I wanted to start sharing bits & pieces in the meantime.
After a short time in Australia and New Zealand between semesters, I found myself on a plane back to China in early February. Kunming is a much smaller city compared to Shanghai, positioned in the south-central province of Yunnan, an absolutely beautiful area. Kunming has this crisp, dry air and bold, strong sunlight, and springtime is lovely there. I found myself very quickly thrust back into an intense environment, where my looks felt highly scrutinized and my heavily accented and broken Chinese was met with quizzical looks. Middlebury College’s language program was intense; I was only permitted to speak Mandarin, both out on the streets and with my classmates, in and out of class. I had more experiences than I can count where I stumbled over my Mandarin to native Chinese peoples’ dismay.
Unlike Shanghai, I couldn’t use my English to “prove” that something wasn’t wrong with me, or I wasn’t unintelligent and couldn’t speak my native language; but that I wasn’t Chinese and was far from fluent in it. In Shanghai, sometimes I would walk down the street pretending to talk to someone on the phone in English. Suddenly, my image would elevate and I wouldn’t feel as small or disregarded when I then stopped to say something in Chinese, because I would then be perceived as a fluent English-speaking foreigner. I wasn’t allowed, by the restrictions of my language program, to do that in Kunming, and I was quickly met with even more confused glances and rough or abrasive reactions to my broken Chinese, as I tried to order papaya from the vendor down the street or as I shopped for produce and groceries at the nearby local supermarket. It was a harsh reentry back into Chinese culture after a month and a half away, and painfully jarring to be met again with all-too-familiar stares and questions as I tried to order food or ask a question at a market in halting Chinese. The responses were sometimes in a local dialect, sometimes in quick and heavily accented Mandarin, “Where are you from?” “Mei guo?” “No, where is your family from? What did you say again?”
One of my favorite areas of downtown Kunming was the trendy fashion street of Nanping Jie. I would escape with headphones, a book and some extra cash on weekends or after class on the local buses that zoomed all around the city, finding a seat to myself when I could and enjoying the vibrant, busy, fragrant and bustling cityscapes silhouetted against clear blue skies, lush trees and fresh wafts of air that I certainly never saw in Shanghai. At Nanping Jie, I could disappear into Zara for hours or find myself in smaller Chinese boutiques or European boutiques, trying on whatever clothes I could find in my size and thinking about what would best help me fit in as I walked the streets. At Zara, I remember buying some new platform sandals, floral sundresses, sunglasses and leggings to revamp my wardrobe and hopefully give me a more svelte, trendy image that would stand out less.
Sometime during my first month in Kunming as well, I went to buy a used bicycle at a local shop down the street from the university I was studying at. I wore my new platform sandals, a sundress, a large hat and big sunglasses that I’d just bought. I strode up to the small storefront, bicycle parts littered out front, a small, elderly Chinese man in well-worn and dirty clothes and slipper-like sandals peering out at me curiously. I walked up to him and politely asked which bicycles might be best for me, and were they all for sale? He met me with a quizzical gaze and immediately directed me to a section of cruiser-style bikes that were brightly painted. As cute as they were, I wanted something more functional, which I told him. Colorwise, I was looking for something darker, and used, not brand new. “Wo shi xue sheng, mei you duo qian – I’m a student and I don’t have a lot of money.” He laughed and told me, “those bikes are best suited for foreigners. You look like you are from here, but I can tell you are a wai guo ren, a foreigner.” I shrugged, too tired to duke it out at that exact moment. And so, that’s how I ended up with a purple cruiser bike in Kunming.
When I got tired of cycling around on that purple cruiser, I fearlessly hailed down motorcycles that essentially serve as taxis throughout the city. I learned how to bargain for an appropriate fee that wouldn’t short me too much, and I learned that this was the local, native Chinese way to travel around quickly and efficiently. It made me feel powerful and free on the backs of those motorcycles, speeding through downtown Kunming, winding in and out of traffic, riding under overpasses crowded with street vendors, sometimes with my headphones in my ears, shrouding the flying colors of buildings and food and cars and people and buses in a haze of upbeat pop music that made me forget about the pains of being a Chinese American person here. I think that’s what it was that I loved most about the motorcycle experience – being able to disappear on the back of someone’s vehicle, riding fast, feeling like I could see everyone and everything but they couldn’t see me; they couldn’t stop me at all, couldn’t stop me long enough to catch a glimpse or think that I wasn’t just like anyone and everyone else, that I wasn’t just like them. I could be whoever I wanted to be.
I continued to try and blend in as best I could, spending an exorbitant amount of money to get my hair dyed reddish-brown and straightened with some sort of extensive keratin treatment. I remember it cost so much in renminbi that I had to find another ATM in the mall where the salon was in order to cover the cost, because I hadn’t brought enough cash. I fumbled through my saved Pinterest photos of Asian girls with sleek, non-frizzy, reddish-brown long hair to show the hairdressers the look I was going for.
As I returned home after these shopping sprees, motorcycle escapades or hair treatments to my red Moleskine journal and poured my heart out with pages upon pages of emotional processing, questions and anxieties, I knew at my core that the superficial, consumeristic, image-driven person I was so striving to be here wasn’t going to satisfy any of those deep longings that I truly, simply had – to just fit in and be seen as the Chinese American girl who I was.