One thing I learned while backpacking abroad this past summer was that it is really hard being an illiterate ABC (American Born Chinese) in China. In the eyes of native Chinese, ABCs are perceived as Western sellouts. With my inability to read, speak, or understand anything above survival Mandarin, my traitorous self was always ready to be exposed. After a few poor interactions – an old man on the bus who insisted I was not American, but Chinese or a Walmart employee who swore at me for exiting a door that read “no exit” on it – it was hard not to infuse this negativity into the remainder of my experience. I would feel a sharp shame whenever I could not understand the statement of a shopkeeper or the question of a waitress. As a solution, I would stick to familiar restaurants where I could simply point at items and ask “how much?” I was so afraid of having to endure attacks on my identity that I avoided eye contact with locals at all costs, so as not to spark up a conversation. I withdrew into myself as a way of coping with the knowledge that every conversation could become a confrontation.
This feeling of alienation was especially painful in light of a journal entry I wrote my second day when I was still naïve to the fact I carried a stigma.
I feel inside. I see familiar dishes that my mom would make for me at home – her beef stew, steamed & sugared buns, pork and vegetables – that I naïvely assumed to be her specialties. The ratty, washed-too-often handtowels hanging on clotheslines in the courtyard are familiar sights that I didn’t realize I internalized while visiting my family over six years ago. When I recognize the tanner faces, deeper smile lines, blacker yet twinklier eyes of the people here compared to their Asian-American counterparts, I can’t help but feel at home.
For alienation to exist, there must also be a desire to belong. Alienation is not just a state of being outside or an outcome of exclusion. For me, alienation is the knowledge that the very community that I seek to identify with or belong to is the same one that repels and stigmatizes me. This feeling leaves me hopelessly in between – inside a culture that I find to be natural, but outside of people who could never fully accept me.
In China, I felt happiest and most at home with my nomadic Tibetan host family. High on the Tibetan plateau, I was far removed from the glare of Chinese cities. I was surrounded by people who were also scrutinized by Han Chinese eyes, also struggling with Mandarin as a second language, and also Chinese but foreign. So there was no tension, only warmth, when the Amdo-speaking mother and I would prepare dinner side by side in silence or when the younger brothers would race paper airplanes with me, our laughter saying more than shared language could. In the arms of these outsiders, where the concept of being Chinese was both foreign and intuitive, forced upon and partially embodied, I found refuge from the outside pressures that would destroy this delicate balance. But this was a haven, not a home.
Upon returning to the US, I cannot feel at home even though my shame has dulled and vigilant defensiveness has subsided. I cannot shake the shrinking sense that I am having a strange dream in which everything is familiar yet unnatural. Not because home is no longer home, but because home never was.
I understand that dissatisfaction with home is not a unique experience for people who are also grappling with who they are or trying to figure out from where they came. However, for those of the first generation, our lack of home is not out of personal dissatisfaction, but instead out of systematic impossibility. Our absence of home is not due to our hometown being too small, too rural, or too unfriendly to encompass us. Our absence comes out of the geographic, temporal, and historical chasm that splits our world of origin from the world in which we live.
If I represent my personal history spatially, it is a static point located in an unassuming suburban town in eastern Pennsylvania. My family history extends this point to China – the shores of the Yangtze River that my mother used to play or the fields of ride paddies that my dad would bike past on his way to school. History allows this point to travel through time, during the rise and fall of Chinese dynasties or the changing migration laws of the United States. My time in China imbued me with a sense of history larger than what I had known, making my point in Pennsylvania exceedingly inadequate and my lines of origin inextricably tangled up. It made me recognize my lack of home. It made me feel placeless.
I don’t fit. I don’t belong in China from which my family came. Even if I spoke the language or learned its history or lived there for the entirety of my adult life, I would never overcome the Pacific expanse that separates that world from here. But, I don’t belong in America either. Even though I have grown up with American culture, inside, I cannot unquestioningly adhere to it. From the outside, I cannot unquestionably be viewed as an adherent.
So what are we of the first generation to do? How are we to reconcile our place between two worlds when we are within neither? We seek refuge. We construct our own senses of belonging and deal with the fact that the very notion of construction makes them perishable. We accept that the isolated tents high on the Tibetan plateau become a haven while we’re there and mere space when we’re gone. We find that although this space cannot be our home, the nomadic way of their world can be. We create places for belonging that are temporary in the physical sense, as impermanent as the tent poles stuck into the ground. These imperfect, impermanent refuges are the only kinds of home we can have. As the poet Wallace Stevens wrote, “I cannot bring the world quite round. Although I patch it as I can.”