Slow Ascent

A Chinese American woman searches for belonging in the country of her grandparents.

Sara Wong

As we made our way through the restaurant, a hush swept the tables. A woman pouring tea paused, eyes tracking us, the metal teapot hovering over a circle of white, handleless cups. Heads swiveled, chopsticks lay abandoned. A couple of people stood up for a better view. I froze, and my language partner, Chai, had to gently push me toward the round table at the far left of the room.

Chai and I were in Chengde to visit Guan, our other language partner, in her hometown. Chai and Guan were the first- and second-ranked students in their class, and so inseparable that their classmates had nicknamed them “husband and wife.” Guan had red glasses and a pair of slightly bucked front teeth, whereas Chai was dark and tomboyish.

Guan's mother smiled at me. “How's your Chinese?”

Mamahuhu,” I replied, the Chinese equivalent of “so-so.” I'd cultivated this response over the years: it was modest enough to demonstrate humility, yet colloquial enough to show that I knew what I was talking about.

Most people replied with a smile or widened eyes, accompanied by, “Good enough to know mamahuhu!” Guan's mother just nodded, as though taking my statement at face value. My heart sank. This trip was not going to be like the rest of my forays into China where, after two awkward transitional months, I'd learned to pass as a native, relishing the anonymity of being an unremarkable face in a sea of 1.3 billion.

Of course, if I'd been thinking like a Chinese instead of as an American, I would have anticipated the welcome banquet and my role as guest of honor, and would not have shown up in a grubby T-shirt and limp capris. I'd been in China for nearly a year, and every time I thought I had the system down, something new popped up to remind me of how ignorant I remained.

“Are you used to our food?”

“Can you use chopsticks?”

“We better watch her to see what she likes to eat.” Questions and comments erupted in every direction.

“I notice she speaks fluidly enough,” said Guan's uncle Shu, “but she has difficulty expressing herself.”

My parents had enrolled me in a bilingual school when I was three, and I'd spent the past nineteen years studying Chinese. The Chinese language had always been my window into the culture. As a third-generation Chinese American, I'd spent most of my life trying to get closer to my roots, culminating in this year abroad immediately after college. I'd chatted up cabbies and street vendors, befriended strangers whenever I traveled solo. I loved these adventures. I'd grown up a foreign transplant, and as I explored the native soil of my ancestors, it continually surprised me how a nation could simultaneously feel so familiar and yet so alien. As I struggled to track the conversation beneath the clatter of chopsticks and clanking plates, I realized that group dynamics remained unfamiliar terrain.

“Let's all speak English then!” said Guan. The table fell silent.

“Uh,” I said. “This is a very good meal. I really like the food.”

After a pause Guan said, “The soup is quite good. I have long thinking it, when in Beijing.”

“How come when you speak English,” Uncle Shu asked Guan, switching back to Chinese, “I understand you, but I don't understand it when she speaks English?”

The table laughed.

“And she has to pay close attention when I speak Chinese” he continued, “but she has to pay really close attention when you guys speak English!” More laughter.

Heat crept into my cheeks. I hadn't realized I was so transparent, and now I felt even more self-conscious. Words that once flowed smoothly grew tangled in my mouth. Instead, I concentrated on eating, and tried not to notice the glances that tracked every dish I tried—all of them, that much I knew to do—and where I reached for seconds.

“Hey!” Uncle Shu nudged Guan. “Tell that foreigner I want to toast her!” He opened a fresh bottle of Tsingtao beer and poured out glasses for Chai, Guan, and me.

I'm right here, you don't have to refer to me in third person, I thought, missing his consideration at cuing me to his invitation.

“To the foreigner!” He used both hands to grasp the lip of his glass and raise it in my direction. I mimicked his pose, elbows out, almost like a martial arts bow but with a glassful of amber liquid instead of fist into palm.

The entire table raised their glasses. “To the foreigner!”

Ganbei!” he cried, then downed the beer in one gulp.

“The men have to ganbei, but it's OK if the women don't,” Chai whispered in my ear. She placed her glass back on the table. Guan took a demure sip before likewise placing hers back down. I nodded, grateful for the hint.

A round of drinking began. Uncle Shu toasted Guan for her excellent grades, at which point Guan turned around and toasted Chai for being a wonderful friend and study partner. Then Chai toasted Guan's parents for hosting us, who toasted the entire table for coming. The adults toasted one another's health, toasted their friend's cooking skills, toasted their neighbor for winning a business deal. At one point, Uncle Shu went around the table one by one, tossing back glass after glass before slamming it down, roaring with laughter, his face the color of beets.

I'd never observed a group of Chinese getting drunk before. I realized that when Uncle Shu toasted me, I should have raised my glass first to him, and then to the whole table to acknowledge he'd toasted me on their behalf. I should have then followed with a toast about Americans and Chinese and cross-cultural friendship. Raised on American soil, I'd missed all these cues, and I wondered how much I could ever absorb, how close I'd ever get to the nation of my grandparents.


* * *


The next morning, we joined Guan's childhood friends, her boyfriend, and his classmates from the Hebei Provincial Police Academy for a hike. A rented van carried us down a two-lane highway, passing small brick homes with a smattering of chickens out front, before turning off onto a dirt path. The driver eased the van over large rocks that jutted out of rich brown clay, weeds swaying by the windows, until we could go no farther.

Our guide had a leathery face and wore thick glasses. I could have mistaken him for an uneducated peasant, except for the large digital SLR that was slung around his neck. He located a narrow footpath among the scraggly bushes and led us along the slow ascent to the top of the mountain. He pointed out wildflowers with medicinal properties and an icy stream where the water still ran clear enough for the locals to drink unfiltered.

The path flattened into a gentle meadow that was rimmed with towering firs. A bird rustled in a nearby bush. Light banter bubbled around me, hidden behind an indecipherable wall of local accent, dialectical puns, verbal shorthand, and riffs on pop culture or historical references I didn't know. I knew enough Chinese to pass as native in casual interactions, but this trip offered constant reminders of the many intricate layers that remained unexcavated.

Our guide clutched his camera. “Friends, lift up your cameras to capture a shot of those magnificent trees!”

“I'm going to concentrate on lifting up my feet to get through this vegetation,” Chai muttered.

I laughed for the first time all day. Chai had parroted our guide's sentence but swapped out three key words, completely altering the meaning. This kind of wordplay was classic Chinese humor. It was also the first joke I'd understood throughout the entire trip, and it felt good to catch it.

The guide scurried along the path, then turned around and waved us into a clump. We flashed peace signs as he clicked away.

“That person sure likes to take photos,” said Guan's boyfriend through his frozen smile.

“Your wife has a camera?” A boy with short spiky hair and a pale blue polo looked at Guan, the joke dancing across his features. Guan shot him a bemused smile. I squinted in confusion and looked from face to face. “Do you know what neiren means?” he asked, slowing his speech slightly to make sure I could keep up. He'd punned on the phrase naren (“that person”) by swapping in neiren (literally “inside person”), which, centuries ago, was used to refer to one's spouse.

“You see it more in books,” Guan added. “People don't usually use it in spoken Chinese.”

I laughed, feeling a bit like an eight-year-old who laughs too hard and too late at an adult's joke. Still, delight bubbled up in me. I love this aspect of the Chinese language, these subtle intricacies that wind together, the wordplay, the references that cross genres. It's why I'd majored in Chinese literature in college; with every sliver of information I pieced together, I felt like I was inching my way closer to my roots. Although this trip reminded me that the wellspring of source material was vaster than I might ever hope to tap, I thrilled to every new drop of understanding.

Our guide continued his energetic pace up the mountain, but we faltered, spreading out along the path in small clumps. I found myself hiking alone, and paused to take in the rolling valleys that unfurled beneath us. After months spent navigating cities populated by tens of millions of people, the solitude felt nice. I remembered an early moment in the hike, when Blue Polo offered to carry my backpack. First, Guan's boyfriend had hoisted her backpack onto his shoulders; then his friend held out a hand for Chai's messenger bag. Initially I'd demurred, but Guan and her boyfriend insisted to the point where it felt impolite to refuse. As I walked unencumbered, it occurred to me that perhaps this offer had been Blue Polo's attempt to initiate contact.

The Chinese have a saying about overseas Chinese: zanmenshiyijiaren, or “we are all one family”; they think of us as branches that have been grafted onto foreign trees. At our core, we're still family. My visit threw that assumption into question, and we all struggled for ways to bridge the gap.

After the hike we drove to a restaurant where Guan's parents had reserved a private room for us. We piled around an enormous circular table already decorated with pots of tea and two platters of cold cuts. We served each other long, translucent tendrils of jellyfish, thin slices of marinated beef. As waiters arrived bearing plate after plate I felt embarrassed at the generosity showered upon us, realizing yet again the great pains her parents had gone through for this visit. Yet I also understood that they might never host an American again, that my arrival had given them the opportunity for “face”—to be the ones to show off a foreigner to so many friends, neighbors, and family.

One of the boys looked at me. “Will you read from your passport?” he asked.

I looked around, startled. Nine pairs of solemn eyes looked back at me. On the ride to the restaurant, one of Guan's friends had asked to see my passport, which was quickly passed around the entire van. Most Chinese, I realized, had no access to a passport, and I felt embarrassed at all the stamps in mine, a marker of the privilege that sprang from the soil that had nourished me and that I'd taken for granted.

“Uh, sure.” I retrieved it from the bottom of my backpack. “The Secretary of State of the United States of America hereby requests all whom it may concern to permit the citizen/national of the United States named herein to pass without delay or hindrance and in case of need to give lawful aid and protection.…?”

I glanced up. Surely nobody wanted to hear this administrative gobbledygook. A couple of the boys leaned forward to listen, and Guan's eyes were closed in concentration. Blue Polo got up and shut the door. The sound of ceramic clanging against tabletops receded. “Keep going,” he said. I flipped the page and read a section.

“Is America like The OC?”

“Like American Pie?”

“Did you all really learn to drive? To school?”

I nodded.

“Wow.” They leaned back in their chairs, taking it in. Language was also their entryway into culture, it seemed, a portal facilitated by the bootleg movies and TV shows sold on most street corners of every major Chinese city. Just as Chai's joke and Blue Polo's cultural translations created the bridge that allowed me to cross from West to East, my passport served a similar function, opening the floodgates to more questions about America.

Remembering Blue Polo's explanation of neiren, I slowed my speech ever so slightly to be sure they could follow it. We talked about college in America, about Thanksgiving and its traditional foods, the attendant family tensions that usually accompanied the holiday. I could see the confusion in their eyes; the Spring Festival and Autumn Moon Festival were China's holidays for family reunions, but didn't carry the same family angst that similar occasions did in America, the land of rugged individualism and bootstrapping, where the self was defined solely in individualistic terms and not in relation to a larger group.

Slowly, the conversation drifted back to casual banter, my comprehension fading in and out. I looked over at Guan and Chai, and we smiled.


Belonging, Community, Culture, Family, Identity, Language


1 comments have been posted.

Thoughtful and lucid essay, easily and helpfully capturing both the tension and pride in the air when connecting with friends or relatives from one's native, but distant, culture. You craft an essay carefully, and your easy fluidity and reflections on cultural nuance through language are also impressive. To date, as I have been able to find out, your writing has mostly been essays but with the questions that obviously move you, you have, if you would permit me to say, several books in you. Let me only reflect on three brief ideas... 1. If you really want to explore the intersection of culture, language and meaning, I would think the ?? has to be in your future. There is only one current edition in a Western language (German), and the English renderings of many of the poems are indefensible and unhelpful for our age. So many of the poems characterize life from a women's perspective.. 2. Some of my own work in helping Chinese scholars get their work translated well into English has convinced me that the market for this is immense. I don't know if you fancy yourself as a translator, but there is no task, it seems to me, that makes one confront the intersections of culture and language better than this... 3. Punning in every language is prized, but of the languages I have studied, Chinese does it the best. Perhaps that is because of the relatively few sounds in the language... In any case, A good book on Chinese puns, not simply 500 idioms or proverbs, is a desideratum. More ideas, but this is enough. Thank you for stimulating my own thinking.

William R. Long | August 2016 | Salem, OR

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