A Foreigner in Familiar Lands


As a child, I felt as though I had two sets of parents. I had my American ones, consisting of my sweet, cute mom and my quiet, reserved dad. Then I had my Chinese ones, consisting of my outgoing, bubbly mom and my witty, boisterous dad. I was amazed by the total transformation that 17 hours on a plane could create. When we travel from America to China, they go from clumsy conversationalists to the life of the party, while I go from exasperated and embarrassed to awkward and ashamed. Ashamed of my inability to speak eloquently. Ashamed of my lack of culture. Ashamed of my foreignness.

By the time I graduated high school, four of my five closest friends still had never seen my American dad before. One had only seen him by accident when he made an appearance from his solitary sanctuary upstairs; he didn’t know I had a friend over. Several flustered greetings, strained glances, and prolonged silences later, he retreated back up to his room.

My American mom, on the other hand, is a rather sociable gal. Most of my friends and their parents know her and like her. “She is adorable and so funny!” Would they think the same if they saw her scolding my sister and me in fluent, rapid-fire Cantonese?

In our home, my parents are a medley of their American and Chinese selves. Sometimes they stumble over English phrases, producing broken fragments of lost thoughts. Other times they give me fluid Cantonese life lessons or heated advice.

In China, however, it is a whole different story. Free from the bonds of cultural divides and language barriers, my parents experience Chinese as it was naturally meant to be. I, a Chinese born American, am the foreigner.

Guangzhou, China is my parents’ true home. Friendly chats with the fruit salesman, hilarious jokes at the dinner table, confident navigation of the snaky subway system, expert bargaining with the night market vendor; my parents belong here. Hesitant phrases, incomplete smiles, complete inability to get around on my own, panicked glances to my parents for help; I do not.

One boiling hot and humid summer afternoon, I had to ride the subway by myself. I left our apartment on the east side of Guangzhou to meet my parents at my fathers’ restaurant on the west. Clutching the note my mom had left on the kitchen table for me, I scrutinized each Chinese character on the metro sign. I had to make sure every swipe, dash and dot was in place before I choose the station to get off at. The high-rise shopping malls and banks seemed to glare down at me, with neon flashing signs laughing at my failure to comprehend them. I felt the judgmental stares from passersby as they looked me up and down. They knew something was different. I was different. Just by the way that I walk, dress and carry myself, they could tell that I was an imposter. I sped through the winding tunnels of the underground and finally exited the labyrinth that is Chinese public transportation. I popped out at the correct street corner of my dad’s restaurant and breathed a sigh of relief. I spotted the familiar faces of my Chinese parents, glowing from the lively conversations with their friends inside.

I thought of how my parents grew up walking through these streets of old Guangzhou. To me, they seem like people I would see on a postcard or in a documentary. But this is their home and their childhood; these roads mark the start of their lives.

As we strolled along the cracked concrete sidewalk, overgrown with weeds and strewn with litter, my parents show me the world they came from. With their eyes aglow and faces flushed with excitement, my dad points to a run-down noodle shop. “I came every afternoon with friends for best ramen in town.” The faded black-and-red storefront seems unimpressive to me. But, I can still imagine a young, scrawny version of my dad and his friends sitting on the front patio, slurping up noodles and laughing the days away.

A shoddy apartment building rolls into view. “I lived on eighth floor for 18 years. Many, many stairs. No elevator.” I actually remember this building. I remember coming here when I was small. My patient, sixty-year-old grandpa would watch me climb the steps until, exhausted, I could go no further. Then he would pick me up and carry me the last couple of flights to the top, where I would fall asleep in my dad’s cramped old bedroom.

A bookstore next. “I copied pages of my friends’ textbooks for school. Hundreds, because cheaper than buying own textbooks.” I admire his dedication. I think about all of the textbooks I have bought in my lifetime already.

In my mom’s neighborhood, she motions towards a little pond. “After school, sister and I come to catch dragonflies with our hands. Kept in jars.” I laugh, reminiscing about how my friends and I used to catch ladybugs on the field during recess in middle school. I guess the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

A rocky path underfoot. “I was naughty once, running home here with snow. I slipped, huge cut on forehead. OK now though.” She chuckles as I examine her forehead for a scar—nothing. I can’t even imagine a naughty version of my responsible, mature mother.

A university. “Gong Gong (Grandpa) teach Chinese here.” It all feels like a dusty, old museum of memories. As if their moments have been frozen in time, with the scenes untouched, preserved, and just waiting for them to come back. Waiting to show their Chinese born American daughter a world completely different from her own familiar one. They are my tour guides, and I am eager to learn.


Photographs by Anita Sheih

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