The well-known Saint Sophia Cathedral on a smoggy day.
BY BAILEY HU
“You’re going to study in Harbin?” My aunt asked in me in Chinese, her expression a mixture of amusement and alarm. “You know it’s negative 30 degrees Celsius there right now!” She paused for effect, perhaps expecting me to exclaim “Aiya, so cold!” Instead I gave her the response that I’d practiced on so many other Chinese relatives over the past few weeks: I liked the program in Harbin, I’d never been there before, so on and so forth. Secretly, I had started doubting myself. The variations on “It’s negative __ degrees Celsius there!” were taking their toll. I’d been raised in eastern North Carolina, where a couple inches of snow meant that school would be canceled for days. I’d certainly never enjoyed the cold and my grasp of the Celsius scale wasn’t very firm either. Negative 20 or 30 degrees? Could humans even survive at that temperature? In my mind’s eye, I imagined a frozen, desolate wasteland in northeastern China.
Why hadn’t I chosen Beijing? That was a question that my relatives, parents, and even professors asked me. Beijing made so much sense. Not only was it the cultural capital of the country and rich in history, it also had several top-tier schools. In short, it was a haven for a literature major like me. I started to wonder if I had landed myself in a cultural backwater by retreating all the way to Harbin. However, over the last month or so that I’ve been studying here, I’ve come to realize that I made the right choice. For one, Beijing’s air pollution is currently worse than ever. But more importantly, going to a new city has given me a chance to make a fresh start.
I should explain what I mean, and that requires delving into my personal history. I’m a second-generation Chinese-American. The term implies some cultural baggage and I’m no exception. Because my parents still have strong ties to China, I’ve always led something of a double life. In my childhood, my family would regularly make the 14-hour flight to the mainland to see relatives. Due to logistical and financial reasons, those trips gradually became less frequent. The last time I was in China, almost three years ago, I had just graduated from high school in the US. In some ways, that trip was a disaster. I had spent the last two years resisting my parents’ arguments to continue with Chinese school. As a result, my Mandarin level had dropped drastically. I was nowhere near fluent; in fact, I struggled with piecing together simple sentences. My parents’ decision to send me over first only made matters worse. For a whole month, I was on my own with my Chinese relatives, none of whom knew enough English to hold even a short conversation. I remember that month being one of frustration: I couldn’t express my thoughts and felt guilty about it, so I retreated into myself. Every small conversation seemed like a high-risk encounter; I knew that I would eventually fail, so why even try? The experience wasn’t wholly negative. I ended up travelling to amazing places and eating wonderful food together with family members I hadn’t seen in years. But when I returned to the US in the fall to attend college, that memory of frustration lingered with me. I decided to start studying Mandarin again.
And so I came back to China this past January, a little older and possibly a little wiser. My relatives, being relatives, treated me as before. One of my aunts even referred to me as “this little friend” (a nice way of saying “child”) in front of a nurse. The nurse looked over at me, 20 years old and above the average height for a Chinese female. Her face wore a blank look of incomprehension. My relatives were willing to do everything for me—open a bank account, help me get a phone card, cook special dishes, buy more winter clothes, warn me about Harbin’s weather—and initially I was happy to let them. I hadn’t been back in a while and didn’t know how things worked. I still had a child’s understanding of China that had carried over from my previous experiences; in the past, the adults did all the planning and I just enjoyed the ride. Of course, this eventually got tiresome. I was accustomed to the relative independence of college life; I liked earning my own spending money and not being supervised all the time. Under my relatives’ watchful gazes, I sometimes felt suffocated.
That’s undoubtedly one of the reasons I find Harbin so refreshing. From the beginning, there was a sense of tantalizing freedom. There was no way my family would follow me here, being far too heedful of their own warnings about the weather. Even my father, who recently came to China for a business trip, was reluctant to visit me. When I told him that Harbin’s famous ice and snow festival ends by late February, he paused for a moment before telling me: “I won’t come visit you, there’s nothing else to see.” And so I was left to my own devices. I rejoiced in simple things: ordering food at restaurants, asking for prices at grocery stores, getting a haircut, talking to my classmates and our roommates in Chinese.
Interacting with locals is much easier now. This is largely due to my improved Chinese, the result of three semesters’ hard work. But I also like to think that I’ve grown resilient. Speaking in Chinese is no longer humiliating, it’s fun. Sometimes I feel like an undercover agent trying to pass as a native. I blow my cover all the time, mispronunciations and mixed-up grammar proving to be my downfall. Usually I only last a few sentences before someone asks me “Where are you from?” with a hint of expectation in their voices. I’m already used to responding with a standard “我是美籍华人.” This is the Chinese equivalent of “I am a Chinese-American.” Not only does it pithily describe my experience, it’s proven to be a good conversation starter.
Like me, Harbin has a mixed-up cultural history. Its close neighbor Russia has influenced its architecture, cuisine, and even nightlife. Combined with the distinct flavor of Northeastern China, this makes Harbin quite different from what I’m used to. I’m constantly forced to do a metaphorical double-take and reevaluate China with new eyes. This seems fairly natural. After all, I’m becoming re-acquainted with a country that is hopelessly tangled up in my past. At times I get confused, wondering “Do if I know China? Do I belong here? What do those questions even mean?” Fortunately, uncertainty only adds to the experience.