When I biked home from work in China, I anticipated not my homestay family’s apartment building, a nondescript, five story complex on top of convenience stores and massage parlors, but the building across from it. At twenty stories high, it towered over mine, and two looming characters perched on either corner blazed in red: 天 and 地, or heaven and earth. My Christian roots compelled me to recall those first verses. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep…”. Until I was eleven and had repudiated my faith in a fit of teenage angst, I dutifully attended church every Sunday and Jesus camp every June. China had the tendency to reveal my bare bones, and as I returned after a long day of stumbling over my tones and tongue, I was comforted by the faith. I was comforted for the same reason I almost attended church on Christmas, or why my ears perk up at the idyllic sound of hymns. The notes of “Amazing Grace” have been indelibly etched into my subconscious whether I believe the lyrics true or not. Humming along, as I’ve done for my whole life, makes me feel at home.
I flew into China with a month of Mandarin lessons under my belt and with an obsession to connect with my “homeland.” From sixth to twelfth grade, I attended an Episcopalian school in West Austin, that is, white Austin. In the early 20th century, government city officials, who feared integration, dictated a “Negro District” in the East part of the city. Through redlining, zoning laws, and other policies, officials crafted Austin. The white, wealthy suburbs where the authorities lived were meticulously built in the West, and neighborhoods of minorities, uncared for by the government, bloomed in the East. I-35, built in the 1960s, runs an asphalt scar down the city, delimiting these racial and socioeconomic spheres. I drove into West Austin from my home in the North every day for school. A nervous Chinese girl with an underbite and a bad case of eczema, I craved belonging in the West’s gilded, gated community. Through boat parties on the lake and in mansions adorned with liberal yard signs and vestigial Doric columns, my peers moved with an ease that eluded me, an effortlessness that seemed to equate to belonging. Once high school came around, a new car at sixteen, college after graduation, and Migos performing at a birthday party all seemed equally unnoteworthy facts of life.
My high school graduation was held in my school’s chapel, a beautiful high-ceiling wood and limestone building. White, peaked tents blossomed like giant tulips along the sides of the sanctuary. My aunt and grandparents sat in plastic chairs underneath one, saving seats for the rest of my family. A mother of one of my classmates approached my aunt.
A lovely occasion, isn’t it?
Yes. Good thing the rain stayed away.
That would have been such a pity— they’ve worked too hard to have their celebration ruined. A pause, and a smile. I see you’re saving a lot of seats.
We have a big family.
I don’t think you quite know how we do things around here.
The issue of being a person of color in a historically white space is that the community will always be rooted in whiteness. White people dictate the collective of what and who “we” are. Even if what is accepted, such as anime or boba, stems from another culture, people of color do not possess the clout to assert the legitimacy of their own cultural objects. They must either fully adopt the norms of the white space they dwell in or remain on the margins. Despite my adaption to the entitlement felt by the wealthy, I found no place for my familial quirks or the food I liked in the culture of my peers. My Asianness hung on me like an ill-fitting coat for seven years, and my position as a foreigner in the community I grew up in pushed me to find a home in my own ethnicity.
Kunming, the modestly-sized Chinese city of six and a half million in which Bridge Year China is based, is an hour by plane from my father’s familial hometown, Tengchong. Before my grandfather immigrated to the United States, my father’s family lived in Tengchong for twenty-one generations, a longer span of time than America has been a country. I’ll fit right in, I thought, and when I walked around Kunming with my homestay family, I pretended I was their daughter. I walked with them in anonymity through open-air markets, bok choy and bitter melon resting on checkered blankets while hawkers scrolled through their WeChats, megaphones blaring their prices on repeat. Together, we drove out to the countryside, where the mountains rise quickly, and the sparsely spaced homes testify to the rapidity of Kunming’s growth into a metropolis of shiny malls, generously sprinkled into the city every few blocks. One night after dinner, I followed my homestay father and sister home on bike. Dark had already fallen, and the high rises around us were lit with shifting strips of light shimmying down their glass walls. At times I raced them, lazily pedaling until we biked side by side, only to pull ahead once we drifted together for a second too long. My homestay sister waved her arms as she rode through a large intersection; the cars stood tensely frozen, still like actors the moment before the curtain rises, and whisked away by the momentum of the moment—lights flashing, mopeds swerving, them laughing—I saw my homestay sister’s arms move in slow motion, the wind heavy. China felt like this to me: I floated above, ungrounded and drifting, the video of my life speeding up and slowing down indiscriminately. As I moved through Kunming with my host family, I felt akin to a citizen of Jerusalem, watching Jesus enter the city from afar, the hooves of the messiah’s donkey crushing a tenderly laid carpet of palm leaves underfoot.
The moment someone spoke to me, the illusion of us as a family shattered. I sputtered a response, and my flat, cobbled words exposed who I was. My homestay mother rattled off a refined speech to explain me: “Ta shi yi ge meiguoren. Ta tingbudong zhongwen.” (She’s an American. She doesn’t understand Chinese.) Without fail, the person discovering me replied, “Keshi ta kanqilai xiang yi ge zhongguoren.” (But she looks like a Chinese person.)
I grew to hate the sound of this phrase. “Looks like” is not “is”. “Looks like” is a facade, a wall, an inconvenient obstacle to the truth. The phrase nurtured a bitter anger. Eventually, the anger burst pus and blood whenever I heard the phrase—for a moment, I wished I looked American. Then, I would realize I just wished to look white, and the sour shame I’ve swallowed since twelve would rise again.
There was no escape from my brittle relationship with China while I lived in it. Constantly surrounded by people who looked like me, yet with whom I could not identify linguistically or culturally, I desired to both assert my foreign roots loudly, but also blend in seamlessly. To be at once noticed and unnoticed, fully Chinese and fully American. When news came that Princeton planned to move us out of the country due to COVID-19, I smiled, and I was ashamed of my happiness to leave.
COVID eventually hit the States harder than it did China, and having returned to the US in mid-March, my gap year shrunk to the size of my childhood home. In May, I watched my cousin marry through a YouTube livestream as I sat in my living room. Originally, the ceremony was planned to be held in their Southern Baptist megachurch with over five hundred in attendance, but God has his plans, and her grand wedding became an intimate ceremony held in a petite white chapel. When my cousin walked onto our TV screen, my whole family gasped. At twenty-two, she looked grown up. The priest, gold iPad in hand, talked about how the couple got married the right and righteous way, with both families heavily involved and with Christ at the core of their union. My cousin expedited the date of her wedding so that she could move in with her husband before medical school. As her mother, father, aunt, two uncles, and grandfather are all doctors, her career path was not met with surprise: in my mother’s family, the tradition of physicians extends far back into when we were still in Taiwan. We were also one of the first Taiwanese families to convert to Christianity. The faith passed down since the Dutch landed on Formosa, only to reach its limit with me. Despite my skepticism, I still cried when the priest read from 1 Corinthians 13, verses written on photo frames scattered throughout my childhood home. The familiar inflections of the voice of a sermon brought me to a quieter place, where things like ethnicity and language and identity pale in comparison to one’s relationship with God.
If life in China was a challenge of alienation, life in the US during COVID was a challenge of entrenchment. Falling asleep at three and waking up at eleven, I filled my days empty with an indifference toward most everything and aimed fleeting spurts of zeal at various hobbies. I baked a French silk pie. I sewed a green gingham crop top. I listened obsessively to freak folk music. I threw myself onto my bed and mediated upon heat death in the dark like a proper Atheist should every once in a while. And then I read Educated.
Tara Westover, when she describes her stress regarding college tuition, relates “curiosity is the luxury of the rich.” I thought about my private education, thousands of dollars a year to study Ancient Greek and astrophysics on a three-hundred acre campus, about my future education, paid for by a college fund created before I was born, and about the present moment— I could afford the time to read. I could afford to loaf and postulate and bemoan.
The combination of the COVID-19 pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protests have revealed to the privileged the extent to which their power affords them easier, healthier, more secure lives. Among other systems, the structure of healthcare, of the economy, and of law enforcement, as well as the policies which comprise them, distribute and reinforce power. By nature of growing up in the United States, I actively participate in such systems, and they shape who I am today. America’s healthcare system pays doctors and thus my father handsomely, so my mother could retire from her medical practice to care for me and my siblings, drive us to Latin competitions and cross country meets. The school which formed me intellectually and socially was only accessed through my family’s wealth. The same wealth decreases my chance of dying from COVID because I do not need to go into public and work in order to survive. I did not feel I belonged in my middle or high school, which was located in the planned center of whiteness in Austin, because I am not white. My Asian heritage also means I am nowhere as viscerally vulnerable to the police as Black people are in America, and I can go through everyday life without fear of losing my body to the state.
My desire for Chineseness was vague, a lofty want sprung from what I saw as a lack of Americanness. Thus, my experience in China was similarly insubstantial: no matter how much I desired to see myself reflected in it, China did not shape me. Perhaps, then, a homeland is not made of ethnic origins, patriotism, or even acceptance into the collective. To have a homeland is to understand the placement of oneself in the context of power; it is to acknowledge that these dynamics have and continue to directly impact one’s lived reality. In the same way Christianity, neutral to my lack of faith, informs my identity because I have been steeped in the religion since birth, I am American because I was born into structures that enforce power relations particular to America now, and these systems, having given and restricted privileges, are inextricable from how I have become the person I am today.
My determination to find a sense of home in China was based on the belief I was separate from the social fabric I inhabited in the United States. The contrary is true: like a religion practiced during childhood, a homeland becomes part of oneself. But as importantly, one is also part of a homeland and all the people who populate it. Accompanying this understanding of social solidarity in view of structural suffering, I sense a prerogative to not view the world as scripture, but to strive toward more equitable distributions of power by changing the structures that exacerbate inequality. For I know I will always be part of America, and it will always be part of me.