Beatrice Zhang

Emigrants

My mother tells me a story about one of her friends. He was imprisoned and brought back several times to Canton. Swimming across an ocean, air pulled in and rushed out rhythmically through a straw that connected his mouth to life. He couldn’t reveal himself until he reached the other side. British Hong Kong was his first step to freedom. He arrived on his third attempt after more than a month-long journey across the ocean and through the mountains. [1]

Chinese American. A millimeter of space separates the two on paper, but I still have to travel sixteen hours to get from one country to the other.

My father never fails to remind me of his childhood in Yancheng—how he studied at night next to a small flame, squinting to see the symbols in the books. He brought me back to his house when I visited Yancheng for the first time: a small concrete hut that never met electricity shut in by short, metal gates. 100 Yuan banknotes were pressed onto a stack joss paper [2] before lighting a fire on the dirt outside of his house. We fed red paper to the fire that carried money up to my grandmother as my father talked to the sky.

Beijing was my mother’s home. Today it is a global city crowded with skyscrapers and apartment complexes to house its dense population. She knew Beijing in the 1960's and 70’s. Mao Zedong was in office leading communist China. A picture of him hung on the wall of her apartment. Supplies were rationed with tickets given annually: oil, cloth, meat, wheat. [3] At school, my mother was assigned to collect horse scat on the street for manure. Nothing was wasted back then.

The second time I visited China, grandmother enrolled my brother and me in a drawing course. We spent afternoons drawing three dimensional shapes, such as spheres, and creating shadows with graphite. My brother took out a book one day before our class began. The girl next to him leaned over and asked him what he was reading. He tilted the book to show her the cover with different combinations of the 26 letters in the English alphabet and continued to read

I know him as the man who sits on his back patio in the evenings looking over the golf course while holding a glass of expensive wine by the pads of his fingers once wrinkled by the Asian sea water.

According to my father, this was burned to ensure that the deceased had money to spend in their afterlife.

It is hard to believe her stories as I spin the rotating center of the dinner table weighed down by roasted ducks, porridge, fish, chicken feet, and pots of tea in the 21st century Beijing.

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“你要去 downtown 吗?” a voice beside me asked while I waited for a bus after school. I turned around. The voice belonged a foreign student studying at a local university.

     “Well this is uptown, so yes, downtown,” I mumbled aloud trying to remind myself of the geography of the city. I have lived in New Orleans my whole life, and sometimes even I feel like a foreigner. [4] “我要去 downtown,” I refined my statement as I became fully conscious of the fact that I was talking to someone in Chinese.

     The woman who had approached me stared at me with a confused expression before beginning to formulate another question. This one was in English. “Do you,” she paused to think, “live uptown?”

     I struggled to gather my thoughts and convert English into Chinese. My hands began to fidget as the two languages clashed against each other in my head. Should I explain to her that I was still in high school, so I didn’t live in a dorm, or that I actually lived across the Mississippi River? How do you even say high school in Chinese? River? I seemed to forget every Chinese word I had ever known. Another response fell out of my mouth in chunks that was a strange mixture Chinese and English. [5] Embarrassment rushed over me, and the New Orleans humidity that clung to everything it touched pressed down on my shoulders. The woman kindly accepted my response and walked away to check the bus schedule.

I walk into a room with my mother’s Chinese dramas playing on the television screen. White subtitles appear on the bottom of the screen, and I try to read the characters, skimming for ones I recognize. [6] “我有,” I would say to my mother standing behind the couch as she folds the laundry. She asks me what the next word is. I stare at the symbol until the television screen takes away the line and recycles it into a new combination of characters.

Chinese was my first language. A language with verbs that know no sense of time. [7] Each word is only one syllable, as compact as the character on paper. Sundays used to be reserved for Chinese school when I was six. I spent mornings sitting in the dining room before school writing characters onto gridded paper until the pencil dulled. Each character had a specific set of strokes to follow. A series of grey silhouettes introduced each new word; strokes piled on top of each other until the last stroke in the box finished the character. I was learning how to draw Chinese, as I liked to put it. [8]

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I have no sense of direction. I got completely lost in the middle of the streets in China once.

Sometimes I hear a Chinese word slipping out of my mouth when I speak English.

I do this to remind myself that I’m not completely illiterate.

While the English infinitive, to write, can be conjugated by changing the spelling (wrote, writing, written), the Chinese character, 寫, does not change. The tense of the action cannot be distinguished by just looking at the single character.

I stopped attending Chinese school about ten years ago, and I have managed to forget almost all of the characters.

My parents are ageless. They have no birth certificates to prove their existence in the world. On every May 4th, [9] we celebrate my father’s birthday. He adopted a new birth date when he arrived in America. When he was born, China was still using a calendar based on the phases of the moon. March 29th, he recalled, was his birthday according to the lunar calendar. Ironic how it is the same date as my birthday on the Gregorian calendar based on the sun. I was tempted not to believe him.

My mother bought a chicken at a market when I visited China for the first time when I was nine. We placed it in a wicker basket and trapped it under the lid.

[10] I stood in the distance as the chicken’s neck was pressed to the chopping block, and the sharpened cleaver made contact with the wood. The chicken was plucked; brown feathers fell to the ground.

 

My mother called me into the kitchen. She held out a bowl and pointed to the three orange eggs that had not yet formed a hard shell around them. I wanted to save them—maybe they would hatch one day.

The first time I saw a dead man [11] was the summer before my freshman year of high school, when I went back to China for the third time. My aunt drove the car while I sat in the back seat leaning my head against the window. I woke up from my nap just in time to see the show.

 

My eyelids open slowly, a curtain undrawing. My eyes adjust to the bright light on the stage to reveal the scene:

  • A broken body on an orange dirt road (skull crushed by the tires of a car)

  • Red blood next to redder flower petals scattered on the dirt

  • A crowd of spectators motionless and emotionless

  • Small shops lining the side of the road

  • The sun—the only source of light.

My eyelids shut. [12] The car drives past the body slowly, following the cars in front that had also slowed down to a stop to have a closer look.

The smog in Beijing has been getting worse. Recently, the government shut down the city to wait for nature to break apart the thick air. My mother shows me photographs of China sent to her by her friends. She holds up her phone and shows me a green garden with a rich blue sky in the background telling me that it was a picture taken from Beijing. Neither of us believed it. I find it difficult to believe in photographs.

They say it’s faster to travel East: the Earth pulls China away from me as it rotates itself at a thousand miles an hour when I am floating above the Pacific Ocean in an airplane going West.

I am not a tourist when I visit China. I look just like everyone else, and I am expected to speak fluent Chinese. I visit the parts of China that tourists rarely go to—the places that will never be featured on a postcard. Even though I am Chinese, I feel like a foreigner when I’m in China. I know that China is changing rapidly from the constant news reports and the internet articles, but I will never be able to match my parent’s descriptions of China to the one I see today. I wonder if they also feel like foreigners.

I accepted that date for fourteen years until he told me that he didn’t know when his actual birthday was.

Darkness theoretically calms a bird before its neck is cut off.

Similar sights are common throughout China.

My mother’s voice in the background says, “At least she was sleeping. She didn’t see it.”

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Beatrice Zhang is a senior from New Orleans, Louisiana. She started writing in eighth grade about her recurring dreams of being kidnapped by balloons among other things. She mainly writes poetry and creative non-fiction. She also enjoys eating mangoes and potatoes and believes that potatoes are vegetables.