Clanging pots and honking cars invade the soundtrack of my dreams. The blaring alarm gives my little brother signal to run screaming into my room, “Foreigner, wake up!” My older brother sits at the kitchen table, one hand frantically tapping on his iPhone screen, perfecting his Hearthstone technique, the other hand shoveling steamy porridge into his mouth with crooked chopsticks. Calling goodbye to my host mom, I grab a pork bun and stroll out the door. Thick droplets of sweat slide down my neck as I scurry across the busy street, finding relief in the cool, sleek subway station. I ride line 1 towards Lindun Lu, just in time to catch my morning Chinese classes.
In the summer of 2017 I was awarded the scholarship sponsored by the U.S. State Department. I spent six weeks in China with 20 other American high school students. We all lived with host families and learned Mandarin every day at Suzhou Number 1 High School.
Despite my mixed heritage, I always considered myself as first and foremost an American. My Chinese identity, while familiar, was foreign to me. I saw China through the lens of global issues and politics: the country was our adversary, an enemy we were in an elongated struggle with over power and influence. I was detached from my other half – my Chinese-ness was there, but it wasn’t me. I found no reason to believe my life in China would have any similarities to my life in the U.S.
During my first few weeks in Suzhou, homesick and buckling under the workload, I took heavy note of all the differences. In China, I showered at night. In China, I, the pedestrian, yielded to cars. Carrying toilet paper everywhere became both a hassle and a blessing as the extra space taken up in my bag was justified by my hygienic standards. I longed for home, for the normalcy of suburbia, for America.
As the weeks flew by and I set into a routine, I began to find luxury in crossing walks and corner convenience stores. I also became enamored with comparing my new and old lives. In China, I played mahjong with my host dad, snacked on spicy duck tongue, and crossed kids up on the basketball court and in the U.S. I beat my dad in chess, gorged on chili cheese dogs, and also crossed kids up on the basketball court.
For six weeks, I lived life as a student in a country halfway across the world. The language, the city, the people were all different, but in a way, it was all the same. The connections I made, borne from a shared language, were deep and unwavering; in both countries, my parents supported me from help with homework to moral dilemmas, my friends laughed at my jokes and lent me their hands, my siblings annoyed me but I loved them nonetheless. The humanity we shared was raw and unfiltered; it carried the weight of our collective experiences as human beings, blind to any country or culture of origin.
I am an American, and I love football, burgers and barbecues. I’m also Chinese, adept at using chopsticks, bargaining for cheap knick-knacks on the street, and winning money at the mahjong table. My preconceived notions of my mother’s culture were overturned by my experiences living within and immersing myself into my heritage. Where once I was bashful of my mother’s country and its relationship with my father’s, I now became aware of the evident similarities in lifestyles, people, and humanity between the two. Both my American-ness and Chinese-ness are a part of me, a part of my identity, whether I accept it or not. No longer is there a struggle to determine which is better, which I like more, which I should be. American or Chinese, I don’t have to choose, I’m proud to be both.