Twenty-seven hours I traveled to get here from Beijing, and yet barely a day passed. Twenty-seven hours for reflection and revelation, and yet when I finally crawled into my bed yesterday, luggage pulled apart on my floor and the familiar walls around me, all I could think was "how soft my American bed is!"
More than one person this summer told me, "You don't understand yet what this time will mean to you." They had the truth of it. Even after all that flight time, I struggle to answer the question, "What did you learn this summer?" I know I am not the same person who left this country 100 days ago. I know who I would have been, had I stayed in the United States this summer. She would have been brash, confident, steady. That person is not me anymore.
My last days in Beijing were ruled by whim. I visited the Lama Temple, met with people from WWF and TNC just to hear their thoughts, danced for hours and hours, and savored every bite of the food I ate as the last. I could still taste it as I mouthed the dry airplane food, vivid as my apartment walkway's patterned stonework made uneven by the soil sunk in between, as starry as apartment lights reflecting in the nearby fish pond, the delight of morning crowds of children as they were held, strollered and teased by their loving grandparents. The whistles of the bus attendants, and the curiously bold glances my bus mates would cast at me as I read books on my phone in English on my way to work.
In junior high and high school I never connected with the Chinese-American autobiographical fiction we read, Kingston's "Warrior Woman" for example or Tan's "Joy Luck Club." Nor did I, in college, feel any sense of belonging in the Asian student clubs. Those of the first and second generation could claim that culture so easily for themselves. Others I met in China styled my trip as a discovery of my roots, a return home, the journey of finally knowing who I was. And some saw me not at all. One boy, after too many beers, told me brashly "when I look at people like you, I have to say, I see a non-person. Are you Chinese? You can barely understand the language. You're not American either. Anyone looking at you can see that." Everyone once in a while I might say something that revealed me as a stereotype, perhaps my piano-playing or my love for some traditional chinese food, and I would hear "Ah, you are Chinese after all!" These perspectives rang hollow. I felt stuffed into a narrative that did not belong to me.
Yes, there were many times when I realized why my parents and grandparents hold the values they did. I understood, to some extent, why I was also given those values. But later in the trip, I realized I wasn't getting to know myself better. Instead, these aspects of Chinese culture that I sorted through and incorporated into my own being were never a part of me before. Rather than unearthing old foundations, I was building a new self, wilfully deciding how to understand the world anew.
There is a danger in coming back to a familiar place from a foreign one. I feel I have changed, but my surroundings have not. Friends who see me do not recognize me as being any more or less Chinese than I was when I left. There is danger in allowing homecoming to feel like regression, rather than renovation. But sometimes I feel too much freedom. I am tempted to turn as soon as I can for Beijing again, but I am equally lured by dance, conservation, leadership opportunities, pursuit of an elusive romantic love, and dedication to family. In truth, too many things.
I read Flaubert's Madame Bovary over the summer. Emma is a dreamer of the worst sort, pulled by one whim or another, constantly reshaping herself in the eye of those around her. She chases the next best thing, experiences life with an intensity known to few people. And yet, when the story ends, we find that she has disappeared entirely from the narrative.
When my mind dabbles on so many things, I begin to feel like Bovary. I turn away in disgust. I do not want to be or become her. I don't want to just disappear. What is my impact to be?
On the heels of a sleepless night, I try to know what to take from my summer in China, and what to leave. I so badly wanted to stay - I put off packing until the last minute, fantasized about missing my flight, about the plane breaking down on the jetway, nearly turned around when the immigration officer stamped my departure date into my passport and my chest tightened with pain. I couldn't shake the sensation of being at a journey's end. The process of becoming - which was so clear in China - dropped away from me as surely as the sight of Beijing vanishing behind smog and clouds as the Boeing 767 lifted westward. I could no longer find clarity of reason, nor the frame of logical decision-making.
Now, with the sound of restless air from Hurricane Irene sighing through the trees, all I find in memory is feeling. Wonderment at how easily a rural farmer extends an invitation to share his time with me, at how everyone finds space to move in a complex and sputtering tangle of buses and bikes and cars during the morning commute, at the careful attention to detail in every act of service or construction I encountered.
I hope revelation will come with time, that I will know better what this summer has meant. For now, all I can claim are sensation and reflection. I do not know what I lost there, along the perpetually dust-veiled roads, amongst the melodic song of Chinese, no more than I know what I gained.