Sometimes I miss China so much I can’t breathe. I get a panicky sort of feeling, as if my old life is drifting into the background and soon will become nothing more than an anecdote told affectionately at holiday gatherings. “When we lived in China …” “Back when we were in China…” I cling to every scrap of the country that so generously transformed me from a ridiculous adolescent child to a slightly less ridiculous adult, and I crave what I can no longer have. If my memories are air, I gulp them in deep breaths, reminding myself that this happened.
People who are of two places know well this unique and exquisite sorrow. China was my home for a decade and a half, and it created me — not the same way it created my husband. He was born in the 70s to the tail end of the Cultural Revolution, to a farming village in the southeast part of Yunnan, to the banks of the Nanpanjiang river that claimed his oldest cousin, to tanks rolling through the Yunnanese hills, off to fight the Vietnamese in a forgotten war, to a birth policy that forced family members to commit atrocities, to a new China that had no place for the likes of him. China shaped his very being. He is Chinese, of China, in a way that I will never be.
Still, China created me in a different way. People who are of two places know this dual creation. When you arrive in your new country, you are born again. You learn a new language and stumble, like an overgrown child, through basic interactions — buying apples from a seller on the street, hailing a taxi, paying your bills. Everything simple is complex anew. Slowly, you learn a new way of being, new rules of interaction. If you stay there long enough, those ways, those rules, they become your own. My husband is now reborn in America — learning anew how to be. In your new country there are small revelations almost constantly, until one day, there aren’t. Nothing surprises you, because you too, are a part of the surprise.
How can I explain this to other people, people who have only ever experienced that one life on their own shores? I moved to China before cell-phones, before Twitter, before Facebook. I moved to China during the Bush years, during the Iraq war. When Obama was elected, I was in China. When the financial crisis of 2008 hit, I was in China. When Donald Trump took office, then too, I was in China. While people back home experienced — whatever they experienced (I still cannot even properly say what the touchstone events of the Western world were, I was not there. A decade and a half of current events, hit songs, actors, shows, fims, memes … I do not know) — I experienced SARS. The Sichuan Earthquake. The Beijing Olympics. Riots in Tibet. The terror attack on the Kunming train station. The rise of Xi Jinping. I’ve never taken a cross country trip in my own country, but I’ve traveled the length and breadth of China. I speak the language — speak a dialect even. To look at me, I am wholly American, but there is a segment of my soul, fifteen years long, that belongs to another place.
To be of two places is to forever miss one or the other. When I was in China, there were days I longed for my home soil. For the salty air of the Carolina coast. For the ambient sound of my own language, effortlessly understandable. For the tastes of home — butter and cheese and beef. For the right to vote, for the right to participate in government, for the ability to speak out. I longed for those things too. An now, in America, my longing turns the other way. The smoky smell of the village. The incessant popping of firecrackers. The taste of rice noodles and fermented tofu. The mountains. The music. The sound of the dialect that I fear I will lose. Even things I am not supposed to miss. Is it terrible to admit that sometimes I miss the order of an authoritarian state, the near surety that no gun would ever harm me? (I know, it is my privilege, my husband’s Han Chinese privilege, that we had this surety. Others do not. In America too, I am privileged with the freedom that others do not have).
Today, my children willfully forget their mother tongue. I once fretted that they would never speak English, but now, Chinese eludes them. My husband and I speak to them in the harsh fourth tones of the Kunming dialect, desperate to preserve what America would have them forget. “What’s the use?” They say. Indeed. What’s the use of memory? When I write, my memories flow, they wreck my heart with longing, but no matter how many pages I fill, they will never be enough. China is not yours to write, still others say, and they are right. It is not my own. It is only that part of my soul that China created that I can lay claim to. And so, again and again, I return to China on the page, sucking out the marrow of my second life like it were a great soup-bone (yes, I ate those too, with straws and plastic gloves. If you know, you know). I suck and I gnaw, but the flavor of the bone never fades, the marrow still flows.