The Long Sad Recollection about China

The armies of those I love come across the green bay waters Liberty.

I too am looking for a home.

Once my mother asked me over a pot of tea what I would like to be when I grew up. "Who knows?" I told her. "Whatever this country will let me be."

There is a folk saying in Chinese, ai ni xiang mei you yian cho. Not everything works out but we do our best, it says, but it means, more literally, loving you is like running out of cigarettes. A cigarette is a rolled-up track of tobacco that you light and inhale. When they were first imported to China, many, many people began smoking them. They were like a first step to Westernization. My grandfather smokes them. My mother, who was born in the 60s, does not.

Cigarettes make you look occupied. They made my grandpa, when he waved goodbye to us in the airport, look occupied. My mother just looked sad.

We learned, though, and I learned well, though my parents were not as young as they used to be. When we got here we learned that smoking was bad because of nicotine, rat poison, and tar. Everyone knows that these days.

They are bad. Trust your neighbors. They've been here longer than you. If you do something bad, they will report you to the government, and no none really knows what happens to you after that. Just listen to suggestions. Don't cause any trouble.

Everyone had something to say about America. There are cameras in places you wouldn't believe. Inside traffic lights. They have so much money, my aunt told us, that they can afford to lay miles and miles of concrete with little lights, and those are the lights you see in the center of the road when you drive at night. A thousand of them. A million.

I recall those lights. On a runway, there are barely any. The day we landed in Chicago, I woke up and saw them and the neon orange of the men who worked in the airport, their glowing sticks moving back and forth like eyes. When we got off and talked for ten minutes in the waiting room they were there outside. An old man walked over to us and asked for change. He was Chinese, and he told us his family was sick, that the country was sick, and we were not sure what to do, but I remember the great pressure of many eyes on us and that my mother took out a bill and my father handed it to him and that he thanked us and left. My mom told me that he spoke in the broken Chinese of a man who is born in China and moves to America and belongs to neither. It is too late, too late, she said, shaking her head.

It will be strange for you, said the aunt. Because over there is something new. Except for them, you will be the new thing. And about that, I think, she was right.

I remember our neighbors' sons, when we first settled in to our little suburb in the South, hearing that I was new, brought out a disc and threw it around with me at night. They must have thought it was kind to play with the new Chinese kid, and it probably was, but I barely said a word, looking always back to my mother, who was watching with an awkward smile.

In China there was smoke and city. In our town there were more houses than people, and more people than things we understood. Moving like this is not a rapid change—except it is. I grew up with the other kinds in the south and for the most part they were not cruel. They were not xenophobic and they were not afraid, and in that way they were different from me. But I learned, slowly, so slowly you could barely notice it: I learned my first English word when one boy pushed me in the back and said "go!" indicating that I should move forward with the rest of the queue.

Then one day I saw my first yearbook photo, and realized it. The difference is not in the realization, but in the acknowledgement. You did not look in the mirror and see that you were different—except you did. Is there really something different? Even though I grew up here and spoke the language? Yes.

I became a citizen this past summer. I went into an air-conditioned room and looked at a man with the rest of the kids who were taking the oath. I raised my hand and said the few sentences that he told us to, something about duty and something about dignity, almost like a toast, and that was that. Only why was there the feeling that I had lost something? Something important? Something tickling the edge of my mind.

How to describe it? The feeling. It is like smoke. Like watching man draw mantras with water in the parking lots, there and then gone. No, that doesn't make sense. It is like trying, trying and not quite succeeding. In that way it is like running out of something just when you need it most. Something that you have lost for a long, long time, but only realized it recently. No. it is like what? What exactly?

It is like waking. It is as if you have slept for a long time and opened your eyes and seen the world anew. Not as if you had suddenly found it changed to all reasoning and you changed because of it, but as if it had been like that all along. It is like waking from a sleep. No, not that either.

Then my mother comes in and tells me to do my homework and to stop writing all the time. It doesn't do you any good when you can't keep up with your homework. We argue, I halfheartedly, for propriety's sake. The feeling in the back of my mind is beginning to disappear—and for some reason I am frightened. I must not forget. Or something like that.

Not everything works out but we do our best. Outside a boy goes by on a bicycle, as most of the boys do in China. Out here there are many more cars.

And there is love. Even when we lose some things, there is that. I am Chinese yet I am American. In china there is the word for it, ai. People don't use it anymore, not really—but not for want of proving. It's as if they scrawled it down and held it up to the light and realized how unnecessary it was, and how obvious, and so now it's become a vestigial word, a word little boys use while their parents look at each other in mute appeal. There is the memory of before, and even before that, when my grandfather walked out onto the balcony of our apartment and smoked, so that none of it got in the house.

I don't smoke. Is it important to say that? But what I mean is that when it is so dark you can't see the earth and the moon has come out beneath the tree limbs and the streetlamps are just other moons, and sometimes I take a walk in the silent streets under the trees and carry my jacket like a cape, and I think of my name, and the country I come from and the one I am in, and then I think I understand the old Chinese folk saying. Does that make sense? Dreams that are just smoke and incense in temples, and smoke from cigarettes and nicotine-stained fingers, a dream of the winter, of cold breaths like halos, like smoke.

Smoke and then bright lights, a thousand million of them. Is it both? I still see people smoking cigarettes under neon green traffic lights, open-all-day lights, in slow new year's nights, in soft, sad December.