Autumn

I’ve come to appreciate every season, but fall remains the one which simply takes my breath away. This year, I noticed its arrival even while the sun glared harshly on my plants. It had been months since I had driven anywhere far, but in my short grocery trips, I noticed the trees lining the streets faltered from their usual verdure.

It wasn’t long before they became a determine saffron and fell to the ground, and the radiant heat of the sun melted into the pitter-patter of cold rain on pavement. Ah, I sighed to myself. My favorite season.

I sat in my room—now furnished with tatami mats—as the low rumble of my tea kettle murmured a soft dialogue with the rain. The steam escaping from the spout rose and disappeared, but I imagined it traveling up invisibly towards the sky, where it formed the gray clouds which were pouring down.

The twang of my guqin interrupted the rain and kettle conversation, and I smiled at the scene. There is something so relaxing about all of these things. I had been practicing a song titled Geese Landing on a Peaceful Shore 平沙落雁, and the slow, evocative hum of its notes joined the rain and kettle in harmony.

I took a break from my guqin and stared out the ceiling to watch raindrops fall from the pine needles hanging outside my window. They resembled little jewels, crystals adorning a tree, as they reflected each other within their translucent cores.

I got up and poured hot water into a small auburn teapot, releasing the aroma of smoky oolong tea into the air. Against the muted gray skies and darkened room, my teapot was both a splash of color and flavor. It delighted my nose and tickled it with hints of fruitiness which came out after the initial burst of smoke. I poured it into a cup and knelt back down at my desk, feeling the cup warm my hands.

Indeed, autumn is my favorite season.

In Search of a Kettle

Being in quarantine, I have a bit too much time on my hands. But rather than study for graduate school entrance exams or revise my writing samples, I’ve spent hours scouring eBay, Craigslist, and Facebook Marketplace for good deals. Most of these happen to be related to tea, but that’s just because of how things turned out.

I hadn’t planned on purchasing much. I was perfectly content with the improvised tea utensils I had been using until now. But a friend was leaving the US and passed on many tea utensils to me. This came with the responsibility of taking good care of them, and also of using them at some point. I couldn’t bear to accept such a generous gift without making sure these items were used, and so I began my side of the collecting.

I started with a simple bookshelf off of Craigslist, which is now where I store tea bowls and miscellaneous tea equipment. It wasn’t long before I looked around on eBay and noticed an antique dealer in Portland selling furogama: a set which included a kettle (looks more like a pot, or dare I say cauldron) and a brazier underneath. I went to check them out in person, and boy were they rusted.

Upon arriving at their third-floor space, I inspected three sets, all of which were rather rusty. He had some nicer ones which had been restored with a non-toxic oil. Non-toxic or not, the kettles reeked of the volatile solution they were treated with. Coupled with the higher price tag, I skipped them.

After an hour or two of looking around, I decided to go home and think about it some more. In the mean time, I did some more research online, asked around for advice, and eventually returned the next week, dead set on buying one. It was quite a miracle because I spotted one I swear wasn’t there last time. Sure, the shop hadn’t received any new inventory during that week, but this was a kettle which was virtually intact.

Then for the cleaning.

The first round of water which went into the kettle came out dark, murky, and absolutely gross. The second round fared a bit better, and after a while, the water looked clean, but did not seem like anything I would want to drink.

Then came the tea leaves.

Boiling tea leaves releases tannins into the water, which then binds to the rust on the kettle and prevents it from getting worse. The result is again, another pitch-black, opaque, and completely unappealing liquid.

After many days of boiling, dumping, drying, and more boiling, I finally trusted the water enough to drink out of it, and it was very pleasant. Since then, I’ve used my kettle almost every day. Aside from regular tea practice, I also use the water to brew loose-leaf tea, and it really accentuates the flavor.

At the time (this was roughly April or May), I thought this was all that I would acquire. Little did I know that in the coming months, my room was going to undergo a drastic transformation. But that will be a story for another time.

Amacha Adventures

In my quest for a garden of tea-producing plants, I decided to track down a kind of Japanese hydrangea which can produce amacha. In some forms of hydrangea serrata, the leaves contain high levels of phyllodulcin which becomes a natural sweetener after fermentation. Now, this is typically done with a varietal called “koamacha” in Japan, but as far as I can see, that doesn’t exist in the US. Another one, possibly acceptable, is called “oamacha,” which I tracked down as being sold from a farm about an hour away.

Perfect. It’s worth a try and an excuse to get out of the house during month three of quarantine.

After a few late-nights of comparing photos, I developed a hypothesis I wanted to try. I suspect that the cultivar titled “Hokkaido” is actually the “koamacha” I’m looking for. We’ll see.

I started driving, and soon enough my sunny Saturday afternoon was flooded by a downpour. Upon arriving at the farm, I was soaked immediately after stepping out of the car. I quickly ran over to the greenhouses and grabbed the two plants I wanted without much time or patience to meticulously select the finest specimin.

I paid, promptly left, and the skies cleared up again along the way. Upon inspecting my new plants, I could tell there were some things that were a bit off about them. According to Google and a few gardening friends, it seems like my plants suffered from a phosphorous deficiency, but a few weeks in fresh soil and a bit of fertilizer should resolve the issues.

Having been in the ground for few weeks now, that certainly seems to be the case, with new growth being far more vibrant. However, the discoloration on the leaves is still present, and it seems to also be affecting some of the petals. I’m not expecting instant solutions. It will probably take some time for them to get used to the new environment as well.

Plants

After getting some opinions from a friend, I realized rather quickly that my ancient raised bed wouldn’t be able to grow much. It received sparse sunlight and was beginning to rot away already. As such, we decided it’d be best as a compost pile.

While I was reluctant to spend much money on my garden at first, plants are actually quite expensive, and I ended up spending about a hundred dollars without too much to show for an end result.

To decide what to plant, I ran through visual memories of my time at the Huntington. What did I miss most? What would be both ornamental and practical in my garden? I wanted something that would brighten up my day while also providing something useful. Vegetables were out of the question, as neither of my parents were eager to tend to them in my absence. I needed to find something that would simply survive without much care after being established, lest I want to return to a wasteland of weeds in a few years’ time. My options were limited to trees and shrubs.

I originally played around with the thought of a new fruit tree. Plum or apricot perhaps? These would be easily preserved and I’d have some use for them besides snacking on them. But I had four pear trees in the yard already. Another fruit tree wouldn’t add much visually. In the meantime, I tossed a garlic bulb into the ground and watched it sprout. At least that was a success.

A few days passed and the chayote I dropped into the ground developed tendrils which strangled its neighbors. I made a mental note to not plant anything around it.

All the while, I did some research online and decided: I’d plant osmanthus. It seemed like a hardy shrub which would produce fragrant blossoms, and I could harvest them to make desserts or osmanthus tea. And with that, I impulsively went to the local nursery to get two of them.

It was only after they were in the ground that I realized I had gotten the wrong kind of osmanthus. While they were osmanthus in English, they weren’t the 桂花 I was expecting. They were 刺桂, a prickly version of osmanthus which—while fragrant—wouldn’t produce an abundance of flowers for me to harvest. But hey, at least the leaves were attractive.

The next day, I went to another nursery and came back with a true osmanthus fragrans as well as a camellia sinensis plant. While I hadn’t planned to plant tea, I decided while browsing that my backyard would be home to various plants which could produce tea, and of course I would have to have the true tea plant to complete the set.

I came up with a list of plants I would want. Now that I had camellia and osmanthus, I would need mountain hydrangea 山紫陽花 and chrysanthemum to finish my preliminary backyard tea garden. Although a few hydrangea had come in, the variety I wanted—prized for its sweet leaves and hardiness—was nowhere to be seen. I’ll have to check back in the coming weeks. Chrysanthemum will have to wait until later in the year, or so an employee told me.

In summary, my garden currently features osmanthus heterophyllus ‘goshiki’, osmanthus fragrans, and a Korean variety of camellia sinensis. By the end of the year, I hope to add hydrangea serrata ‘amagi amacha’, as well as chrysanthemum morifolium.

Quarantine has been an exercise in my ideal lifestyle, aside from my job (which is unlikely to get better any time soon). My days are spent gardening, experimenting with new recipes, and cleaning around the house. Every so often, I remind myself to do a bit of light reading, practice some calligraphy, and slowly prepare my application materials for graduate school. Oh, and of course, I punctuate my day by drinking tea. Sure, there are a few adjustments I could make. I could certainly wake up earlier, or I could be a bit more regimented in my schedule, but in quarantine I feel like my sense of time is looser than it ever has been.

Gardening brought me closer to a personal sense of time as I notice how morning showers give way to afternoon sun, or how every week brings in a new combination of weather and warmth. At the same time, I’ve also jolted awake multiple times in the past week after forgetting which day it was and whether or not I had an early-morning meeting scheduled, which showed me just how much days of the week have blurred and time has faded into abstraction. In this temporal abstraction, I feel that this loss of arbitrarily named days of the week is not necessarily a hindrance. If anything, it has redirected my attention to observing the seasons as a way to tell time. Weather has gone from being a topic of small talk to an everyday consideration because it determines whether or not I should water the plants, or if I need to check on the worm bin, or if I should bring some of the succulents inside.

Life has changed due to coronavirus, and while it has certainly led to social isolation, I am glad it has also given me the opportunity to reconnect with my own backyard.

However, the prospect of a sedentary home-bound life as a new norm looms ahead, and I know I’ll eventually have to reestablish myself and balance the arbitrary cycle of weekdays and weekends with the realities which happen moment by moment.

There are still plenty of side-projects I have yet to start and plenty of things which will keep me busy in the coming months. As strange as it sounds, I feel like I’ve become comfortable in seclusion. It also feels a bit nicer if I romanticize it and envision this as the life of a recluse living in a hermitage on some distant misty mountain range. Powell Butte isn’t particularly misty, and it surely doesn’t have much to offer in terms of elevation, but I can always imagine it as being a picturesque landscape.

Working It Out

The past two weeks have been incredibly challenging.

This is not directly due to life in quarantine, but rather due to life at a less-than-ideal workplace. In the meantime, daily lunch (and sometimes dinner) chats with my Japanese classmates, the steady rhythm of tea classes and discussions, as well as sunny afternoons in my garden have kept me afloat.

Without delving into the nitty gritty details of workplace conflicts, I want to take some time to reflect very broadly on the emotions and lessons that have weathered me recently.

One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned from this ordeal is that my ideal workplace is not defined necessarily by the prestige of the position or company, but rather by the social environment of those around me in the office. And while my current pay grade is embarrassingly low, I wouldn’t mind it quite as much if I had supportive leadership and feasible projects. I’m reminded of my summers interning at various monasteries for the mere exchange of food and shelter.

Working at the temple was no easy feat. It involved early mornings, late nights, barely any time to shower or do laundry in between, and the occasional all-nighter as we prepped for special ceremonies, meticulously arranged fruit on a platter, and finished proofreading extensive translation projects. But despite all of this, I was happy with the work, and I enjoyed the environment.

Thinking back to my time at The Huntington, when I spent a summer researching and translating Chinese poetry, I would say that is still my favorite job. There I worked in an office with people who loved to chat about classical literature, East Asian design and aesthetics, and combined their mastery of niche knowledge with kindness.

And so, as I look for other jobs now, I am not looking for something that pays a lot, nor am I looking for the name of a prestigious company. I am open to anything, and really, what I want to know is everything that happens behind the job ad. What is their office like? How collaborative is the environment? How transparent are different groups towards each other?

Perhaps two years ago, my former college advisor said to me , “Andrew, you could survive with close to nothing.”

And although I know I can always survive with next to nothing, I want to be able to thrive with next to nothing. Financially, I don’t feel particularly burdened, although each time I get paid my mom laughs at how she makes more washing dishes. To thrive though, I know I need to work in a space which is collaborative yet efficient, critical yet kind, ambitious yet realistic.

Without these traits, I simply feel like I would be working to survive, rather than working to grow.

And I sure hope there’s some growth after everything has been worked out.

Life in Quarantine

Since it’s been six weeks now, I thought I’d start sharing what I’ve been doing to fill my time in quarantine. This is not my ideal list of tasks by any means, but rarely does life work in ideals.

My typical day includes working eight hours from home as I text my high school students and make sure that they’re on track to graduate or get into college. At lunch, I spend some time with my college friends, either practicing my Cantonese or Japanese with them (depending on which friend group’s Zoom call I join).

The new game Animal Crossing: New Horizons has become popular among many of my friends, but since I don’t have a Nintendo Switch (which apparently costs $450 now???), I spend weekends playing Harvest Moon DS, an old video game from my middle school days. The games are similar in that they are meant to be relaxing games highlighting a virtual life in which we farm, fish, cook, tend to animals, and befriend neighbors. I suppose I could write extensively about how this suggests the presence of underlying desires to escape from our current fast-paced, socially-isolated reality (because really, who talks to their neighbors anymore?).

Before all of this virtual farming though, I had begun thinking of what I wanted to do to the backyard since I plan on being in Portland for at least another year. I begun by simply starting a compost pile, since there wouldn’t be much use planting seeds in inhospitable dirt. Late in the afternoons, I pulled weeds and rocks out of the ground, loosened the soil, and thought carefully about what I would plant in each section of the yard.

I decided that I would start with the preexisting raised bed. Our yard is large, and since neither of my parents are open to tending it after I leave, I would want something that could quietly die and I wouldn’t feel too bad about. Otherwise, I ‘d go absolutely unrestrained with planting maple, bamboo, persimmon, chrysanthemum, and camellia in the yard.

I never got a chance to actually decide what to plant though, because I went out one day to see a strange, unfamiliar leaf poking out of the ground. There was a piece of shell still attached, and I recognized it as the pumpkin seeds I had casually tossed out just a week or two prior. Nature had decided. I will be growing kabocha pumpkins in my raised bed.

While I was aware of what I was doing when I dropped those seeds onto the ground, I hadn’t expected them to germinate so quickly. In any case, now this gives me a bit more encouragement in gardening, and I hope to provide updates as they continue to grow!

COVID: Round Two

It never occurred to me that I would have the (mis)fortune of encountering this viral disease on two occasions within the span of three months. When I left my friends in Nanjing, it was in part due to pressure from Fulbright. Otherwise, I was quite happy and content with my life in the monastery. Between dishwashing and prayer sessions, I had access to nutritious vegetarian food and high-speed internet. Life was good.

But being back in the United States for a few months now, it seems like a lot of the criticisms Americans (I use this term generally, referring to my experiences interacting with anonymous “American” identities online) had towards China’s falsified death toll are happening again. This time though, the inaccurate counts are being recorded in the United States, with the number of patients tested positive for COVID being much lower than what’s predicted.

I don’t want to seem like I’m shifting the blame in an direction. As we try to grapple with something as dangerous as this virus, I think it’s simply helpful to keep in mind that this is a difficult situation, and I hope that rather than being entirely cynical, we can understand how difficult it is for governments to produce a competent response when things are happening so fast. This being said, I also do not want to excuse the misdeeds and inactions. The US knew that this issue was affecting China for months before it truly blew up in the US, but even as I flew into San Francisco International Airport on January 31, I was not subject to any tests or screening, but merely a simple questionnaire.

One major factor I blame for this incompetence is the blindness that Americans have regarding global citizenship. Despite sharing the same planet, it felt like the overall view (when coronavirus broke out across China in early January) was that this was a distant issue. It surely would not affect the US.

But the US doesn’t live in a vacuum. People travel, and people travel internationally. Even as cases began to appear in the US, our frames of reference became even more limited, thinking, “oh, but New York is so far away,” or “ah, but that’s Seattle,” not thinking of how the web of connections which ties us all together on this planet is both the key to recovery and the key to catastrophe.

As the trajectory in the US remains as dismal as ever, I am left wondering what things would be like if the US had a competent administration, one with the compassion to have reached out to aid China in mitigating the virus while it was still growing, one which would have thought of implementing screening procedures for vulnerable populations and boosting health care access at the first alarm. I am left disappointed, and as tribalism spreads online, violence towards Asians increases, and amygdalian reactions spread, I fear that the global population is moving farther and farther away from a universally beneficial solution.

The Myth of the Self-Made Man

Growing up, I was told inspiring stories of self-made billionaires—people who pulled themselves up by the bootstraps, who had absolutely nobody and nothing to rely on but themselves, and were eventually able to overcome a vicious cycle of poverty.

I find that an absolute lie.

It is a harmful lie, and not just because it paints this false narrative that everybody has equal opportunity in the world, but because it disregards and willfully ignores all of the help we all give and receive from each other.

After returning to Portland, I visited some old friends at College Possible, the organization that helped me apply to college and helped me get to where I am today. This chance encounter led me to the state capitol, where I helped them request more funding from the state to expand the program and coach an even broader range of students.

During these past few weeks, I’ve also been looking at my resume, reviewing my list of accomplishments and past work. In looking at this sheet, which distills my life’s work into one 8.5 by 11 inch page, I realized that none of these accomplishments are mine—

That is to say, none of these accomplishments are mine alone.

I graduated high school, not solely by my own virtue, but by the virtue of my teachers and my family. I did not get into college merely because of my own accomplishments, but because I had mentors who helped me prepare my application. Even now, as I write this blog, I would not have been able to share these thoughts if it were not for the library’s public internet access, funded by taxes, and for the web server, which is graciously donated by a friend. Going back even further, this set of opportunities would not be within my reach if I had been born in another country, if I had a different family, or if I had never been born at all.

Perhaps that is too far, too abstract, too difficult to conceive of. Bringing things back to the present, there is no task that I have completed which I can credit myself for. There is no skill I can do, nothing that I own, that was not taught or passed onto me from somebody else. This body of mine is a gift from my parents, this laptop I am typing on is the creation of some factory (probably in China), and the air I breathe a precious gift from the lush greenery that surrounds me.

When we lead ourselves to believe that those who are successful reached that success due to their own individual capabilities, it ignores the complex, interwoven network which ties us together in this vast universe.

For the past few years, my approach to life has been to simply walk the next step in front of me, to merely do the next right thing. One thing will lead to the next, and without calculating too much, it has led me to limitless, unimaginable opportunities and experiences. In turn, these experiences shape who I am, who I become, and my next step leads from the previous.

As I think of my next step, I believe I will spend the next chapter of my life in Portland to repay the kindnesses my mentors and teachers have bestowed upon me. I do not believe that spending a few months, or even a few years here will fully repay the kindness I have received, but after that, perhaps I will move to some other place and inspire others, just as my teachers have inspired me. In the mean time, I will continue to learn and improve, with the hopes that a wider range of capabilities will provide me more skills to use when others are in distress.

To say that one is a self-made man is to say that one owes nothing to the community from which one is created. No matter how resourceful, how brilliant, how skilled one may be, the resources and brilliance one draws from is not innate—it comes from the kindness of others.

The Departure

I know I’m skipping a lot of Nanjing experiences by jumping to the departure. In between, there were countless memories of meals, chores, and outings that made me feel like a part of the family at Tianlong Temple.

But the departure came quick. It came one day after I called to tell my mom, “I’m staying in China.”

It was immediate. It was unexpected. It was, from my current perspective, fortuitous.

I logged into my computer one afternoon and noticed that the flights from Nanjing to Portland had dropped drastically (likely due to the coronavirus outbreak). While I did not feel like I was in danger at the monastery, the price had dropped so low that I was tempted to fly home, even if I would need to return to China in a few weeks. And at the time, I was thinking that it would all blow over in just a few weeks.

I purchased my plane ticket on Monday with an expectation that I would fly on Thursday, for under $400.

My friends were taken aback when I broke the news.

“Don’t you think you’ll be more at risk at the airport than here?” they asked.

I nodded. It would be more of a risk to spend nearly 24 hours on a harrowing trans-pacific flight with people from all over China. But at the same time, it was cheap, and in the days after I purchased the ticket, the situation deteriorated rapidly.

I purchased my ticket as soon as I received a message from Fulbright saying that we would not be in violation of our contract if we temporary left China. The day before my flight, Fulbright changed their stance to “leave as soon as possible,” although at that point, flights had been cut and severe travel restrictions imposed.

These sudden warnings led me to think that I made the right decision in purchasing a plane ticket out, but alas that was not the end of my ordeal.

In the days leading up to my flight, there were unexpected cancellations of my connecting flight from Nanjing to Beijing, forcing me to reschedule to Friday, January 31. After a few stressful midnight correspondences with United Airlines, I was finally set to fly.

Due to all the rescheduling, my leisurely afternoon flight had turned into an early-morning departure from Nanjing. The night before, my friends scurried around to get me ready for my 21-hour itinerary.

“It’s fine,” I told them. “I’ll just pick up a McMuffin and some hashbrowns at the airport.”

I knew that wouldn’t stop them.

I woke up the next morning and brought my suitcase downstairs. Three monks stood waiting for me. I checked my phone; I was 5 minutes early.

“Stay safe,” one said. “I had Huiting steam you some buns.”

He handed me a brown bag, its steam escaping into the frosty air. I thanked him and grabbed it, feeling its warmth in my numb hands.

It was not a particularly emotional farewell. We all knew we’d see each other again. Being a man involved in temple life instantly makes one part of a tight-knit community. After all, women in the Taiwanese Buddhist world outnumber the men nearly 5 to 1. And so, with only a handful of guys in this sphere, it would only be a matter of time before we crossed paths again.

There were no cars on the street as we drove to the airport. Granted, it was close to 5 am and most workplaces were closed for the New Year anyways. I ate my buns and noticed a surprise at the bottom of the bag—a pouch of heated soy milk.

That was my last home-cooked meal in China. After arriving at the airport, it was either plane food or instant noodles.

After I returned to the US, I read a NYT article about the experience of a foreign exchange student from Portland, and I felt like the framing of his ordeal was sensationalized and lacked any sense of context.

Upon arriving at the airport, everybody was wearing a surgical mask. While this might be unsightly to those unfamiliar with it, I had spent enough time in Japan and Taiwan to become accustomed to it. Upon entering, I put on the masks the temple had provided me, and walked inside.

We were made to wait by the door while airport security took our temperatures. Everybody in our batch was okay, and we walked in. Despite the panic going around all over the country—and the world—I felt like I was in the eye of the storm. In this bustling airport, I didn’t hear a single cough. And should anybody cough, the masks we wore would theoretically cover a lot of the droplets.

The flights were smooth, and despite my six-hour layover in Beijing, I managed to keep myself entertained with their free wifi. On the plane from Beijing to San Francisco though, I realized how woefully unprepared Americans were.

The crew—all self-proclaimed native San Franciscans—wore masks like the rest of us, except they did not seem to understand the purpose of the masks. One pulled her mask down to talk to an elderly man, who shirked away and cringed as she did so. Another fellow felt that his mask was too restricting and only covered his mouth, leaving his gaping nostrils wide open—ready to spread and receive droplets of potentially infected body fluids.

In the US, a lot of people are uncomfortable with both the look and the feeling of face masks. Even my mom said she tried it for about fifteen minutes before deciding that it “probably wouldn’t work anyways.” This sentiment, shared by quite a few of my friends who post about the issue on Facebook, is a fact-defying act: studies have shown that depending on the type of mask used, SARS transmissions were reduced by 68 to 91%. Given that both SARS is also a coronavirus, it would be wise to develop good mask-wearing habits on a plane full of people from various parts of China, but it seems like Americans care more about comfort than safety.

And while I think the chance of coronavirus transmission in the US is so low that wearing a mask wouldn’t make much of a difference (you wouldn’t catch it anyways), I do think that mask-wearing habits coupled with good hand-washing would surely limit the extent of flu and cold cases.

But rather than worry about issues in our own backyard—are threatening American lives—attention is redirected to the potential dangers of a foreign germ.

There have been many articles on the harassment and prejudice Asians have faced in recent months due to the coronavirus scare, but as an Asian who did in fact come from China, the moment I was worried most—the moment I decided that I needed to wear a mask—was when I boarded the flight from San Francisco to Portland.

Despite the silence and general feeling of safety I experienced in China, landing in San Francisco made me realize how low our sense of caution is, considering that it’s both flu season and that there’s a viral outbreak going on.

Nobody wore masks, and through social pressure, I felt like I should take mine off too, lest I get heckled for being a suspicious Asian man wearing a mask.

But then I decided that social pressure was no reason to catch a cold from the cacophony of coughs and sneezes around me. I had a sneezing toddler (who did not cover his droplets) behind me, a coughing grandmother in front of me, and a few middle-aged men with runny noses just to my right.

If got sick, it wouldn’t be because of China’s coronavirus. It would be because of America’s cold and flu season.

(It’s been nearly a month since I got back from China, and despite my parents both coming down with a cold and recovering, I haven’t even let out a sneeze.)

Lanterns

Not long after the two temple visits, we had a small trip to see the lanterns that adorned the streets to celebrate the New Year. The frigid air was refreshing that night, and I enjoyed the company of temple friends.

We were nerds, to put it lightly, and everybody in attendance had previous experience with elaborate lantern shows before. In temples throughout the world, the Lunar New Year is a hectic time when every set of hands is required to help decorate and clean.

For most of us, this was the first lantern show we saw in China.

I grew excited with each step as we walked down the cobblestone path, street vendors hawking their sizzling snacks at us as we passed.

And then we saw them.

This was a beautiful lantern, but this was about all that they had.

The lanterns, while impressive enough to attract a healthy-sized crowd of photographers, left me with a wistful sense of dismay. I looked at my companions, and their furrowed brows reflected the same sense of distaste.

Finally, one young novice monk broke the silence.

“… That’s it?” his voice faltered.

Our temple’s director let out a sigh, “I suppose so. And here I thought we’d get some inspiration for decorations next year.”

As we left the lanterns behind and walked towards the nearby bookstore, I chuckled internally. It was silly. It would take a spectacular show to impress a group of monks who grew up executing one of the most elaborate festival of lights in Asia.

Leaving the lights behind, we entered the bookstore and browsed. Very few of us bought anything. We simply walked around, enjoying the ambiance and bustle of avid readers.

Finally, at the end of the night, we decided to stop for a midnight snack. Unfortunately though, none of the street vendors provided vegetarian options, except for dessert, and we wanted something with a bit more substance than sweetened tofu.

After a few rejections, we finally found our vegetarian meal at an unconventional place: a burger joint.

I was both curious and suspicious. They featured mozzarella sticks and veggie burgers on the menu. We ordered both.

As we waited for our order, a young boy—perhaps around 10—sat with his mother and called out to my Indian friend.

“Excuse me,” the young boy exclaimed. “Do you speak English?”

My friend froze. He turned towards me.

“Him, him!” he gestured. “He speaks English much better than me. I speak Hindi and Chinese.”

I turned towards the duo, and the boy giggled.

“Can you really speak English?” he asked me.

“Sure thing, bud,” I replied as I sat down on the empty chair next to him. “Where are you from?”

“I’m from Beijing!” he responded enthusiastically.

“Oh, it must be really cold up there. Are you enjoying your fries?”

He nodded as he munched on his french fries.

“How do you speak English so well?” he asked.

“Well, I grew up in the US,” I said.

“Really?” he exclaimed. “I love McDonald’s!”

I laughed. This boy had absolutely no filter, and I found it hilarious that McDonald’s is the default representation of American culture.

His mom found it strange though and pressed me a bit further, asking in Mandarin, “So you didn’t grow up in China?”

“Nope,” I responded back in Mandarin. “This is actually my first time in China.”

This was an interaction I had become accustomed to by now, as new acquaintances struggled to comprehend how the same Chinese face could utter such foreign words while also speaking with such familiar tones.

The two finished their meal as our orders came out, and they bid their goodbyes while we munched on our mozzarella sticks. The restaurant didn’t have any marinara sauce, so they provided ketchup instead. It wasn’t quite the same, but I wasn’t going to skip a chance to eat some fatty and salty American goodness.

The burgers were pretty good too, and I realized how long it had been since I’d tasted mayonnaise.

Reflecting on my experiences in China now, I realized that most of my interactions involved navigating the American-Chinese dichotomy that people had ingrained in their minds. I looked Chinese and spoke Mandarin fluently, therefore I was inherently Chinese. But at the same time, I disliked calling myself Chinese, for that would erase the unique opportunities and upbringing I experienced for the first 20 years of my life. If I were to say I was simply “Chinese,” I would have no proper response when people asked where I went to high school, or where I went to college, and clarifying the situation at that point would make it even more of a mess.

And so, I decided that it was easiest for me to say, I’m American. That part isn’t obvious. It’s not what people notice when they see me. But that’s the part I feel like I need to come clean about. I qualify it by saying that I spent nearly a decade enrolled in Chinese classes and spent my undergraduate years reading Classical Chinese literature, but in a lot of ways, there is an “Americanness”—whatever that may be—that permeates my personality.