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.
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.