Sometimes I don’t think people realize just how much of their own everyday culture they’re experiencing simply going through a day in their lives. Driving past a smattering of pizza places in the matter of one city block. Driving at all, in their multicolored minivan, a swath of soccer moms winding their way through a mall parking lot. Ready to shop in a department store with automatic sliding doors that part to release a wave of the indistinct scent of newness like some sea parting for a lost department store queen. Even returning home to a Macbook, opening up Facebook. Getting the munchies and pulling Lays from your pantry. Having a pantry at all. All small things that no one seems to notice but that comprise our daily culture. Being a young, impressionable, teenaged Chinese girl, it’s that kind of thing I wish I knew more of in China, being. Things I notice like the China street smell. Beyond bustling city roads, if you duck into
a side street you can get a whiff of what I’ll say is both sewer-y and savory. Street vendors and street life are full and three-dimensional when you spend time outside the tourist norm. That’s what I wish I knew more of—the small quirks, both pleasant and not. I wish I could truly know and appreciate where I came from.
Growing up, I didn’t always think this way. Shuffled off to the local Chinese school at the tender age of five and shoved into a Chinese cultural dance class, I knew little about Chinese culture and flushed with embarrassment every time every asked me where I spent my Friday evenings. Polishing up my Chinese, highlighting what was already a quirk in my 90% Caucasian elementary school sounded ridiculous to me. Every week I’d conjure up some new mischief in class, treating Chinese school as just another menial chore to bustle through, making a ruckus when I wanted to “punish” my parents for dragging me there. Whatever knowledge about the Chinese language or culture my mother may have forcibly coaxed into my unwilling mind then has long since faded because I just didn’t care enough to keep it around.
These days, I know five different ways to access my profile page from any given page on Facebook but not even how to say Internet in Chinese. I look back on those days with regret, to say the least. The mockery I made of our cultural dance costumes, the embarrassment I felt when my parents put up red lantern decorations around Chinese New Year nearly a decade ago. I didn’t want kids around me to see my family as any different and use that as fodder for reasons why I wasn’t cool enough to hang around with in my desperate bid for childhood acceptance, but we were. We ate with chopsticks, didn’t reward kids for grades, didn’t play video games, didn’t have family game nights. Later on it was Asian stereotypes I was embarrassed to prove true—my parents’ fixation on grades but not entirely on affection, our electric rice cooker and it being the only new electronic present in our house.
Now I’m embarrassed, but for different reasons. The insurmountable language barrier between myself and the grandparents I love with my whole heart. My poor, broken Mandarin. I shouldn’t have cared, especially when my parents tried their best to preserve their Chinese roots in me—pride can exist in conjunction with anything if only you give yourself the chance to love it. Everyone is more than just themselves—they represent hundreds upon hundreds of lives that existed and then passed just to get them where they are today. It should be part of our responsibility to understand where this beautiful opportunity to live comes from.
I’ve visited China probably five or six times in my life, and every time it grows yet more beautiful. At first it was just another chore, where my grandparents didn’t have Internet connection or two TVs or any fun. But these past few times, I notice more things. The chatter and buzz, the tiled sidewalks in my home city of Chengdu that chip when I work at it with my toe, the meat kebabs from the street vendors, the looming apartment buildings, the thickened traffic like the slow trickle of sand in an hourglass, one grain at a time. The finite hours until I have to leave.