Ashlyn Oakes

In China, they teach you the geography of the country by telling you that it looks like a rooster. “I don’t know what it’s called,” my middle school friend said, “But my dad’s from the rooster’s butt!” I was born and raised in the United States, so I didn’t learn much about China, or how it looked like a rooster. Geography is sorely neglected in U.S. education.  Here, it’s harder to trace where we’ve been, harder to recognize where we are now.

Every country wants to be the center of the world. China especially, so much that it named itself Zhongguo, “the middle kingdom.” But I didn’t give a map of China more than a glance until I was older. I was looking for a Chinese name in English letters, my family’s first known starting point. Guangdong.

My fingers trace the map, scaling distances in seconds. My hands cross land much faster than feet could, or even planes, trains or cars, but the thoughts in my mind and the thump of my heart are faster still. My body is always trying to keep up. It grew up in two places at once. Children of immigrants are ghostlike in that way, drifting back and forth between worlds. Our bodies and souls are warped by the pulling and pushing away of our homes until we are stretched thin like paper between teeth. I have a dried-up native tongue that speaks simply, and only when it has to. I have a colonial tongue that speaks loudly and whenever it wants to.

Guangdong Province is in the south, the soft underside of the rooster’s belly, where you would hold the rooster if you were to cradle it close to you. I’ve never touched Guangdong. I’ve never even sat in an airport there or passed through on a train, couldn’t even say I’ve “technically” been there. But I can’t say I’ve never met Guangdong — it knows me too well.

I have a bad habit of turning people into places and places into people: My parents became China for me and my sister, and we became the United States for them. My father is Guangzhou because he’s all I know of Guangzhou: his slow-cooked soups are Guangzhou, his Cantonese is Guangzhou, his parental discipline and expectations are Guangzhou. But people are hesitant to call him the United States, even though he was Beatles haircut and aviators when he met my mom in English class in the ’80s, and even though he is father of children born in California.

When my father called me a banana, I knew he almost meant it as a good thing. Yellow on the outside, white on the inside. I am the youngest, but my parents prefer that I order when we go out to eat at American restaurants. My English is the best because it was born and raised here. I am the United States.

* * *

“Where are you from?” “No, where are you really from?” Even my parents use the words “American” and “white” interchangeably, though I try to tell them that we are American too.

In China, no one questioned my presence unless I opened my mouth. There was a freedom that comes with looking like I belong, walking onto the subway and staring back at a sea of bobbing black hair and faces that tell me we’re connected somehow. The second time I went to China, I spent a summer in Beijing, where I signed a pledge that I wouldn’t speak English, only Mandarin, because I was there for a language program. But after just one year of college Mandarin, it may as well have been the same as a vow of silence. I never learned how to read or write Chinese until I came to college, and I spoke Cantonese conversationally with my family. I never knew when to push or pull a door because I couldn’t recognize the characters. When I ordered food at the cafeteria, I could only point — zhe ge, na ge — this, that. But I’d learned from a young age to smile and keep my head down.

Our classes were funny because our Chinese was so bad. My friend from Harvard accidentally said he doesn’t know how to use pants when he wanted to say he didn’t know how to use chopsticks. The teacher gently corrected him and we all laughed and it was lighthearted. It did not remind me at all of the way some of my dad’s customers laugh at his English.

On weekends, we walked in the park. Grandparents slowly stretched out their palms in tai chi and middle-aged women danced what I like to call the aiyi (auntie) exercise moves. Some of my friends’ moms do the same cringeworthy movements in the park around the corner from my house in Los Angeles. On apartment balconies, clotheslines fluttered with clothes and unabashed underwear. Chinese people don’t really use dryers. My grandmother pins everything on clotheslines as well. Out of an open window somewhere, the smell of someone cooking with garlic, ginger and oyster sauce tumbled down. So much reminded me of home, but so much of home came from here.

The first time I stepped foot in China was the first time my mother went back to her hometown of Shanghai since she left. I was 10 years old. She didn’t say much about it, except to remark how much has changed. When we drove down a street, she could only tell me what used to be there — her home, where my grandfather used to work. It’s all gone now, replaced by shiny stores or corporate buildings.

* * *

When we left, I wasn’t sure if or when I could return again. Now a decade has passed since the first time, and I still haven’t been to a place in China where I speak like I do with my family. I don’t know if any of this counts as coming home. I know that the longer I stay in the United States, the more likely it is that my children will reject their second home — the one their faces, bodies and blood are still faithful to. They won’t be able to speak to their elders. Their silence will be worse than mine and larger because they won’t care. It will be like uncooked grains of rice slipping through fingers, and they will ask for ketchup and ranch on everything.

When I think about the generations to come, I remember the grandfather who died the year I was born. The closest I’ve gotten to meeting him is kneeling in front of his portrait at my grandmother’s house, incense smoke filling the space between us. We are alone and it is quiet because I don’t know what to say. When I die, I want to be buried facing home. When they can’t figure out if that means East or West, set me with the sun. I will rise with it as well.