A Different Species: A Chinese American Writer in China
Instead, I’d ramble about the strangeness of being Chinese American in China, the shocking intensity of Shanghai crowds even to a New Yorker, the absence of family, friends, schoolmates, colleagues. Once, I was rambling in this manner to a new acquaintance, a Shanghai native, when he shrugged and said, “You’re a linglei”—literally translated, a different species. It was a matter-of-fact statement, one that seemed, in two syllables, to sum up my existence.
Four years before, I’d moved to Beijing for a year of postgraduate study with some notions of mastering my mother tongue and reclaiming my heritage. I hadn’t expected to feel at home, but I hadn’t anticipated feeling quite so alien. Like most Asian Americans, I’d always been asked the question, “Where are you from?” with the expected answer being China, or someplace equally foreign. Now, this question was asked even more relentlessly of me by Chinese people in China, but the answer never satisfied them. But you don’t look American, they might say—or, You don’t sound Chinese. They’d assure me that I wasn’t really American, even as their suspicious expressions made clear that I certainly wasn’t really Chinese.
At the end of the year, I joined my mother, my sisters, my aunt, and my grandmother for a tour of the mainland: Six strong, complicated women, with very different ideas about what China meant to us, if it meant anything at all, herded together for two weeks on a guided package tour. We had a few moments of sudden connection and transporting wonder, but overall, the trip was frustrating and tense. When it ended, I was relieved to leave China. I thought I’d never return.
Four years later, I hadn’t stopped thinking about that tour. It seemed a perfect window into my entire China experience. I scribbled a few notes and soon I was writing a novel, one that gave equal voice to all six women on the tour, one that took those very paradoxes and frustrations as its premise and then went further than I’d ever gone in shedding light on the vast complexity of China itself, of what it means to be Chinese American, of the very concept of returning to one’s roots.
Facing my last months as an MFA student and short of options, I applied for a Fulbright Grant to research and write my novel in China. When I learned I’d received a grant, I was thrown. I didn’t want to go back to China, but my novel had taken hold over me, and I knew that immersing myself in its setting might be the only way I could write it.
All through my post-MFA summer, which I spent back home in Queens waitressing at a sports bar, partying with high school friends, and hardly writing a word, I dreaded my departure. In previous years, I’d moved without hesitation to Auckland and Iowa, but on the day of my flight back to China, I turned from the security checkpoint and implored my bewildered parents to let me stay.
This time, I landed in Shanghai without an academic program, a workplace, a residence, or an acquaintance. There were a few other Fulbrighters scattered throughout the city, but their research projects, on such topics as public health and urban planning, seemed utterly pragmatic and clear-cut compared to mine. Without a thesis, I didn’t feel like I had much to contribute to the conversation.
I moved into a studio apartment in a traditional alley where my neighbors’ vigilance in watching me seemed matched only their vigilance in not speaking to me. The locals I met seemed less interested in getting acquainted than in handing out their business cards—according to which, no one ranked below Managing Director. Amid this modern Chinese version of capitalism, with its frenzied self-invention and incessant deal-making, my pursuit seemed inexplicable. Some people demanded to know how much money I would earn off my book. Others wondered why anyone in America would care to read about my characters. A few had heard of Fulbright—and concluded that I must be a spy.
To read the rest of this article, please visit: http://www.themillions.com/2010/04/a-different-species-a-chinese-american-writer-in-china.html
To learn more about the author and her debut novel, A THREAD OF SKY, please visit: http://deannafei.com
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