Apr 24

When I first moved to China to research and write my first novel, I never knew what to say when people asked how I was doing. The truth seemed weak and unwriterly: I was lonely and I wanted to go home.

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. Continue reading »