Growing up overseas as a Chinese person is a bit like being a human time capsule.
What it means to be a Chinese person has changed dramatically in the last 26 years.
When my parents left from China, it meant living in anticipation of scarcity. It meant the survival mindset that so many poor immigrants instill into their children. Militantly practical and dismissive of anything less than that, my parents’ attitude was indispensible to their achievement of the American dream. Without such an outlook, two graduate students with a few hundred loaned dollars in their luggage could never have become prosperous professionals whose very closets are stuffed with dust-covered possessions they never could have dreamed of possessing as teenagers in China.
When I returned to China for summers with my grandparents, being Chinese meant an even more spartan lifestyle than my parents forced me to lead in the U.S.; the same grandparents who had fed my parents on Cultural Revolution food stamps repaired the holes in my unwanted clothing and wore it themselves. They waded through the odors of outdoor markets for groceries, took me on the bus at off-hours for discounts worth a few cents, and at the end of my summers treated me to a single restaurant meal worth no more than ten USD. They owned a landline and a television. When I was at their house, I used my imagination for entertainment a lot.
But to be a Chinese person today begins with my parents’ stuffed closets. For many Chinese people my age, coming-of-age has always included dining at restaurants, riding in or driving cars, connecting with friends and family via smartphones and Chinese social media. The Chinese internet alone is a living nation unto itself, generating a culture whose changes even my Chinese peers can’t keep up with.
How much less can I keep up?
Whether we interact in the U.S. or in China, when I spend time with Chinese people my age who have grown up in China, I feel like a 50-to-90-year-old trapped in a 26-year-old’s body. Whereas in the United States I’m definitely among the most tech-savvy of my friends, when in China I am baffled by WeChat and Weibo, fumbling as I attempt to use the basic technology of a debit card. Elective purchases like manicures and restaurant meals still surprise and guilt me, even though they cost half of what an American analog might.
My accent, I’m told, is strange. It’s not, thankfully, the musical pronunciation of an American-Born Chinese, with its approximated tones and oversimple vocabulary–but no one can quite place it. Is it possible that I am confusing for my anachronism? Mine is a Madarin that might be familiar coming from a wrinkled face but baffles when it emerges from lips which look (and are) 26 years old.
And as I spend more time with Chinese peers, it’s like I’m trying to cure myself of this Benjamin Button-like ailment. Trying to be the yuppie I am instead of the boomer my parents have made me.
In the words of a timeless ancient and modern hero–or at least her modern, Disney incarnation–“When will my reflection show / who I am inside?”
Or will I just remake my insides to match my reflection? This is China, after all, circa 2016. Change is the new normal.