love letters to china, part ii

hi again china,

how many foreigners have you seen on your country roads, grin plastered to their face, as they felt the wind while they fly across the dirt on their rented bikes? how many tourists have wandered the bund at night, their smiling eyes lit up by the neon lightbulbs that make it feel like day time? how many travelers have trekked with their backpacks across your paved sidewalks and dirt roads and felt as if they were discovering more of themselves than the foreign land they found themselves in?

  Cycling around Yangshuo County.

Cycling around Yangshuo County.

i know i am not the first, but you made me feel like it. i felt like i was new, as i uttered semi-profound statements at late nights in hostels, my "friends" that i had made (not even 6 hours earlier) nodding and sharing their own profundities. we find love in all that is even semi-familiar because none of it is.

i hang out with the white american male who says stupid things with a confident arrogance that makes me want to break out my middle-school tae kwon do skills. but i stay quiet because the nasal way he pronounces his vowels and his familiarity with the great lakes and american politics remind me of home. i wander yongkang road in shanghai, filled with only expat bars, no intention to enter, but just letting the english roll off me. my ears miss familiar words. even as i sit in a much-too-expensive coffee shop, owned by an american, listening to the french girls next to me, i feel at home because the way they laugh and gesture and joke reminds me of it.

people told me before i left that the first time i would truly feel homesick is when i actually fell ill. perhaps this is true. but even as i learned how to vomit into a squat toilet, i felt that i had actually come home. by making me feel pain, i had felt welcome, because this is how america has taught me to understand home. there is not happiness without a great struggle, and my time here has certainly been a bit of both.

i have wondered almost every day when it is right and when it is okay for me to challenge others when they say something i find upsetting. somehow, in this cross-cultural, worlds away experience, it is no longer black and white. the anti-black jokes and privileged statements and debates about immigration and american politics all take a new spin because i am not in america but i am america now. i am part of the problem.

 Biking on the old city wall, Xian.

Biking on the old city wall, Xian.

sometimes i pass as someone from a neighboring land but as soon as i open my mouth my words and accent betray me and if it's not that it's the blue booklet of paper in my purse that gives me a ticket to almost anywhere. here, i am part of the problem. i'm the country that can't give up its love of killing machines enough to see that we're killing ourselves. i'm the country whose police are allowed to decide who lives and dies without trial. and i am the country that thinks any country that isn't white enough isn't good enough. because i am part of the problem, i think i cannot speak against it.

but it is good for me to realize this responsibility. as a woman of color in the u.s., i can often get by without claiming any, simply shouting about the discrimination i face and forgetting the ways i benefit too. your people have challenged me to see that i do have a role in all that goes wrong, because simply disagreeing is not enough. i see it in the way people bargain and how they don't stand in line and the manner in which they live. if something doesn't suit you, if something isn't right, you can't count on anyone to change it but yourself.

the first time i felt content in china—in urban china—was when i was pushing my way through crowds in the hutongs in nanluoguxiang during golden week. yes, the week where literally every single chinese person has holiday and all flock to the most famous parts of the country, like this market in beijing. yet, it was in this crowd, with all these people, smelling the food and the roar of voices and vendors shouting out their prices and goods, and families finding each other, celebrating together, that i finally felt why i had come.

i don't think i've ever fallen in love, but i believe that was the moment, if we were really two people to have a romantic relationship together. that was the one i would recall. in that moment i knew that i had come to see a people who had a history deeper than time itself and a beauty that no quality of camera or photo could capture and a culture that no number of blog posts or love letters or words could convey.

i had come to see this with my own eyes so, for the rest of my life, i could close my eyes each night and see it painted across the blacks of my eyelids for me to remember in my dreams.

yours truly,

harleen

 New favorite coffee shop—in between a mountain and a farm in Yangshuo County.

New favorite coffee shop—in between a mountain and a farm in Yangshuo County.