Beijing for study, by way of Hong Kong, by way of San Francisco, before that, Honolulu—and way before that, Guangdong. The Olympics so recent that Tiananmen is still colorful with decorations: red arches, Chinese knots, transplanted trees. Even the red flags, even Mao’s photo hanging across the square, look small by scale.
Mother said I’d blend in. I have a double eyelid on one side but not the other, an odd injury from boxing in high school. She thinks it gives me two different profiles, one looking like a Northerner, one like a Southerner. In translation: You have to look carefully to notice that I don’t belong.
The taxi drivers can’t figure me out. They keep asking if I’m Korean. Either because my Mandarin’s terrible or because a local student wouldn’t take a taxi. They never ask if I’m American and I never want to say that I am—an imperialist come back to learn my family’s language. So I say I’m from Hong Kong, that I speak Cantonese (in Hong Kong, I always said I was from the mainland, born in a village, which explained my accent). One driver spits out his window in response (who knows what he means by it). Another asks me how the economy is down there. I say I don’t work yet—I don’t know how to judge the economy. So he asks me how much a hamburger at McDonald’s costs, which settles the matter: the economy has gotten worse.
I stand in the square and try to think about the massacre twenty years ago, the lone man before the tanks, and about Bei Dao’s exile, his poem they chanted here, the poetry he was prepared to die for. But I learned these things in a classroom, not at the dinner table. I stand in the square and what comes to mind is the dazzle of the opening ceremony on televisions everywhere in Hong Kong, the “Beijing Welcomes You” music video repeating ad aeternum on all subway cars, and Jackie Chan stepping in to enter the song just half a beat late because he can, because he’s Jackie Chan.
What comes to mind is the last night with my father’s family before I left Hong Kong at the end of summer, the evening of the Mid-Autumn Festival. We made a rooftop barbeque beneath a yellow moon: bulgogi, beef skewers, bok choy, water spinach, whole carp wrapped in sparkling foil, a pot of white rice nearby. We lit paper lanterns. We melted candles and played with hot wax. My father died a few months after I was born, before Mother emigrated to America with Sister and me. So his side of the family stayed. In another cut of history, I might’ve grown up with multiple fluencies, grown up with one cousin who mumbles in his sleep, “Checkmate, checkmate” in proper Hong Kong Cantonese, and another cousin who told me weeks in advance—leaning close and using village dialect as though this were our shared secret—that this barbeque would be the happiest night of her life. My eyebrows went up then, but now—now, I’m alone and away, in another place, faking another language.
I’ve been writing haibun in my journal, some pretense of poetry after leaving my English major for East Asian Studies. Haiku, tanka, renga, zuihitsu—all Japanese forms, all appropriated by American poetry. I don’t know any Chinese forms, but I can read the kanji as though it were Chinese, translate zuihitsu my own way: chasing the brush. Not too different from how Ezra Pound snuck into the language. So it happens again. Yesterday’s melons, sopping. In the airport, on my way out of Hong Kong, I noted in my journal: “The kid next to me just saw me writing and told her mother that I’m a ying gwok yen: English language person. I guess so.”
That night on the rooftop, a sudden wind blasted us. Our green table umbrella rose slowly from its post, pitched toward the satellite dish, and then crashed across the other side of the house. While we watched, mesmerized, without exclamation, without words, the paper lanterns on the clothesline caught fire. I turned first and uttered something universal, “Uh—” before we faced it together: the small blaze along the line, harmless, its gathering of light.