Why Are You Stranded?
Every two weeks or so, I am publishing an essay from an emerging writer. This week, “Why Are You Stranded?” by Nicole Zhao. Nicole is a writer from Elmhurst, Queens and based in Brooklyn. Her writing has been published in Apogee Journal and is forthcoming in Witness. She is interested in going beyond dominant narratives of trauma and assimilation and writing about the complexities of Asian Americans today—including the ways we might oppress one another and other communities, make inexplicable choices, and find humor, community, and joy. Find her on Twitter at @nicolegzhao. This essay was edited by Meg Pillow.
Queens, New York
As a child, I used to watch my father cook in the kitchen, my eyes barely above the pan’s edge. I felt as if just by being present, I could absorb his decades of cooking expertise from the air, as if through cultural osmosis. The kitchen would fill with heat and clouds of smoke carrying the distinct aroma of garlic, scallions, and sizzling pork belly, the upper half of the walls glazed in sticky, translucent layers of residual oil. He’d often cook with his shirt off because we didn’t have central air conditioning. As he sweat, I’d try to stand as close as possible to the high, blue flame to feel a fraction of the heat on my cheeks, to feel even a bit of what he might be feeling.
My father always cut eggplants by turning them a quarter notch and slicing at an angle. Later, I learned in a popular cookbook written by Fuchsia Dunlop, a white British woman who lived and studied in China for 20 years, that this is actually a common cutting technique called gun dao kuai. I sometimes find it difficult to differentiate an idiosyncrasy, unique to the individual whims of my Chinese parents, from something grounded in a broader context. In this cookbook, I read many things my dad would do while cooking articulated as Chinese cooking techniques — how he’d crush garlic with the flat side of his cleaver to ease peeling it, thinly mince scallions and green onions, and beat eggs in a slightly tilted bowl by whirling a pair of chopsticks like little propellers. It was grounding to have names for what my father had been doing, to know that he was partaking in a tradition codified over years. But I was embarrassed to have learned this from a white person, even if her cookbook was excellent, even if she was the first westerner to have studied at the Sichuan Institute of Higher Cuisine in Chengdu and had, according to The New York Times, “done more to explain real Chinese cooking to non-Chinese cooks than anyone.”
Sichuan food and chili oil now have a near-cult following in America, and it made me curious: I asked my father what region of cuisine he cooks from. He replied, it’s from “all over” China, a response that frustrated me because it meant I couldn’t explain my family’s homemade meals to my friends. All I could say was that it was Chinese food, an impossibly broad category.
When my dad once served a plate of delicious leafy greens at home, I asked him what the name of the vegetable was. He paused, furrowed his eyebrows, and shook his head.
“I don’t know how to say it in English or Mandarin. In my dialect, I know what it is,” he said.
As with many dialects, that of my father’s village in Fujian is not in Google Translate. I savored the rich umami flavor and swallowed that which I could not name.
Still, I crave the words to name what and who I am to others.
I have friends whose grandparents regale them with war stories, who go to vacation homes in Pennsylvania that their family has owned since the 1950s, and who have designated historians in their families to document the past. I envy their ability to communicate with their grandparents and see photos of their family from generations ago—to know that they are grounded in space and time, connected to something grander than themselves, and able to pass that history on to their children. My parents remember little of their grandparents, and their parents have passed away across the world.
Meanwhile, given my limited knowledge of Mandarin and my father’s local dialect, I learned about my ancestors’ culture, often from white people, in a language my ancestors never spoke. I wondered what it meant that white people had to translate my own history for me or that I didn’t know how to articulate the food, traditions, and holidays of my upbringing. If I couldn’t name my experiences for other people, did they happen? Were they significant?
I first set foot in China at eight years old. My father took me to his home village in Fujian, where we stayed for a month. I don’t remember much, only snippets. I remember storing dulled, hexagonal golden coins in my purple, Teletubby-themed, glittery fanny pack. I remember riding behind my father’s friend on a motorcycle, zipping down the busy, blaring streets of Putian, my fingers clutching my other arm’s wrist as they hugged his waist. I remember going to Meizhou Island, staring up at the statue of the Goddess of the Sea. I remember seeing live octopus tentacles gripping the walls of a glass tank as I ate dinner with my father and his friends, spinning the lazy Susan piled with what felt like endless plates of seafood. I remember timidly saying “Hi” in English to my grandfather, who was hunched over and toothless.
I remember seeing rows of clear, sealed plastic containers on a metal rack of shelves, filled with a burgundy, flat solid. “What is it?” I asked my dad.
I remember ducks quacking around on the hill where my dad’s house sat, my uncle carrying a cleaver as he chased them.
Later that night, we had duck soup.
I asked my father why he had never taught me Mandarin as a baby, when the capacity for learning languages is the best. He knitted his eyebrows, befuddled. The thought had never occurred to him before.
Finally, he said that he was too depressed. When he first came to America, he was so consumed by his sadness and focused on keeping us alive as infants that he didn’t think to teach me Mandarin.
Migration — it strips us of our language, eviscerates our bridges, then asks us: Why are you stranded?
Years later, my father told me that the reason he took me to Fujian was so that I could meet his family, and then afterward, he could kill himself. He would be at peace knowing that at least I knew where I came from.
Beijing and Shanghai, China
The second time I went to China, it was 2015. I was on a spring break trip to Beijing and Shanghai for a political science course in college called “Global Urban Lab.”
Nevermind that my father has never been to Beijing or Shanghai. I went to China to find a sense of home, but searched for my history in the wrong places. Why was I trying to understand places my dad doesn’t even know? Who was I trying to learn about China for?
I sought an elusive lightning strike of familiarity and recognition. But to thrust such expectations on a place is unrealistic. I recognized that, as someone who was born and raised in America and barely spoke Mandarin, my views of Beijing and Shanghai could only ever skim the surface. I was asking China questions it didn’t have the answers to, expecting to find answers China didn’t have for me. Imperialism and globalization made untangling culture and heritage from influence nearly impossible.
I have a minimal connection to people in China. Growing up, my parents and I spoke a mix of English and their local dialects, which were not exactly the same but approximately similar, as my mother speaks the dialect of Fujianese people who migrated to the Philippines. This sufficed to communicate basic commands, such as to brush my teeth or clean my room, as well as platitudes on filial piety.
Mandarin class as a child felt like an arbitrary obligation in the same way piano and swimming classes were. We barely spoke Mandarin at home, so it seemed useless. In my high school, which was over 70% Asian, I distanced myself from other Asian Americans, who either seemed too “fobby” or too cool. I wasn’t trying to be popular — I knew that was out of reach. I was busy trying to not be too much of an outcast.
I only found myself drawn to Mandarin once I went to college when I was, for the first time in my life, immersed in a sea of white people. I majored in English but studied Mandarin. I started texting my father in Mandarin and trying out new vocabulary on the phone with him, to his delight. In retrospect, I wish I’d studied abroad, but I was depressed and confused about what I wanted to do with my life. Any major decision, like going abroad, paralyzed me.
I didn’t know the name of my father’s dialect until I went down a rabbit hole of Wikipedia linguistics pages in an attempt to articulate my heritage to other people. My father told me that he spoke Minnan hua, but when I looked Minnan hua up, the sample phonetics were unfamiliar. While Minnan hua is spoken in Fujian, it is primarily spoken in prefectures Xiamen, Quanzhou, and Zhangzhou, none of which my dad hails from. I went a rung up on the language family taxonomy on Wikipedia to click on “Coastal Min,” which includes the likes of Teochew and Hokkien, and found Puxian Min, which is spoken in Putian, the city near my father’s village. On that Wikipedia page, I recognized the phonetics from childhood scoldings and orders – 腳, ko̤, meaning “leg” and 湯, tung, meaning “soup.”
I checked with my dad: “How do you say five in your language?”
“Ngo,” he said. The Wikipedia page stated that in Puxian, the initial consonant “ng” replaces “g,” as in 五, ngo, compared to Quanzhou’s go.
Without Wikipedia, I wouldn’t have known the name of my father’s dialect, nor its linguistic relationship to my mother’s and other Fujian dialects. According to Wikipedia, the romanization of Puxian, with a 23-letter alphabet and five tone marks, was invented by William Brewster, an American Methodist pioneer missionary in 1890. To facilitate his evangelist work in Putian, he learned the local language and translated the New Testament Bible using the romanized alphabet, ultimately spending 26 years in China.
I felt conflicted about the fact that the reason I knew so much more about my father’s language was because a white person had written it down. And the reason a white person had written it down was for the colonialist mission of converting the villagers to Christianity.
I feel a particular sense of dislocating shame when I see white people speak Mandarin better or know far more about China, Hong Kong, or Taiwan than me – not for any fault of theirs, but for the sense of cosmic irony, like the universe is playing a trick on me.
I went to Taiwan for the first time with two former Mandarin language classmates (both white men) to see our other classmate (a Taiwanese-American woman). In Taipei, we stayed with her and made delightful excursions to soak in hot springs, hike mountains, and explore the teahouses and narrow alleyways of Jiufen. Of the group, I was the only one who had not lived in a Mandarin-speaking country since college, so all of my friends’ Mandarin was much better than mine. J was living in Taipei, G had been living in Beijing since we graduated from college four years before, and H had lived in Shanghai for a year on a Mandarin language scholarship. At restaurants, G and H put in orders and responded with ease to the waiters’ follow up questions. The waiters were probably used to people like me by then, ABCs, American-born Chinese. We look the part but don’t know the lines. I was the stereotypical dumb American, pointing wordlessly at menu pictures, asking my friends, “How do you say, ‘more water’?”
I was most recently in China on a work trip with two senior colleagues, both white. On the train ride from Hong Kong to Guangzhou, where we nestled in business class seats, my coworkers and I marveled at the silent efficiency and cleanliness of the new high-speed bullet train that took us across over 80 miles in 48 minutes.
“This is why the Chinese are going to take over the world,” Joe joked, and everyone laughed.
When we arrived at the Guangzhou train station, the difference between Hong Kong and Guangzhou was stark and immediate. The station was teeming with people—families, teenagers, elders, middle-aged men. It hummed with constant chatter in Chinese. The platform was connected to the station via a downward escalator, but there was no upward escalator in sight. Everyone on our train carried their suitcases up the stairs. My coworkers were perplexed. “Unbelievable!” Joe exclaimed.
My eyes searched feverishly on the platform for “taxi,” grasping for the single English words underneath Chinese characters. I felt as out of my element as my white coworkers. The Chinese word for taxi was 汽车 or 出租车 so I searched for those characters, too, to no avail. My manager eventually spotted the word “taxi” and marched us over.
After we settled in at the hotel, we went to lunch.
“I read that people here don’t have as much of a sense of personal space,” Melissa said.
“Also, I can’t believe that station didn’t have an up escalator. Like, how crazy is that, right? For a big city like Guangzhou?”
Joe nodded in agreement. “Oh yeah.”
Well, JFK airport ain’t no spaceship, either, I thought, suppressing an instinctive eyeroll. The contradictions in their comments did not escape me. It is the same logic that allows people to mock the Chinese for eating bats while, in the same breath, warning of China’s pioneering 5G technology.
“I’m not sure why that is,” I said. I pulled out my phone to Google the Guangzhou train station. “The station was built in 2013.” Melissa and Joe gawked.
“Oh, if it’s built in 2013, it should be way more modern,” Melissa said.
I scrolled fervently on Wikipedia, trying to identify why the train station didn’t have an up escalator, but couldn’t find any evidence.
“Well, I think the challenge is China really only started industrializing rapidly, like, 30 years ago,” I said, grasping, uncertain of what I was saying. “So, going back to the ‘personal space’ thing, people from all these rural parts of China moved to the cities and they didn’t have as much exposure to urban etiquette. China is so big and diverse. And not long ago, there was the Cultural Revolution, which really impacted the country culturally and economically.”
I felt like the fish in a nail salon tank, mouth gaping and noiseless behind glass, eyes wide and roving, as the humans point and tap. It was times like this that I wished I had majored in Asian Studies instead of English.
Like my coworkers, it was my first time in Guangzhou, and it was only my third time in China. But as the only person in the group that looked vaguely like the people that surrounded us, black hair and peach-toned skin, I felt a reactive defensiveness. I craved the very words and knowledge to combat the white gaze that encouraged me to forgo that knowledge in the first place. I felt a self-imposed need to explain the complexities of an entire nation to my coworkers. Because if I didn’t, then who among us would?
I could have stayed in Guangzhou for the weekend or gone to another city in China, like Shenzhen. When I travel for work, I often will stay through the weekend for fun to explore the city solo. But I knew that my Mandarin would not take me far. I didn’t trust myself to navigate these cities alone, even if they were highly developed business hubs and familiar with expats. Instead, I chose to go to Hong Kong, where friends and strangers alike told me there was much more to do as a tourist and where English was more widely spoken since it was a former British colony.
As I checked into customs at the station, I met an American businessman who was also spending the weekend in Hong Kong.
“I love Hong Kong. It’s incredible.”
“Are you there for work?”
“No, I was just in Shenzhen, but I wanted to spend the weekend somewhere nice, you know. Somewhere civilized.” He chuckled.
I was so struck by the ease with which he said his comment that I could not decide how I felt about it, let alone whether to vocalize any dissent, given he was someone I would likely never see again. I couldn’t decide if I felt disgust or camaraderie with the businessman. After all, I myself had made the same decision. I smiled weakly.
Civilized. I tongued the word in my mouth, in my mind. Did a place have to be palatable to white people to be considered civilized?
Then again, I had never lived in mainland China, so why was I so horrified by his statement? Perhaps because when I see people bustling in its streets, hollering across a block, I see my father.
Queens, New York
I crave knowing where my parents come from because context is validation. With context, I can situate myself and us geographically, temporally, cognitively. To articulate that context is to wield control over a narrative that has been defined for Asians and Asian Americans for so long. I ask my white friend who majored in Asian Studies for book recommendations on the geopolitics of Asia. He laughs and says, “That’s a very big topic.” I ask my parents questions about their lives, which they can only convey to me in constrained English. On Instagram, I watch recipes by Chinese, Hong Kong and Taiwanese American chefs and food content creators who are bilingual and live my racialized experience, who serve as the bridge across cultures I never had growing up—Maggie Zhu, Lucas Sin, Clarissa Wei, Jon Kung, the Leung family of The Woks of Life. It comforts me greatly to see people who look like me share recipes, background, and historical context on childhood meals that my father didn’t have the language or knowledge to share. I record my father cooking to preserve his recipes for posterity. I’m looking into getting a Mandarin tutor. I am trying to articulate myself into existence.
When I go home, my father calls out “Ge xia ba,” and on the table, there are bowls of oxtail soup with radishes and greens wilted by the broth, ribbons of velvety, stir fried pork with slivered peppers, a translucent vegetable in the cabbage family slick and golden on its spine, sweet to the taste, and fish the width of my palm with skin crisped to the texture of rust and muscle salted.
“Gao ho lia,” my father says, laughing at how good and cheap the food is compared to restaurants. When I scrape my plate clean with my chopsticks and hum in satisfaction, he says, “Gwa you gao se ne, ge xia, ge xia,” nodding to the kitchen. “吃饱了吗?”
I shake my head. “Bo bo, 很好吃.” These are some of the moments no white person can experience in quite the same way. Perhaps I don’t need knowledge to be written and codified in English in order to understand it. It’s in these moments that I have all the words, even if patchwork, that I need.