Tuesday, August 22, 2006

between two continents

When I was 22, I roomed with a midwestern American girl Mary who was both Mormon and a prolific dater. Coming home was full of surprises. One day I'd open the door to see church elders holding a Bible study in our living room. All the wine bottles would be gone from the kitchen counter. The next week I would walk in to find Mary making out on the living room floor with a guy I'd never seen before. They both stumble up drunkenly, and the guy slurs out an introduction.

Every month Mary would tell me about a different guy, and more often than not, she would breathlessly describe his positive traits. He could be the One ...

I marveled at this, because at that point I had never dated a single person who I thought could be the One, and she was raking through them. At one point it occurred to me that we probably both want someone who shares our background and upbringing. It's just that her pool of potential One's includes most Americans, and mine is some subset of immigrants who are acclimated to the US but also maintain their (preferably Chinese) heritage. I envied her the size of her selection pool.

Sometimes I miss my Chinese side so much. I'm buying sandwich bread in Safeway and I hear a couple talking in the next aisle, comparing canned foods. The man has a Beijing dialect, and I stand there for thirty seconds hearing the timbre of their voices. It comforts.

My friend Lu and I were eating dinner at Google a month ago. It was not long after I met him. I spoke to him in Mandarin, and as the conversation continued, he spoke more and more in Engilsh.

"Aren't you more comfortable in Mandarin?" I asked, since he just left China last year.

"Yes, but I figure you're more comfortable in English," he said.

"I like hearing people speak in Mandarin."

He then immediately used some Chinese idiom that I didn't understand. "See?" he said, "Why do you want to speak in Mandarin when there are going to be these things that you don't understand?"

But he humored me.

I don't fit in to the Chinese world. Any true-bred Chinese person who talks to me for more than one hour will end up telling me that I'm too straightforward. I lack the subtle Chinese-specific social nuances. The innate knowledge that it's okay to say, "You look so much fatter! You must have put on thirty kilograms!" but it is not okay to say, "It's really chilly in your house! Can you turn on the heat?" Or maybe it's all right to say that -- case in point that I don't know.

Drifting between the two continents can sometimes get lonely.

12 comments:

Anonymous said...

Poor girl ... Someone will save u...

Anonymous said...

I just wanted to say, to all the readers of Niniane's blog, that I feel an odd sort of bond emerging between us. The mix of party-lovers, fashionable techno-wizards, Mandarin-speaking or not. Is this just my imagination? I think we should all have a party some day in the near future, at some hip bar somewhere in the Bay Area, and meet. What do you think? Maybe some of us will meet The One?

Anonymous said...

maybe on the other hand, niniane can enjoy this situation too. and as i know, there are many Chinese working for google. i can not believe every chinese there are boring...

Anonymous said...

I grew up in Texas. I live in the Bay Area. Talk about between two continents! Your blog speaks to me today. At Borders cafe this weekend, a girl was talking to someone on her mobile phone at the table next to me in a sweet, distinct Fort Worthian "dialect", (which is as distinct to a Texas ear from a Houstonian or Odessan accent, as is Beijing from Shanhai to your ear) From the looks she was getting from other patrons, I think many people around me thought she was just being rude. Yet, I caught myself lingering, shamelessly pretending to read my newspaper over and over, drinking it in, hoping she would talk forever. It was so unexpected.
I love the romanticism of such moments. Yet in reflection, I also see that it was an affirmation of why I am here. The future is here. Truly, we cannot go home again...

mtbouchard said...

Such is the trouble of being unique. I guess in a way you're like the "lowercase n" in the Sesame Street video:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zGZ9aWBWLUU&mode=related&search=

Someday your rocketship will come niniane! :)

cheers,
lowercase m

Anonymous said...

I know exactly what you speak of, although in my case it's not the duality of being American and Chinese but American and Yugoslavian.

It is the trouble of straddling two worlds at the same time but never quite being in one or the other.

You go abroad and realize that you're no longer Yugoslavian but at the same time you realize that you will never be American either.

However, there are advantages to being this way. You can always contrast and compare. This allows you to see the big picture.

Traditions and culture, as much as they are comforting, beautiful and serve a purpose can also be limiting and become a mental straitjacket.

Also people who spend their entire lives embedded in one country and culture oftentimes feel an unfullfilled need to see and understand a bigger world which is oftentimes beyone their reach.

ArC said...

This essay reminded me of Dean Koh's lecture entitled "Yellow in a White World" which I just reread and found as valuable as I did when I first read it.

Anonymous said...

HAH. I totally empathize with this post. Absolutely a classic.

Even though sometimes it may suck to be in the middle of two worlds (limits your options of "the one"), there are several moments where I've felt extremely luck to appreciate and enjoy the best of both worlds. Thinking of that makes me feel really fortunate and happy =)

Anonymous said...

You can try writing ur blog more in Chinese so that more Chinese reader might like it.

N said...

> You can try writing ur blog more in Chinese so that more Chinese reader might like it.

Blogspot is blocked in China. :(

I suppose I could do it for Chinese readers outside of China. 这主意不错。

-Niniane

Anonymous said...

Why not open yourself up more? If you restrict yourself then you are likely to go it alone (that is the tradeoff we make). Maybe that One doesn't want to be with someone who looks at the world with such a narrow acceptance.

Figs said...

I really identified with your situation especially the last paragraph, hope to read more of your adventures.