Born in China, I decided to study in the U.S. I love my home country but harbor guilt as I become less and less Chinese over time.

This story was a runner-up in News Decoder’s Ninth Storytelling Contest.

Artist’s Statement:

I grew up in China with my grandparents, where I was immersed in Buddhism and learned about Maoism and “being loyal to the Communist Party” in public school. When I had the opportunity to learn English and to be an international student in America, my grandparents were not the greatest supporters of the idea. The concepts of “Us vs Them” and “the Other,” which have always complicated the dynamics between countless groups of people around the globe in the past and present, influenced their worldview and simultaneously held my identity captive. This poem is an exploration of my struggles as a Chinese International Student navigating between my love for my culture and country, my American education, my grandparents’ resentment towards the West, and my own guilt of becoming less and less “Chinese” over time.

Captive, in Between

It was easy to feel hungry. Those days the house was always shaking, the same
pitter-patter of rain knocked the metal board we called roof. Water dripped slowly down
a sewage pipe, overflowing the old cherry-wood bathtub and disappearing into
our mauve-coloured squat toilet. Grandma with her dirtied head scarf draped around her hair
like the blanket she wrapped her dead sibling in decades ago
soaked up the water, her lips pressed, her toenails chipped, her veins throbbing under
her wrinkled hand. My sister and I huddled under the bamboo bed, nibbling at a ciba [1], its soft, warm
surface defrosting our hands. Outside, the ginkgo trees rustle, yellow-green and full. The blue light from
Grandpa’s TV splintered the room into lights and shadows, and
gave Mao’s portrait on the wall a faint glow. I stared at him; he was smiling.

The CD player stopped working. Grandpa cut the power off. He cried and told me I am
tainting my mouth with the language of the enemy. As I scrubbed my tongue with soap I feared I would
start understanding their language, which was not human, and I knelt to pray
for strength. The kindling incense lit the wooden Buddha, his face serene
like the koi pond I used to drink from as a child. The orange light gave
Mao’s portrait on the wall a faint glow. I stared at him; he was still smiling.
Om mani padme hum [2].

The language of the enemy is everything beyond that Great Wall. The wall that bars the children
of my forefathers; the wall that cages us, drowns us in ignorance; the wall that
represents every piece of our soul. Every brick of the wall
grounds me, or weighs me down: I couldn’t tell the difference.

The midnight flight from HKG pushed me off the other side
of the wall. Lost and tired, I told myself that I would starve
before I took food from their hands. But that familiar feeling failed to last. The cheese
melted and covered the bread, the chicken oily and crispy yet tender, the rich vanilla fragrance of biscuits
filled my mouth for days. It turned my stomach for days.
What I want now more than anything is just another ciba that I would share
with my sister, our foreheads touching, our noses runny from the steam.
When I munched on one last winter, I spit it out into the trash can. It burned
me; its white foamy texture tarnished by my mouth.
A mouth speaking the language of the enemy.
Grandma watched. She wiped the white crumbs from my lips
and wrapped around me her headscarf, washed and white
as the snow falling carelessly outside. She waved goodbye.
I looked back at her, squinting. But all I could see was
Mao’s portrait on the wall behind her, illuminated by the light
reflected off the snow. I stared at him; he stopped smiling.

Will I be forgiven? For
knowing too much about democracy and free speech to be loyal to that gazing portrait, for
neglecting to read books with those complicated characters written from right to left, for
failing to remember that pink-blossom paradise Tao Yuanming elucidates, or Li Bai’s simplest poem, for
loving the enemy’s language, for loving
life beyond the wall. From the ashes of The New York Times set ablaze
I redeem myself, picking out pieces of my childhood. Bit by bit I reassemble the torn photographs of
fogging windows, sweet yam soup ladled into four clay bowls, Grandma and Grandpa’s
grey hair simmering as they teach us the songs they used to sing.
Still, the polaroid frames fade away like lies and forged memories; bewildered, I run
beyond the wall. Beyond the wall. That’s all I can depend on.

* * *

[1] A pastry from the Chinese province of Hunan; it is made of sticky rice and is soft and sweet.
[2] A common Buddhist prayer


Three questions to consider:

  1. The author twice mentions ciba, a Chinese pastry. What does it represent to her?
  2. How would you describe the author’s feelings towards her grandparents?
  3. In the “Artist’s Statement,” the author says she feels guilt because she is becoming less and less Chinese. Have you ever felt guilt because of a life choice you have made?
Alistair Lyon author news decoder-150x150
Li Keira Yin is a Chinese national studying at The Thacher School in Ojai, California. Keira loves classes in Language, Art and History. She is a student journalist, artist, saber fencer and equestrian rider. She co-founded the Paper Plane Project, a student-led mental health non-profit based in southern China, through Harvard Innovation Labs. In her free time, she often finds herself eating, watching runway shows, meditating or reading.
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