How Leaving Home Made Me More Chinese

A significant ritual that comes with growing up is venturing out in the world and relinquishing the familiarity that has ensconced you your whole life. Lately, I’ve been seeing a lot of posts within internet groups such as Subtle Asian traits where people speak to personal experiences growing up in communities of low diversity– how they were keenly aware of feeling out of place due to their race and culture. I did as well, having grown up in rural New Hampshire in a largely white and homogenous setting. However, I do not remember attributing those feelings of displacement to my ethnicity. I’m not sure why I thought so little about race — perhaps it was in part due to my parents and how they intentionally did not want to point out obvious racial biases or prejudices. They have lived all across the US for nearly four decades, having emigrated as graduate students from Taiwan in the early ’80s and successfully assimilated with many aspects of American culture, from the food to small town living. They wanted my brother and I to grow up without that chip on our shoulders. But sooner or later, every one of us figures out what race means to us on our own terms, how it influences situations and why it matters.

Some people speak to how their parents discussed racial differences with them from an early age. Awareness, when timed and delivered well can be enlightening but reality can also be painful. I’ve had conflicted feelings about the weight and prevalence of my heritage for as long as I can remember. When we watched the summer Olympics as a family in 2008 and 2012 I distinctly remember rooting for the Chinese national team. I’d wake up each morning to check the medal count on the Internet, cheering internally as China maintained her lead. I’d never been to the mainland, and in all other aspects of my life I’ve never thought twice about my “Chinese-ness.“ But in the context of a competitive space, my own allegiance became clear. Despite not growing up around a defined Asian community, the abeyant allegiance was there all along.

The handful of times when I visited relatives in Taiwan I felt a rush of connection to familial ties extending far beyond myself — a feeling distinct from the stolid American individualism that I had subconsciously come to embody. In Taiwan, the most normal of activities such as spending time with my relatives and family friends, speaking my mother tongue, and learning how to cook jiang you ji (soy sauce chicken) from my step-grandmother contextualized many of the ideals that my parents tried to convey to me over the years. I realized how my actions were seen as extensions of my parents and upbringing; that my relatives cared about what I did, that my decisions mattered to them under a greater sense of family.

It took leaving home and being pushed to seek community on my own terms for me to realize how important my heritage is to my identity. When I moved to Nairobi in 2018 to work as a photojournalist, it was the first time I’d ever lived in a metropolis. There was not only the urban aspect of life that I needed to acclimate, but also the immense cultural adjustments that touched upon everything from quotidian interactions, to the attention I received every time I stepped out in public. There were many culturally charged moments that eluded me altogether. Now that I’m living in Kenya for the second time, I have a more thorough understanding of the transactional nature of society, the Nairobian hustler mentality, and most importantly, how not to take anything personally. My hope is that discernment and acceptance of cultural differences here will not only continue helping me navigate my current surroundings, but also help me understand more of my own Chinese-American upbringing.

Initially, I was upset by the rather unceremonious way that Asians and Caucasians are grouped monolithically as mzungus (white people) in East Africa. To many Kenyans, there is no difference between those with silky, non-kinky hair and light skin. I practically wanted to protest, I’m not white! I’m Asian. Where I come from, I’m also a minority. I’ve long since moved beyond this desire, since there’s no sense in struggling against structures so much greater than myself.

Nevertheless, I felt a gravitation towards the Chinese community in Nairobi. In my previous experiences abroad, I had felt something similar– that there was a tiny hole inside of me that grew deeper the longer I was away. I subconsciously yearned for my mother tongue. Speaking in Mandarin brings a sense of familiarity and home that English does not, even though I am so much more limited in the former language.

This surprised me. I didn’t realize how important my heritage is to me. In many ways — from career to dating — I wouldn’t classify myself as conventionally “Chinese-American” at all. I didn’t go the corporate route and am not pursuing an orthodox or lucrative career as others often expect of people like me; hardworking and ambitious with a world class education. But as I am living in Nairobi, it is becoming an unexpected opportunity to reconsider my heritage roots in ways I have never done before.

There’s a Chinese Malaysian missionary family here who took me under their wing when I first moved to Kenya. In pre-COVID-19 times, they hosted home group dinners in their home, welcoming in both Kenyans and expats for Bible study sessions. I surprised myself by becoming a regular. I had no choice but to go to church multiple times a week growing up, but since college I do not go out of my own volition. Being able to communicate in Mandarin and having a shared cultural identity brought me a sort of comfort I didn’t know I needed. They included me in all types of activities, not just religious ones. I liked the feeling that they cared more about how I was doing as a person than saving my soul. “Consider us your family in Nairobi,” they said to me. I did.

My Great-Grandfather

As a photojournalist, I am fascinated by the more enigmatic elements surrounding memory and storytelling. So much can be learned from the act of remembering itself. I’m 24. The few chances I’ve visited Taiwan, my parents’ birthplace, I’ve sensed a rush of connection to some familial entity far greater than myself. It has something to do with how responsibilities and the reverberating repercussions of individual decisions carry a different weight there. As someone American born and bred, this was foreign for me. I’m using my present understandings to reverse-engineer experiences with my parents that I failed to appreciate in my childhood. I’m recognizing my hunger for family history and wish I knew more.

Recently, I had the sudden thought to ask my father more about my great-grandfather, whom I’ve only heard a few anecdotes about. Maybe it’s something about being on lockdown, an ocean away from family, that has made me want to hold on to them more. My grandfather had passed away just before my older brother was born, and with us growing up in the US, we missed the greater sense of family that is so important in Chinese culture. My father, the memory keeper and historian that he is, wrote back an incredibly special piece. I’m sharing it as is because it is far better written than what I could ever produce.


Hi Kang-Li and Kang-Chun,
 Since Mei Mei wanted to know more about your great grandfather, here I try to write down what I know and send to both of you.

— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — -
 Your great grandfather’s name is 鄭鏡湖(pronounced as Zheng Jing Hu). The first thing I know about him is his early adventure in life: One of his uncles, a prominent scholar in the Qing dynasty, who was sent by the Chinese government as a high-ranking diplomatic representative to the United States. Great grandfather Jing Hu was eager to explore the New World, but apparently he had not convinced his uncle to bring him along. The day before the ocean-crossing ship was about to leave Guangzhou for San Francisco, great grandfather went in the big ship and hid himself in a secret place. He came out a couple of days later when the ship was already in the middle of the Pacific. His uncle was very mad at him, but there was no way to send him back at that time. So he fulfilled his first dream of coming to the United States.

We know very little about his adventure in the United States, but Grandpa mentioned that his dad’s first observation of American people in San Francisco was very interesting: young girls (in San Francisco) worked very hard to make a living. They were hired to work in the kitchen when the ocean liner anchored at the harbor. Besides earning meager wages as kitchen helpers, the American girls did not even throw away the potato peels but took them home for food supplements.

While in the United States, your great grandfather learned one trade well: how to make canned food and run a factory. After he returned home, the first canned food company in China 大中華罐頭公司 was established in Shanghai (上海). Your great grandfather Jing Hu was hired as the general manager. The canned food was a new thing and a great hit in China, and your great grandfather was richly compensated in that position during his tenure. Unfortunately, a few years later, he had several clashes with the board of directors of the company, mainly due to his hot temper and pride. The fight was so bad that either he quit or was let go, So he left Shanghai and moved to Fuzhou (福州), where my dad was born (1911), as well as his siblings (one younger brother and sister). [Your great grandmother, her name was 陳珍, passed away before my dad grew up, so he had very little recollections about her.]

In the next few years after your great grandfather settled in Fuzhou, his career was not going well (one of the reasons was his pride and strong personality. He did not seem to have changed at all), and his accumulated wealth from Shanghai started to dwindle. He became an alcoholic, and also treated grandpa very harshly, kind of venting his frustration in life on his oldest son, but strangely, not on the younger son and daughter. As early as in his early teen age years, Grandpa was asked to cook for the whole family. Then the health of your great grandfather deteriorated further (maybe due to depression and alcoholism) and he died when my dad was about 18 years old.

Because grandpa had no close relatives in Fuzhou, a few years later he moved back to Guangzhou and Hong Kong area where he had many uncles (from the paternal side). That was the period before Japanese started the full invasion of China in 1937. During that few years grandpa made many friends, learned the basics of Chinese herbal medicine in his uncle’s herbal medicine shop, and got a good job in the county government in Pan Yu (near Guangzhou in the rich Pearl River delta). When the conflict broke out in Lu Gou Qiao (盧溝橋) near Peiping (北平)(now called Beijing) on July 7th, 1937, Grandpa decided to let go everything there and to join the army. He did not hesitate to give all he had in order to fight for the country against the brutal foreign invasion.

A final note: Your great grandfather were very harsh, even abusive, in treating his oldest son (your grandpa), and it had left a very deep wound in him. But grandpa was healed to a large extent after he accepted Christ Jesus before marrying Nai Nai two years after the end of World War II.

All I know about your great grandfather is in bits and pieces. One of the reasons was the fall of Mainland China to the Chinese Communists. We grew up in Taiwan without any relatives during the cold war era. There were many things kids were “not supposed to ask” in those years. Partly due to political sensitivities, partly due to the a whole can of sadness may be opened up if we naively asked this and that. We children learned to hush when parents signaled us not to ask any further.

Maybe I can get a little bit more if I talk with San Bo and Er Bo.
 Thank you for asking.

Out of Lockdown

There’s nothing quite like banal Kenyan logistics to raise my blood pressure. A local friend said to me, you love being in this country, you should love this part too. Two days ago, we went to Nyayo House in CBD where immigration services are located for me to renew my passport. There’s really something about the manner in which things are done that riles me. It’s that Kenyan customer service, the officer at Nyayo house barely looked up from his phone to tell me that I had to go to a cyber cafe before coming back for a stamp. I’ve been in this country more than 4 months this time, having overstayed my tourist visa by more than a month (because of the lockdown of course), and I barely got a comment about that. Can you imagine? If I were Kenyan and in the US? ICE would probably deport me that day. I paid the 500 Ksh at the cyber cafe we were redirected to (< 5 USD, since the shilling is getting weaker), returned to Nyayo House for a stamp, and were on our way. 2 months this time, I’m thinking, if I just wrote over the loopy “2” months that I was given, I could probably stretch this into 3 more months…

Woke up at 6am this morning to get on the train to Mombasa from Nairobi Terminus. I got here fully an hour in advance, a true sign of how I’ve, uh, aged, and the slowness of each security check and queue was driving me crazy. You get hand sanitizer at multiple points, and all I can think about is how much it’s disrupting the microbiome of my skin. You have workers walking around in ghostly white hazmat suits, plastic face shields, the works. Looks like post-Chernobyl around here. It’s 14C outside, whatever that means. I’m ready to leave behind this dreariness and be in the sun for a while. The good thing is that I have mpesa now, thanks to Nyabuto. The bad news is I no longer have my iPhone, also thanks to him.

I’m on the train now, and I’ve missed public transport a whole lot. The landscape is terribly dreary in a way that is cold and uninspiring, when you’re just working from home in my cold little cottage in Kilimani all day, all week. But from the window seat of this train, the slight draping of fog over the savannah is really lovely. There was a little pool that we passed by earlier, so beautiful it was almost mythical. I wish I had taken a photo of it. Haven’t come across another pool yet– it’s mostly been dry riverbeds. As usual, I’m not quite sure what’s waiting for me at the end of the journey. But it’s good to figure things out.

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