I’ve never really thought of myself as a jealous person. Competitive yes, and ambitious about some things. Hell, my Chinese name comes from the idiom, “When one sees an admirable person, one wants to emulate that person.”
But wanting to emulate someone you admire isn’t the same as being jealous of that person. Jealousy: a feeling of grudging admiration and desire to have something that is possessed by another.
For a long time, I was jealous of my cousin Huang Lei.
Growing up, my mother constantly compared to me her friends’ kids. Why couldn’t I be skinny like this one, or outgoing like that one? Why couldn’t I be pre-med instead of a poet? On top of that, I had thought of some of the kids I grew up with as good friends, only to discover that they basically considered me some kid they knew.
When I met my cousin Huang Lei, I assumed she’d be like these childhood friends. But she wasn’t at all. From the moment she and her husband picked me up at the Beijing airport, I was like the American sister she never had.
The Chinese have a term, neng-gan: capable, talented, clever. To my family Huang Lei was very neng-gan: she could cook up a storm, pick out the freshest, cheapest vegetables at the market, debone a fish with her eyes closed. Me, on the other hand – sheme dou bu hui. There was nothing I knew how to do – I couldn’t cook beyond a stir fry, didn’t know a good tomato from a bad – especially in China.
Although I was 26 years old, I had never been abroad, and so surrounded by people speaking a Mandarin I could barely understand, who thought I was some weird Chinese-mask wearing foreign monster, and not knowing how anything worked (no lines? really? just a mob in front of the next ticket window? no trying on shoes right on the floor but on a random piece of cardboard? what, no supermarket but some far-off farm where I’m supposed to carry home eggs in a handkerchief in my bike basket?), I was deemed completely clueless, perhaps even slightly retarded.
It’s true that I let myself get completely dependent on my cousins. I was so freaked out – by culture shock and by being expected to teach, with zero assistance, almost 150 students – I didn’t bother doing anything for myself, at least not till the end when friends visited and I led us all over Beijing.
But after a while people’s surprise at what I could do was ridiculous. Yes, sometimes you have to hold up a door handle when shutting it to keep it locked. Yes, I can play a simple game of Concentration. And then that bit with dousing the hot of a hotpot.
Despite what my family thought, in America I considered myself very capable. While I had a phobia of driving, I could maneuver the subway like no one’s business. I could fly all over the country by myself. I could run a meeting with 2000 people. In America I was Queen, surely better than Huang Lei, surely more neng-gan.
Then I found out my cousin was coming to America.
At first my family was appalled that – and here comes a spoiler for those of you who don’t know the story – she had left her seemingly kind husband for Ron and Judy’s son, but soon enough my grandmother changed her tune. My cousin was neng-gan again! Just for being in the right place at the right time, for being lucky enough to fall in love.
I was obsessed with how she’d have to adjust. “She’ll have to learn English,” I said to my mother. “She’ll have to learn how to drive.”
“She’ll be able to,” my mother said. “Maybe she’ll be better than you.”
Great. All I needed was for my Chinese cousin to live my American life better than me.
When I visited Huang Lei in Portland, I became jealous for a different reason. She and Shane were so in love, it was sickening. I owe you one kiss, a Post-It on their cupboard said. “Do you see something beautiful?” Shane asked holding up the shiny silver tray his parents’ had given them to catch Huang Lei’s reflection. “I do.” I cringed as they blew kisses at each other from across the room.
But I was also sad. I was a newlywed too, but I didn’t have anything like that. I told myself it didn’t matter, that my husband and I had a quiet love, which was true at the beginning, but even just a few months after we married, I knew was less true.
In the end I found out that my cousin and I had even more in common than I thought, and while others would continue to compare us (like Shane who insisted his wife was much more fashionable than I was, although we were wearing practically the same thing), I’d still think of her as the Chinese sister I never had.