Next memoir post: Jealousy

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.


  1. OMG! So excited for you guys :) Well sad that you have the month apart, but awesome timing for JetBlue’s deal. I can’t wait to hear of your SF adventures, hopefully they won’t involve crackheads chasing you down the street at night (this has happened to me in the Mission – over by a bar called the Make-Out Room and also on Market walking near Civic Center) but instead be about an awesome job, lots of writing, and good good food!

  2. When I go to Taiwan my extended family treats me like I’m 7. On one rainy day, they got upset because I USED THE WRONG UMBRELLA. (??) Sorry, I didn’t know THAT particular umbrella was inappropriate for school. And they kept saying, “Well, she’s AMERICAN.” (And by American, they meant mentally challenged.)

    As for the comparing thing, I think all parents do that. I brought home a friend once and my parents went on and on about her beauty–my dad looked at me and said, “Kim IS much prettier than you. But you, you’re CHARMING.” To which I replied, “Well, what do you expect. I look like YOU GUYS. I’m sure Kim’s parents are gorgeous.”

  3. I had a best friend that my mother constantly compared me to. We were both kind of chubby and encouraged to go on diets BUT my friend was quiet, sweet, listened to her mother (hao hui ting hua!), diligent, studied hard, went to Kumon and Chinese school without complaint, cleaned when she was supposed to, wore whatever was handed to her, didn’t have weird hobbies that sometimes involved accidentally setting the oven on fire, etc. What my mom didn’t realize, however, was that the reason my friend was so good at “tinghua” was because her mom is a crazy, emotionally abusive, controlling wretch that I still can’t stand spending time with. I don’t keep in touch with my grade school friend very often but, like you and your cousin, the constant comparisons didn’t drive us apart. I think it helped cement our bond — we both had moms who loved us but constantly told us they wished we were something different.

    On a tangential note, my mom recently told me that her mom, my grandma, used to go around telling everyone “my daughter is stupid AND ugly!” and how much it hurt her feelings. I told my mom, “oh, I’m sure grandma was just being modest, like how Chinese moms are.” My mom was like “I’m not so sure,” and I had to refrain from screaming “REMEMBER HOW YOU COMPARED ME TO MY BEST FRIEND???” But, I’m sure my mom would have told me “oh, that was different.” :-)

  4. sitcomgirl: crackheads chasing you?!? gee, i wish i knew that before i decided to move. ;) here’s to adventures!

    plue: to my family i will perpetually be a chubby teenager, to the point that whenever they see me they say increduously, “shou le!” you got thin! when i’ve been the same weight for about 10 years now. haha re: your retort to your parents.

    catherine_sr.: yes, “tinghua” was another thing that got thrown around! and the comparing thing does get passed down from generation to generation. i know my grandmother was pretty harsh to my mom in particular, and my gmother is still harsh, criticizing my younger girl cousins for being fat when they are rail thin. crazy!