Next memoir post: More misery in China

My next memoir post is up.

In this section, I don’t go into too many details about the visit to my cousin’s relatives in Dalian. All that stuff, it seemed, didn’t have a lot to do with the story at hand. In reality it was one of the worst weekends I had in China.

1) My cousin’s relatives were completely freaked out by me. They weren’t related to me – they were cousins on Huang Lei mother’s side – but I still approached them as family. Homesick up the wazoo, I thought one cousin was so much like my younger aunt, while another was like my younger uncle. The eldest reminded me of my mother’s older sister. But whenever I tried to engage myself in their conversations, they froze and backed away. One teenager even left the room whenever I came in. I felt so lonely and alienated that I went into the bathroom and cried.

The only ones who were normal were two younger cousins, both in their early 20s. I hated the girl at first. “Ni hao,” I greeted her when I met her, like any normal Chinese.

“Ni hao!” she repeated, giggling, as though she couldn’t believe this foreigner was speaking Mandarin.

I wanted to smack her.

But when she discovered I wasn’t so different, she was friendly and normal, as was her male cousin.

2) When they weren’t running away from me, they were trying to stuff food down my gullet. This is a normal Chinese practice. At home my mother always puts food on our plates, whether or not we ask, and if we even THINK we might be hungry, she’s there offering treats.

At Huang Lei’s cousins’, it was a billion times worse. You’d be sitting there minding your own business when here came the food. No thank you, you’d say, but they’d think you were just being polite, and would ask a million times more. We kept telling them that since I was American, I didn’t know that kind of politeness, only directness, but they didn’t believe us.

3) The apartment was a 1000 degrees and all the men who smoked. One afternoon, after much insistence that we could take care of ourselves, Huang Lei and I finally made our escape.  The cool sea-tinged air was a tremendous relief.

4) I got terrible food poisoning. “You weren’t supposed to eat the shellfish!” Judy said after my return. Now you tell me. We had everything from mussels, to shrimp, to oysters, to clams. The next day I had dizzy spells, followed quickly by diarrhea and vomiting. Violent and often simultaneous diarrhea and vomiting. It was the worst night of my life.

Everyone assumed it was because I was a foreigner. “She’s not used to eating so much seafood,” they said repeatedly, although I had grown up eating shrimp and fish every week, and had lived in Boston for three years, and even Huang Lei had gotten a little sick herself. But at that point I didn’t even care. They had finally stopped forcing food on me.

Don’t get me wrong. My cousin’s relatives were perfectly nice, and perhaps if I had been more outgoing, they wouldn’t have been so afraid of me. But by then I had had it up to here with China and being seen as different. And it would be YEARS before I could eat mussels again.


  1. I love your posts on your time in China because it kind of reminds me of my time here in Taiwan. I hate to say it, but I’m a bit hesitant about making Taiwanese friends here who aren’t either a) somehow related to me or b) friends with Ron already because usually I end up being treated like an anomaly or, at best, the evening’s entertainment. I once went to a function where a woman kept staring and staring at me, before I overheard her ask someone “can she speak Chinese” — even though we’d had a short exchange in Chinese already! I’m making a huge generalization about Taiwanese people (for the most part, people are either pleasant or blase), but I hate being made to feel like a freak by someone who just can’t wrap his or her head around the fact that fact that I’m an American who looks Taiwanese.

    And I, too, am the veteran of much overfeeding at family gatherings. It gets pretty crazy when there are multiple aunts in one place. It’s like they start competing. “I AM alpha-aiyi!” “No, I am alpha-aiyi! By the time I’m done with Kai-lin, she won’t be able to walk unaided!” “Whatever! By the time I’m done with Kai-lin, she’ll be in a food coma!” My favorite part is when they hover over me with a pair of chopsticks and say “try this! It’s low calorie and won’t make you fat!” I mean, I love my aunts, but ahhhhhh!

  2. i’ve had that happen too! it’s like, “didn’t we just have a whole conversation in chinese? and now you’re asking someone else if i speak chinese?” i’ve also encountered people who know what a “hua ren” or oversease chinese is, yet still look at me and say, “you look just like a chinese person!”

    another time my friends and i had this tour guide who would say everything in english, then repeat it all in chinese. i had no idea what he was doing till i realized he was “translating” for my benefit, although he had just called me a huaren!

  3. I still talk to relatives in Taiwanese and have them speak English back–like they don’t actually believe I understand the language.

    Fortunately, I’ve never had that terrible an experience with relatives. I did feel that in mainand China, people were a bit strange–they were always careful to display their country in the best light, so weren’t as forthcoming. Perhaps that’s changed since the last time I visited.

    But in Taiwan, my experience has been really great–the people there are straightforward and made fun of me a lot, but I laughed with them (because I know I can be silly–and they’re kind of silly too). There are some families in Asia who don’t socialize their kids, so they act crazy around all strangers. I don’t think that running away thing was targeted at you as an American. They’re just incredibly shy, but usually they are very curious about Americans and can’t wait to talk to you about Beverly Hills 90210.

    I think people in Taiwan are a bit easier to get to know, but like anyplace, the annoying people outnumber the great people. I LOVED it there and made tons of friends. But don’t get tricked into complaining about your kind but totally unreasonable uncle to a news reporter who ends up writing an article in Taiwan’s most famous newspaper. It’s a really small country. My uncle called up my mom and said, “She HATES me!” oops.