tell me about my country, and i’ll tell you about yours. you see, the problem is that when i close my eyes now, i can’t really remember. that’s because twelve hours of darkness flying over the Pacific lulls the ache of homesickness to sleep. that’s because the indifferent streets of this blank slate city are always granting me permission to forget. here in America, we need no past—— and our future, we hope, is made out of money. so let’s forget our childhood: our kite-flying uncle, our Buddha-praying aunt, the snowy voice of our grandfather, ninety-six years old now and still sharp. our other grandfather has lung cancer - you know, the one who waited with us for the school bus all those years, by the two cherry trees in our driveway. it’s chinese new years and our mother won’t pick up the phone. i’ve been with your grandfather at the hospital in Hangzhou, she says, no time or attention now, to worry about your life.
on the coldest day in january, i walk four avenues to the chinese embassy on forty-second street, my face so cold that it hurts. now that i am a citizen of this country, i need an invitation to the land where i was born. i am standing in line with all the others, knocking on the doorsteps of the Middle Kingdom, memories of that world flickering like embers: how it smelled of cigarette smoke inside taxicabs, where the seat covers are always white and the radio is always on, or how the automated female announcer voice at airports and train stations made the whole country sound so orderly. have you ever heard Mandarin spoken so properly? i mean, not in this country. not on the streets of Chinatown or in Shanghainese restaurants in Flushing, or in line at the embassy, or in the conversations of five young Chinese women on the subway, all dressed like new money, all lipstick and laughing.
i am on my way home. they are on their way to hotpot somewhere in queens. one sat down next to me and the others encircled us. i want to disrupt their carefree chattering, i want to shake them in their coats and say tell me, tell me about my country — i mean, your country, that country. but of course i kept my headphones on and pretended to hear nothing. had they asked me about china, i would say i know nothing. there is that snow globe of my early childhood, china of the early nineties, a small world untouched, china that still had stars. but beyond that, it’s a desert - only mirages and empty memory.