Creative non-fiction / September 2012 (Issue 18)


Home Sick

by Angela Tung

It's the night before New Year's Eve, and I'm annoyed.

"The flight's at ten?" I say to my cousin Huang Lei. "It's only six now. That means we have to wait four hours."

She looks distressed. Four hours isn't long to her. The Chinese are used to waiting, to slowness and chaos. And a four-hour wait followed by a one-hour flight to Dalian is still better than our original plan: twelve hours on a smoky, crowded train, sharing a sleeper with strangers who may or may not molest us. But I'm sick of Huang Lei making all the decisions. I'm sick of never quite understanding what's going on, of people looking at me like I should know better when it's a miracle I know anything at all.

I've been teaching English in China since late August. Four months later, I'm still homesick. It's not as bad as in the beginning when I couldn't sleep, everything smelled strange and tasted bad, when I felt like everyone was staring, which, it turned out, they were. It's not as bad, but I'd still rather be home, where my boyfriend is, and food that is not Chinese, and people who understand what it means to be Chinese American, who don't say, over and over, "You look just like a Chinese!" even after I've explained that although I wasn't born here, in dalu, my parents were, that I'm still, by blood, Chinese, because in dalu there is only Chinese, or not.

We find two empty chairs; not difficult since the airport is nearly empty. Unlike Lunar New Year, when airports fill to the brim and buses, overfilled to capacity, nearly tip over on corners, no one travels around Western New Year's Eve. "Only for laowai," Huang Lei has said. Only for foreigners, of which I am one, and so we're going to Dalian to see Huang Lei's cousins.

She looks anxious, the way she has off and on since her husband Guochen left for a year-long sabbatical in Moscow. She doesn't sit. "I have to make a phone call," she says.

"Now?" I say, but she's already gone.

I slump in my seat and cross my arms. An African American boy walks past. I know he's American because he's singing to himself in American English, trying to look happy as everyone gawks. Only worse would be to be black in China, like the Sudanese exchange students at my school with their beautiful teeth and lilting English, whom most of the Chinese students avoid. "Xia si wo," I heard one girl say as the Sudanese boys passed her. "Scare me to death." Only they could be more homesick than I.

I think about calling out to the boy, of saying, "Are you American? So am I," but then I too would be exposed.

Huang Lei returns then. "I called Guochen," she says, sitting beside me. She seems calmer.

I don't ask why she felt the need to call him now. I know she needed reassurance, that my being upset has upset her. I start to feel guilty.

"I saw a black boy," she says, then switches to English: "Very black." She laughs.

The way she says black is the way she says fat. An insult wrapped in astonishment. My guilt disappears, and I'm annoyed again.

***

Huang Lei and I are related through our grandmothers. Her father and my mother are first cousins, our grandmothers sisters. In the past few months, we've grown close. We call each other by our Chinese nicknames, Little Red for her and Little Gem for me. We spend every weekend together. We take the bus from Changping, our dusty Beijing suburb, into the city and go shopping. We hike and play badminton. We go dancing. That fall we travelled to Tianjin and had a wonderful time. We think our trip to Dalian will be like that.

Huang Lei's Dalian relatives are her mother's nieces and nephews, more like Huang Lei's aunts and uncles in terms of age. Her mother, the youngest of her siblings, died when Huang Lei was eight, something she told me that first terrible week.

"Very quickly I had to learn to live without a mother," she said, meaning that I, at twenty-seven, should be able to live without mine for a few months.

It's not my mother that I miss but familiarity. It's the unknown that I fear.

***

It's my first Chinese flight. I'm impressed by the pretty, bowing flight attendants and the spotless bathroom, so unlike most bathrooms in Beijing. Huang Lei doesn't know how to work her seatbelt, and as I show her, I can't help but think for once I know something she doesn't.

Huang Lei's cousin and her son pick us up at the airport. "Da Jie!" cries Huang Lei as we get into the car. Da Jie, or Big Sister, reminds me of my eldest aunt. She's only slightly younger, and has the same bouffant hairdo.

"Da Jie hao," I say.

"She speaks Chinese," the woman says, referring to me in the third person.

"Yes, she speaks pretty well," says Huang Lei.

Da Jie's son is in his early 20s, younger than us, so we don't have to greet him by title. Little An is his nickname. He's chubby and wears glasses, and could be any of one my classmates from college. "Ni hao," I say, and although he stares at me for a moment in the rearview mirror, thankfully he makes no comment.

It's late and I'm tired, but the air smells good. Like the ocean. The Beijing air smells like smoke, coal and the desert. Sand and dirt blow in through crevices of my poorly built house. After I ride the bus, the inside of my nose is coated black.

"Our apartment is very small," Da Jie says. "Does she know our apartment is small?"

"Mei you guan xi," I say before Huang Lei can speak for me again. "It doesn't matter. My apartments in New York and Boston were all very small. Huang Lei's is bigger than any I've had."

No one says anything. I know they don't believe me.

Little An drops us off, then leaves for Huang Lei's uncle's apartment, where his father already is. "You want to shower?" asks Da Jie.

It takes me a moment to understand her. She has a Dalian accent, similar to my grandmother's, who's from Weihai. Dalian and Wehai are almost directly across from each other, separated by the Bohai Strait. I nod.

I use up all the hot water washing my hair, only I don't know this at the time. I don't know there's a limit. Huang Lei showers, then emerges shivering.

"I'll wash tomorrow," Da Jie says.

I feel bad. Then again, no one has told me there was limited hot water. There isn't at my own place nor at Huang Lei's. As with many things in China, I'm simply expected to know, like the way certain names are pronounced, or that at the mall, when trying on new shoes, I'm not to put the shoes directly on the floor but on a piece of cardboard. There are other things they think I don't know, basic things, like how to wash dishes or throw out the garbage, or the concept of snow or melting ice. They think of America as one big Los Angeles, forever sunny, forever warm, the way I thought of China as one big Chinatown, dirty and exotic but still familiar.

I crash in the living room, where Little An normally sleeps. (Little An lives with his parents, as he will until he marries.) Huang Lei bunks with Da Jie. "Will you be all right by yourself?" asks Huang Lei.

I nod. It's the only night I sleep well.

***

The next morning, Da Jie's husband, Da Jie Fu, comes by. "What do you think of China?" is the first thing he asks me, as I've been asked a thousand times. "How does it compare to America?"

Homogenous, xenophobic and disorganised, I think, but of course I can't say it. "Hao bu cuo," I say, my standard answer. Really not bad, which means very good. "China has much more than I expected."

"You can buy anything here now. The stores have everything."

Not everything. No Advil or Neosporin. No good coffee or organic soup in a can. No bagels, pizza or pad thai. But I don't correct him. "Yes, when I first arrived, I brought so much stuff to wash my hair." I'm unsure of how to say shampoo and pantomime the action. "But I really didn't need to." This at least is true. I was surprised to find brands like Pantene and Head & Shoulders in almost every store.

"What?" says Da Jie Fu, aping my pantomime. "You want to wash your hair?"

I drop my arms and shake my head. I thought he understood me, but he does not.

We go visit with Huang Lei's aunt and uncle. Their apartment is slightly bigger than Da Jie's. I know most living spaces are work- or government-issued, that only the very rich actually own their homes. Huang Lei and Guochen have been waiting for their new apartment for ages.

Huang Lei's uncle is more like her grandfather. He reminds me of my own gong-gong, pot-bellied, liver-spotted and farting with abandon. Her aunt is tiny, white-haired and spry. Some of the other relatives are already there, and like Da Jie, they remind me of my own: Da Jie's younger sister, who has the same casual, shuffling walk as my Aunt Ping, and her younger brother, whom, like my Uncle Ray, everyone calls Xiao Di, Little Brother. The younger sister's husband looks already weary of being there and smokes by an open window. Their teenaged son, called Little Yang, is so shy, he can't bring himself to answer my ni hao.

The apartment is very warm. On the radiator are several bottles of soda. The Chinese believe drinking anything cold is bad for the stomach, that any kind of cold will make you sick. They dress their babies like Michelin men and wear long underwear well into spring. While Huang Lei would never go as far as to warm soda on the radiator, she does keep it at carbonation-killing room temperature.

Da Jie and her siblings sit on their parents' kang, a type of hard bed, and make dumplings. It's a familiar sight. Into dumpling wrappers they use chopsticks to slap the dumpling goo, not minced pork, shrimp and vegetables as my mother would make, but a kind of fish paste. I've never had fish dumplings before and am looking forward to it.

Huang Lei joins in, her delicate hands wrapping in one swift motion. Useless at dumpling making, I sit nearby and watch. Little Yang, who was watching TV, sees me, stands and leaves.

"Do you want to help?" asks Da Jie's younger sister.

"She doesn't know how," says Huang Lei.

I laugh. "You can tell which dumplings are mine," I say. "The ones that fall apart."

Huang Lei laughs, too, but none of her cousins respond. They stir uncomfortably. Are they embarrassed for me and my culinary ineptitude, or did they not understand my Chinese? After another moment of uncomfortable silence, I rise and go into the next room. Little Yang is there flipping through a magazine. Seeing me, he closes the magazine and exits.

I sigh.

It doesn't occur to me to leave. To say, "I'm going for a walk!" and march out the door. I'm twenty-seven years old, I don't need anyone's permission. But while I'm twenty-seven, I rarely go about China on my own. I go to class, the computer centre and the post office. I ride my bike to Huang Lei's and a nearby market. When I go out on my own, I feel like everyone stares. Everyone knows somehow that I don't belong.

Da Jie Fu calls to us from the kitchen: "Little Gem and Little Red, this is for you two!" He's holding up a large bowl.

"Mussels!" cries Huang Lei, abandoning her dumpling wrapping duties. We rush to the table.

This is something we both miss: fresh seafood. In our town, which is 200 miles from the sea, we eat mostly pork, beef and mutton. I had shrimp once, shortly after my arrival. They were dry and puny. We feast on the entire bowl, just the two of us. The mussels are tender and briny, every bite like the sea. They haven't been cleaned properly—sand crunches between my teeth—but it's all right: we can rinse the morsels in their own juice.

"Do you want to go out?" asks Da Jie Fu as we finish eating.

"Yes!" I cry without thinking.

Huang Lei says, "Only if Da Jie Fu isn't too busy."

"No problem. You must be bored."

Da Jie and Da Jie Fu both take us. As we walk to the car, breathing in the fresh air, we feel better already. "First we'll go to an interesting part of town," says Da Jie Fu. "Then the beach. Hao de?"

"Hao!" cries Huang Lei. She claps her hands and says in English, as she does when she's in a good mood: "Happy happy!"

In the end, we spend more time in the car than outside. In Zhongshan Square, a picturesque part of town with Russian-style architecture, I have just enough time to take a picture of a pink building before being ushered back into the car. We drive to the beach where Huang Lei and I have just long enough to take pictures of each other holding a starfish. I wish we could stay longer. I wish we could stay the whole day, but this isn't like our trip to Tianjin when we went with Huang Lei's friends, two young soldiers who were willing to escort us anywhere. Da Jie and Da Jie Fu are our elders and our hosts, and they're waiting for us, not on the beach but at the top of the hill, braving the wind, hands in their pockets. After less than an hour, we're back in the stifling apartment.

It's dinnertime, and I'm still full from the mussels. The women eat at the coffee table in the living room, while the men eat and smoke at the table in the room off the kitchen. Huang Lei and I go to join the women. It's cooler in the living room, and away from the cigarette smoke. But her aunt won't have it. We're guests and we need to sit at a proper table. She grabs my arm and pulls. Hard. We have no choice.

Between the mussels, the heat of the apartment and the cigarette smoke, neither of us have an appetite. We pick at our food.

"Eat!" cries Huang Lei's aunt, piling our plates with fish dumplings, shrimp in wasabi paste and deep-fried squid. "Eat!" commands Da Jie Fu shoving at us a whole fish. "Eat!" they all say over and over no matter how many times we say we're full. "Bu yao ke qi!" they tell us. Don't be polite! although we keep insisting that because I'm American, I don't know ke qi, I only know directness. I say what I mean.

I'm full, I don't want to eat, but they don't listen.

At long last, dinner is over. After the dishes are cleared and the leftovers put away, and Da Jie Fu is washing the dishes at his own insistence, Huang Lei and I escape to the living room. She chats with her female cousins. I understand only about a third of what's being said, but I don't mind. I don't mind sitting quietly and in peace. But the cousins won't leave me be.

"Do you need anything?"

"You must be bored."

"Do you understand?"

Huang Lei looks at me. "Do you want to watch TV? This is probably not very interesting to you."

The TV is in the other room, away from them. Without answering, I get up and leave.

Little Yang and his father are watching a variety show. I tiptoe to a chair in the corner and pray they ignore me. But they don't. Little Yang stiffens immediately while his father tries to hand me the remote.

"You watch," he says.

"No, no," I say. "I don't understand the TV, so it doesn't matter to me."

"You watch," he says again.

"No, it's all right."

A few minutes pass. He hands me the remote again. "You watch."

I don't know if he's only being polite, or thinks I'm being polite, or if he's uncomfortable with my presence. All I want is to sit quietly, unobserved, but it seems I can't. After saying no thank you yet again, I leave.

There's nowhere I can go except the bathroom. I go in, close the door and cry.

I want to sob, loudly, the way I did my first nights in China. Wracked with insomnia and jet lag, terrified of teaching, unable to reach my parents or my boyfriend because of a faulty phone card, I sobbed loudly for hours, but afterward felt better. I don't feel better now. I'll only feel better once I leave here, once I return to Changping. Once I return home.

"Little Gem!" Huang Lei calls. "Da Ge is here! Come out and say hello."

Da Ge is younger than Da Jie but the oldest son. I try to control my crying. I check myself in the mirror: red-nosed and red-eyed. "Little Gem!" Huang Lei calls again. Taking a deep breath, I emerge.

Having just arrived, Da Ge, his wife and their daughter stand around the living room in their coats. "Da Ge hao," I say. "Da Ge Ma hao."

"This is Little Tang," Da Ge says loudly. Their daughter is pretty and the same age as Little An. "Her English is very good. She wants to practise English with a real American!"

"Ni hao," I say to Little Tang.

She giggles. "Ni hao!" she mimics.

I want to punch her in the face.

Later I'll discover Little Tang to be the least timid of all the cousins. She, like Huang Lei, will have no problem chatting and joking with me. But for now I only hate her.

As Little Tang and her parents eat a late dinner, Da Jie brings out old photo albums. I recognise the cousins in their younger years. Unlike my mother and aunts in their miniskirts and cat-eye sunglasses, my father and uncles in their cropped jeans and sneakers, Huang Lei's relatives all wear Mao outfits. The women's faces are bare of makeup, and the men wear caps.

There's a picture of Huang Lei's mother, fresh-faced, her hair in pigtails. I see Huang Lei's younger sister in her mother's cheekbones. There's another of Huang Lei parents, in matching Mao jackets, and one of a chubby Huang Lei, no older than two, pretending to sweep. "That's me!" she cries in English, as though in surprise. There's one of Huang Lei older, in a class picture, all the students brandishing Mao's Little Red Book. There's one of her parents, herself and her younger sister. In this picture, her mother looks suddenly pale and tired, her hair mussed, dark circles under her eyes. It was shortly after this picture that her mother died.

"Remember Little Auntie?" Da Jie says. "How pretty she was." Her younger sister nods.

Huang Lei is blinking and trying to smile. "I'm taking this," she says, and plucks from Da Jie's album the photo of her mother still young, still beautiful.

***

The next morning, I don't feel well.

Normally ravenous for breakfast, I can only manage some coffee and half a piece of toast. After Little An drops us off at Huang Lei's uncle's, my head spins as I get out of the car, but I think it's because we're on top of a hill. Later Little An takes us to the aquarium, and I nearly faint standing on a moving walkway under a 180 degree tank.

By lunchtime, I still have no appetite, but this doesn't stop everyone from forcing food on me. All that sounds good are tart cherry tomatoes. I eat those, and stare at the warming bottles of soda on the radiator, wishing I could have some.

Huang Lei wants to get a gift for Little An to thank him for taking us around. This is the Chinese way, to immediately repay someone for a favour, even a favour you've not asked for, or else lose face. She remembers seeing a mall nearby.

"We're going for a walk!" Huang Lei announces.

Da Jie struggles to rise from the kang. She has arthritis in both knees. "By yourselves?" she says. "Little An can go with you."

"No, no," says Huang Lei. "We've troubled Little An enough."

All the cousins begin to rise, one by one, like concerned geese. "What if you get lost?"

"We won't. We'll stay right around here."

They still seem reluctant.

"Ai ya," Huang Lei says, laughing. "I'm thirty years old."

"And I'm twenty-seven," I say. "Together we're almost sixty."

The cousins laugh, and finally let us go.

The mall is just a few blocks away. We walk briskly, breathing deeply the briny air. For a moment, my nausea abates. But when we reach the mall, my stomach starts to bother me again. "I need the bathroom," I tell Huang Lei, and rush off.

Over the squat toilet, I have my first bout of diarrhoea. Luckily there's toilet paper.

I come out to find Huang Lei fussing over which sweater to buy Little An. "Du zi huai le," I tell her. Literally, My stomach is broken.

She ignores this. "Which one is better?" she asks me.

I point at the blue one.

"Yes, that one is nicer. Let's go."

Back at the house, everyone is getting ready for dinner. "I don't feel well," I tell Huang Lei.

"We don't feel well!" she says at large. She thinks I'm making an excuse not to eat too much. "We're not used to so much food."

Da Jie Fu takes pity on us and makes a pot of corn gruel. "You don't feel well?" he asks me.

I shake my head. "La du zi," I say, shameless. Diarrhoea.

Huang Lei looks at me aghast. "Why didn't you tell me?"

"I did," I snap. "You weren't listening."

Huang Lei and I eat several bowls of corn gruel. "Delicious!" she says.

I hope the gruel will settle my stomach, but it doesn't. Before we leave, I have another bout of diarrhoea, and I vomit once.

Back at Da Jie's apartment, I show Huang Lei my swollen stomach. "Does it hurt?" she keeps asking.

It doesn't. I just don't feel well.

Da Jie gives me some medicine. "Guochen and I took this," Huang Lei says. "We ate seafood and this medicine at the same time." She laughs.

Suddenly it occurs to me it's after midnight. Back home I'd be with my boyfriend. We'd be at a party, drinking champagne and kissing. "Happy New Year," I say.

"Oh, I forgot!" says Huang Lei. "Happy New Year." She turns to Da Jie. "Not that it matters."

Da Jie laughs. "I don't care about this new year either."

My body sags. I feel worse.

We go to bed. Lying there, I feel more and more awful. Finally, I can't take it anymore. I rush to the bathroom and throw up.

As I vomit, I feel my bowels moving. "Oh no," I murmur. How do I choose? The moment I stop vomiting, I turn around and sit. As I go, I have to cover my mouth to keep from spewing all over my lap.

"Little Gem?" whispers Huang Lei from outside the bathroom door. "Is something wrong?"

"La du zi," I moan from the toilet. "Tu."

When I finally emerge, she's dancing around in anxiety. "Oh no, oh no. What can I do?"

"That's OK," I say, and stumble back to bed.

Da Jie appears, bouffant mussed. Huang Lei tells her what's happening.

"Wo de mai ya," she murmurs. My God.

The vomiting and diarrhoea go on for hours. I can't help but notice that I regurgitate a rainbow: the yellow of the corn gruel, the red of the cherry tomatoes the grey of the fish dumplings, shrimp and mussels. It's the mussels that make me the most sick, when I think about them, and which I'll later discover were the culprit. Don't eat the shellfish in China, I'll be told, and wish I had known sooner.

At one point, I don't make it to the toilet and shit my pants. As I clean them off in the bathroom, Huang Lei calls from outside the door, "What happened, Little Gem? Let me help you."

But I don't. I'm far too embarrassed, and perhaps in a small way, I want to punish her. I want to punish all of them. For forcing me to eat so much, for being so uncomfortable around me. For acting like my Chinese face is only a mask that hides the big-nosed, sharp-toothed foreigner within. For not treating me as my own relatives would when that's all I want, for being who they can't help being and for who I can't help being. For that great wall between us that will never come down, no matter how much Chinese I know, no matter how many American movies they watch, for that wall exists even between me and Huang Lei, whom I think of as a sister.

Near dawn the violence of my sickness finally stops. I'm only weak and queasy.

"Eat something," Da Jie says, and I take a few bites of plain white bread.

By the time we reach Huang Lei's uncle's, everyone has heard what happened. No one else has gotten sick. "You're American," they say. "You're not used to eating so much seafood at once."

I'm too weak to argue.

Huang Lei's relatives continue to offer me food. "It's just fruit," the younger sister says as I refuse a plate of pear slices. My sickness allows me to do this. It encases me in a bubble that lets me ignore everyone—the offers of food, Little Yang fearfully avoiding me, the claims that it was my Americanness that made me sick.

"Do you need anything?" asks Huang Lei. "I'll get you anything you want."

"You don't have to," I say. "Ma fan." It's too much trouble.

"Not at all. The store is right nearby."

I ask for a can of soda, crackers and something sour, like dried plums. "That's all?" Huang Lei asks me, looking doubtful. But she goes and returns with what I asked for. I spend the rest of the afternoon sipping apple soda, nibbling crackers and sucking on dried plums. Even while everyone else eats dinner, I remain in my seat, dozing and watching incomprehensible TV.

After dinner, Da Jie and Little An drive us to the airport. "Come again," Da Jie tells me, unconvincingly.

This whole time Huang Lei has claimed to feel fine: "I just ate too much." But on the shuttle bus from the airport to our terminal, she turns a sickly green. "Can I have one of those dried plums?" she asks, and I hand her the pack. Pressing her forehead against the seat in front of her, she works a plum in her mouth. The nausea seems to pass.

Our flight gets in after ten, and we splurge on a cab to Changping. It drops us off at Huang Lei's apartment, where it's cool, quiet and smoke-free. "Ahhh," Huang Lei breathes. "One's own house is always better. Do you want to sit for a while?"

I shake my head. It's been four days since I've been alone. "If I sit now, I'll never get up."

I make my way back down the concrete stairwell. At each landing, I stamp hard to turn on the motion detector light. Outside, I unlock my bike and wheel it past the sleeping guard, over the threshold of the gate. Once in the street, I hop on.

It's the first time I've ridden alone to my place in such darkness. There are street lamps along the way, but none of them work. I try to keep calm as cars and buses pass me; I pray that I don't run into another bike. I imagine returning to my little house. It's not the best. The roof leaks (though here in the desert, it rarely rains), and the wall-to-wall carpeting traps dust and dirt. But I've gotten used to it. I have my table where I plan my lessons, grade papers and write long letters home. I have my books and coffee, my instant noodles and frozen dumplings. I have my good sheets from home on my firm Chinese bed and the red bean pillow I've grown to love. It's all I really need, but for now I don't know this. For now I'm only anxious to get home.

 
Website © Cha: An Asian Literary Journal 2007-2017
ISSN 1999-5032
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