I was six when my parents decided to move to Los Angeles. At the time, I didn’t fully comprehend the magnitude of the change, the permanence of it. Immersed in the new environment, I gradually lost touch with my former teachers, my classmates, even my best friend. As my life increasingly diverged from the lives of my relatives back in China and the time in between phone calls grew longer and longer, I wondered if I would one day lose them, too.
In 2019, a year before the world was engulfed by the pandemic and international travel became nearly impossible, I returned to China for the first time. The trip assuaged my fears of a rift too wide to bridge between my relatives and me. I finally met my 7-year-old cousin in person and drew cartoons with her. I ate platters of steaming tomato-and-egg dumplings with my aunts and uncles while discussing the job market and the global economy. I watched television with my grandparents, who looked exactly the same, cooked the same dishes, and treated me with the same patience and love as they did a decade and a half ago, as if nothing had changed in all the years in between.
But the simple truth was difficult to ignore: many things had changed. My fantasies of a triumphant homecoming could be sustained until I misused a verb or forgot the correct noun. To say nothing of proverbs: I felt like the textbook example of zhǐ lù wéi mǎ — “pointing at a deer and calling it a horse” — whenever a local greeted me with a warm smile.
This feeling that I could fit in only when I was playing pretend grew stronger with each interaction where my otherness was noticed. On a taxi ride to the train station in Jinan, my hometown, the cab driver asked me why I was in such a rush — “You don’t need to wait in line for a ticket; just show them your state ID.” I didn’t have an ID card, I told him. “Oh,” he paused. “You look just like a Chinese person.”
I heard this refrain from university students, from shop vendors, even from some more distant family members. I spent most of my life in America, but I grew up confident in my Chinese identity, culture, and heritage. I was born in China. I recited Tang poetry before I could spell the word “dog” in English. I was both liberated and comforted by the indisputable fact of my Chinese identity.
As a result, I didn’t feel the need to buy into the same monolithic stereotypes about Asians that my peers grappled with. I explored my interests in the humanities freely, majoring in English and sociology. But when I went back to China for the first time since my emigration to the U.S., I was deeply shaken by how fragile the narrative that defined my identity proved to be.
To the people I met in Beijing, I had once been Chinese. Now I was not. At first, I was Chinese until I opened my mouth. Then I was Chinese until I mixed up characters. (On one memorable occasion, I spent ten minutes asking workers at the train station where my “turkey” was, having confused the words for “plane” and “train.”) By the time my study abroad program concluded, I could pass for Chinese until I took out my passport.
The cover of my passport clearly marked me as American, but what was I culturally, if not Chinese? No one had an answer that I was satisfied with. To Americans, I am Chinese. To at least some of the Chinese people I encountered, I am at best an anomaly. A classmate, drawing inspiration from the well-known term “ABC,” tried to come up with a catchy label for me: “CBC” — Chinese-born Chinese.
That didn’t sound quite right either. For immigrants who empathize with elements of multiple cultures, there is no “right” way to exist near the edges of spaces, to perpetually reside at boundaries delineating what is familiar and known from the strange and different. Sometimes, there is just no clear resolution. And therein lies the problem.
For a while, I resented my parents for their decision to immigrate all those years ago. Had I stayed in China, I thought, I could have avoided these issues, the constant sensation that I was doing something not right. Immigrant narratives frequently discuss the sacrifices made by parents. I instead fixated on how I had to sacrifice all that I had known — an understanding of language deep in my bones but evanescent on my tongue, an assumption of belonging, a fundamental certainty in my identity — only to be gifted with an inescapable sensation of otherness.
I did not know what to do with the unwanted gift. Later, however, after more reflection, I realized that my parents and their parents had to struggle with the same legacy. Over the past three generations, by necessity and through ingenuity, members of my family have migrated from rural villages where they knew almost everyone to big cities where they must rely solely on themselves.
My grandparents moved from their agricultural ancestral hometowns to make a new home in a higher-tier urban center. To provide for her children, my grandmother learned photography and biked around town to take portraits, while my grandfather, who worked in mining and geology, conducted field research in faraway mountains.
My parents continued that pattern of migration when they departed for another country altogether. Along the way, they’ve lost friends and accumulated degrees, abandoned old habits for new lifestyles. They developed new skills — my father performs vasectomies on mice at his job — and fumbled through awkward interactions with coworkers in a language they couldn’t fluently speak.
The discomfort of being outsiders is now ingrained in my family’s history, but so is a commitment to preserving and enriching the ties that connect us. Despite living in vastly disparate contexts, the members of my family are still able to find common ground with each other — a remarkable achievement, considering how little context we share on a daily basis.
As a case in point, I called my grandma from Alaska to tell her that I had eaten whale. I was traveling around the state and had just attended a ceremony where one of the participants had brought muktuk. Several days later, I fell ill. My grandmother, who has a home remedy for every malady under the sun, called to share her suspicions that the culprit was the whale I had eaten. Apparently, consuming fish causes inflammation.
After my initial confusion faded — weren’t whales mammals? — and my cold disappeared on its own, I was able to appreciate the sentiment behind her recommendation. Knowing little about whales, my grandmother assumed that it was a type of fish due to the characters in its name. Her mistaken advice nevertheless warmed my heart. Even though the last time I had seen her was almost two years ago, my grandmother cared enough about me to reach out to dispense the limited knowledge she had on the subject.
Like many others in this day and age, my family does not adhere to the Confucian ideal of four-generations under one roof. We are scattered across cities — Beijing, Shanghai, Jinan, Tangshan — and continents. Six thousand miles, an ocean, and a half-day-long flight separate me from my relatives in China. Yet it takes just a few seconds to make a video call on WeChat. Theoretically speaking, it is possible to have four generations under one metaphorical roof anywhere.
My multigenerational family of migrants has been crafting this metaphorical roof since before I was born. For my relatives, distance and time differences can be overcome. They recognize that time spent apart doesn’t necessarily dilute the strength of a relationship, and actively work to maintain the relations that sustain the family. More crucial than living in one house is the determination and initiative to remain in contact — to create shared spaces for conversation regardless of physical location.
Being an immigrant often feels challenging. Sometimes different cultural values resist reconciliation. Sometimes the yearning for an unqualified sense of belonging becomes almost overwhelming. On these days, I am particularly grateful for my family. I have the privilege of belonging to a household that is not held together by arbitrary social structures, but rather has emerged organically from sentiment — shared understandings, compassion, acceptance, and love.
Tianru Wang was born in Jinan, Shandong province, and grew up in Los Angeles. After studying English and sociology at Yale University, she worked in economic development in Alaska, where she supported entrepreneurs and artists across the state. In her spare time, Tianru enjoys photography and weaving. She is attending law school in the fall.
(Header image: Visual elements from Gary Waters and majivecka/VCG, reedited by Sixth Tone)