Our time in Zhuhai is halfway over. I’ve been in China for four weeks now, and in four weeks from now, I will be back home in America. By now, I am used to walking 15-20 minutes to school in the hot and humid weather, crossing streets with chaotic traffic, teaching classes outside or in rooms with no air conditioning, carrying tissue paper with me wherever I go because there is no toilet paper in public restrooms or napkins in restaurants, eating a home-cooked Chinese meal with my host family, and paying for everything in cash with Yuan instead of a credit card. Here I am, staying in China, experiencing China, but at the end of the day, I know that this routine that I’ve settled into is not my life. After this program is over, I get to go home to America where my life will be back to normal. I’ll be in a two-story, single family home instead of an apartment. I’ll be in buildings with central air conditioning instead of a stifling room with a fan. I’ll be able to drive my car to get to a destination instead of walking everywhere. I’ve thought a lot about my life in America and the extraordinary amount of privilege I have as an American this week because of something Hsiao-Mei said during group reflection: “For those of you with Chinese heritage, did you ever think about what your life would be like if your family hadn’t moved to America? You would be just like one of the students at Zhuhai No. 9 Middle School.” That statement hit me hard. If my dad hadn’t moved to America from Hong Kong and if my mom’s parents hadn’t moved to America from China, all of these things in my superficial routine would be my life. I would always walk to school in hot and humid weather. I would sit in a crowded room at school with no air conditioning, trying to learn. I would have to worry about the zhong kao and gao kao, the high school and college entrance examinations, and my score on those exams would determine my future. I might have seen Duke students coming to my school from America and been amazed at how different their lives were from mine. I might have been that shy student in one of their English classes, too afraid to speak up out of the fear of saying something wrong. But that is not my life. My life is the life of a privileged American college student with a smartphone, a laptop, and a car who has the opportunity to visit China for service for a couple of months but then will go back home. And why is that? Why do I get to have this privilege? It is not because of anything I have done to deserve it. It is because my parents and grandparents worked hard to get to America so that I could be given all of these opportunities. My dad often reminds me of how lucky I am to have the opportunities that I have, but I’ve never truly felt the weight of my privilege until now. I fear I have not shown my family enough appreciation for everything they have provided for me, but I hope to be able to show them more gratitude in the future.
During group reflection, Hsiao-Mei also challenged us to get to know our host community on a deeper level and learn more about Chinese culture and history. My host sister, Wendy, is extremely energetic and loves playing games and talking with me, but she is also very hard-working and studious. Some nights she goes to sleep later than me because she has a lot of homework, and she takes three classes on the weekends in addition to her regular classes at school. When I was in middle school, I sometimes thought I had too much work to do, but it was nothing compared to the amount Wendy has now. Despite her heavy workload, she always tries to make sure I am happy and having fun. Every evening she asks me about how my day was and if there is anything I want. If we do anything together like playing a game or eating food, she asks me if I like it and if I’m having fun. One day when I was feeling down because a couple of my students said some disrespectful words to me, Wendy noticed and offered to find and talk to the students for me. I admire how kind and thoughtful she is to me, and in some ways, she seems more mature and independent than I was at her age. I hope to connect with Wendy and the rest of my host family more during my time here, because I’ve realized that I do not actually know a lot about them and their stories even though I interact with them every day.
In terms of Chinese history and culture, I will admit that I know very little even though I have Chinese heritage. When I was younger, I never listened to my dad when he was trying to teach me Chinese or tell me about Chinese history. I am not entirely sure why, but I think that a part of me was always trying to reject my Chinese heritage because at school, I was one of very few kids who looked Asian. So, to most of my classmates, I was odd because I didn’t fit in with the rest of them, but I wanted to. By the time I got to high school, I had accepted that I was a Chinese American, but then I met other Chinese Americans who spoke Chinese and knew more about Chinese culture. So, I once again felt like I didn’t fit in anywhere because I was not American enough for the other Americans but I wasn’t Chinese enough for the Chinese Americans. At that time, I started wanting to learn about my heritage but I was too afraid because I was so far behind everyone else I thought there was no point in trying. I would always not fit in with either group. However, this trip to China is helping me get over that fear and sparking my interest. I hid from my heritage when I was younger, but now I am starting to embrace it. Sure, I may currently know less than other Asian Americans do about their heritage because I had a relatively “American “ upbringing, but that doesn’t matter. Here, I now have the perfect opportunity. I have been ignorant for too long. I will learn.