An Immigrant Returns: Feeling Like a Tourist

Diners at a restaurant in Beijing. (Photo by kattebelletje, Creative Commons license)

Diners at a restaurant in Beijing. (Photo by kattebelletje, Creative Commons license)

This is the first of three articles written for Voices of NY by Rong Xiaoqing, a reporter with Sing Tao Daily in New York.

The hotel in Beijing seemed high-class, with uniformed doormen at the entrance and an expensive café and bar in the lobby. The front desk staffers were elegantly dressed. The one who served me, a beautiful young lady, flipped through my Chinese passport, and asked with a friendly smile: “Ma’am, where is your visa page?”

NYIEI was perplexed. Had 13 hours in a cramped economy-class seat on a Delta flight and the excitement of visiting my home country after a six-year absence diminished my comprehension?

Ten minutes and a few supervisors later, the hapless woman finally understood that people holding a Chinese passport are Chinese citizens who, even if they lived overseas, don’t need a visa to come back to their own country.

I checked in and thought it was merely a funny tale to share with friends. Little did I know it was a harbinger of other events and encounters during my three-week vacation in China. I may be a Chinese citizen. But I am no longer Chinese in the way that people who live there are. And everyone could tell but me.

I came to the U.S. an international student in 2000, and before this latest trip, only returned to China twice. The first time was in the summer of 2001, when, still struggling with the cultural shock in the U.S., it felt so good – and comfortable – to be back at home. And I visited in 2008 when my parents were still living there, a factor that largely defines “home.”

But this September, with my mom having died in 2012, and my dad living in the U.S. with my sister, I found myself a tourist in my home country. I wondered whether I was that different from the foreigners who snap pictures and stare open-mouthed at the giant flashing billboards in Times Square.

Reporter Rong Xiaoqing in Chinatown, NY (Photo by Julius Motal for Voices of NY)

Reporter Rong Xiaoqing in Chinatown, NY (Photo by Julius Motal for Voices of NY)

Dinners out with uncles, aunts, cousins and old friends were warm and cozy as I expected. No forced smiles, no awkward silences, and no calculated political correctness. We talked to one another in exactly the same way we did before, as if we had never been separated by time and distance.

But the familiarity evaporated when the restaurant bill arrived. I hadn’t forgotten the deeply rooted custom in China of fighting to pay for meals as a way to demonstrate a willingness to take care of family and friends. But I lost the battle every time, a failure rate I had never suffered before I left for the U.S.

Eventually I had to admit I was out of practice, too slow to pull out my wallet, too stupid to know that most restaurants in China do not accept international credit cards, and too self-conscious to fight publicly over a check.

My American customs didn’t work well either. At a boutique hotel in Hangzhou, I left a minimal tip in the room when I checked out. Before I had finished settling the hotel bill at the front desk, the phone rang. A staffer picked up the phone. “Ma’am,” she said. “The cleaning lady said you forgot to take your money on the table.”

It almost brought tears to my eyes. Big cities in China look increasingly similar to American ones these days. But there are still people, despite their low wages, who will serve you without expecting any gratuity — a rarity in the U.S.

But that warm feeling didn’t always prevail. At a train station in Nanjing, I was so glad to see everyone standing in a queue rather than swarming at the ticket window. But when I was just behind the yellow line and waiting for the customer at the window to finish his business, the man behind me suddenly jumped in front of me. Then he looked back at me and said: “Are you trying to buy a ticket? If not, don’t stand in the line.”

Only then did I realize that no one was observing the yellow line and people all stood no more than two inches behind one another. China is still a country where once you are in public, there is no privacy.

I was probably too fascinated by discoveries like these, and stunned by the rapid transition of feelings between bitter and sweet, that I didn’t realize that at some point during the trip I must have started missing America.

On the way back, when I was transferring at Detroit, I posted two new photos on WeChat, a Facebook-like social media platform popular among Chinese. One was of the home page of Google, which has not been accessible in China since it withdrew from the market in 2010 after a censorship dispute with the Chinese government. The other, taken at the airport in Detroit, was of a crisp blue sky with a few white clouds – a rare view in China, where air quality has worsened markedly in recent years.

A few minutes later, a friend in China posted under the photos: “Finally getting back from home country to home?”

The words echoed in my mind for a long time. I don’t know when this happened, or how. But he was right, the “home country” is no longer “home.” China has changed, and so have I. One cannot step twice into the same river. I wonder whether Heraclitus felt pain when he realized this more than 2,000 years ago.

But when I reflect on it, I feel relieved. Isn’t it good that a river moves forward? And isn’t a person lucky to be able to have a home country and a home, both of which she loves, and the rich mine of delicate, complicated emotions between the two that she can savor all by herself?

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