How to Be Chinese

Celeste Ng

Take pleasure in the surprise on people’s faces when you say, “My name is Mackenzie Altman.” When they ask, explain that yes, your mother adopted you from China; no, you don’t know your birth parents; no, you don’t speak the language. Smile politely when they say you have no accent.

At eighteen, accept a place at a small liberal arts school in Ohio, four hours away, just over the state border. According to the website, the incoming freshman class is 450. Its average Asian population is three percent. Do the math: thirteen and a half Asians in your class. Try not to think about who the half is. Announce to your mother that you want to get in touch with your heritage: make it a going-to-college resolution. She will be delighted. “Kenz,” she will say, “Oh Kenz, I’m so proud.” She has wanted this since you were an infant, since she carried you off the Beijing–Detroit flight swaddled in a Minnie Mouse blanket. She has taken you to a Chinese restaurant on your birthday every year; she has always bought you panda teddy bears, the Asian Barbie. Your mother will kiss you, her eyes glossy with tears.

Don’t bring up the difficulties of learning to be Chinese in the middle of Michigan. Don’t remind her that except for the waiters at The Pearl of the Orient, you have never met another Chinese person. Don’t tell her you have no idea where to begin.

Begin with a false start. In your first week of college, join the Chinese Students Association. At the introductory meeting, in a conference room in the union, there are fourteen of you. Look around and think, “This is what China must be like.” Then blush. Look around and think, “My god, we all do look alike.” This meeting’s get-acquainted activity is mahjong. The other students are all international, from Beijing and Shanghai, with vaguely British accents. Pull a chair up to the corner of a table. “Watch,” one girl says. “We’ll teach you how.” It is glamorous, like The Joy Luck Club. Prop your elbows on the table and feel porous, ready to soak up culture.

Except you have no idea what’s going on. In the middle of an English sentence a patch of Chinese will pop up, sudden as switching the station on the radio. “My boyfriend, you know, he m-m-m-m. And I said, you know, I don’t think m-m-m really m-mm, but it’s like m-m-m.” Parts fall out of the conversation like paper snowflakes you cut out in kindergarten, mostly holes. You want to ask the girl next to you to translate, but you glance at her name tag and don’t know how to pronounce what’s there. Xiaoxia. She looks over at you and smiles.

“Do you get it?” she asks. Four pairs of hands stack mahjong tiles into brick walls. Suddenly the table is a tiny fortress with you on the outside. Nod and smile. Tell her you have to go. Forget to say thank you on your way out the door.

Begin again, in that most American of all places: McDonald’s. October. You’re at the register waiting for your Big Mac when a voice behind you says, “What would you recommend?” 

“What?” you say, turning. This is a question you associate with steak houses, with restaurants that have specials. The boy behind you is Chinese too, hands tucked into pockets, a soft doglike expression in his eyes. Wonder if this boy is screwing with you. You get your order and the cashier turns to the boy, who points to your tray and says, “I’ll have the same.”

Ask him about himself as you peel the paper from your burgers. He tells you his name, Winston Liu; that his family moved to the U.S. a few months ago from Hong Kong and lives half an hour away; that he’s a freshman too. Marvel in unison about how you haven’t met until now. Listen to Winston’s voice for a trace of an accent, but don’t find one until he says the word strawberry. After that you can hear it everywhere: a faint Britishness in the vowels, a slight mingling of L and N, the hard ch when he says Chicago. It’s sexy, the way the voice and the face don’t match; like artfully clashing clothing, like mussed-up hair.

“Say something in Chinese,” you tell him.

“Like what?”

“Like anything.”

He thinks for a moment, then says something. English words lurk in the sounds: Jaw, deem, naugahyde.
“What does that mean?” you ask.

“‘Pardon me, miss, my hotel room is full of monkeys.’”

Lean across the speckled plastic table and kiss him. His lips taste of salt and ketchup, which you find strangely exotic. Don’t realize that this is the taste of your own mouth as well.

For your first date Winston takes you to dinner. There are two Chinese restaurants in town, in strip malls across the street from each other. Peking Garden is the one you know. It has tasteful, smoky watercolors of mountains on the walls, and each sugar packet teaches you the name of a Chinese boat: sampan, junk. But the food comes on pink and white Corningware; the waiters bring coffee after the meal without asking, and they’re all students, white kids with the same flat midwestern tones as you and your mother and everyone you know. Winston takes you to the other one, Happy Buddha, which is tucked between Office Max and the Home Depot. Everyone says it’s much more authentic and, as a result, when you go in on Saturday evening, you’re the only customers there.

Look around to see what it’s like in a real Chinese restaurant. The tablecloths are pink and the napkins maroon. The teacups don’t have handles. Honeycomb balls of red paper and gold plastic bats dangle from joins in the ceiling tile. Worry that your people have bad taste. A woman croons in Chinese over the speaker system. Sit in a corner booth and imagine you’re in China. In a minute you recognize the tune being piped in: it’s the theme from Titanic.

The waiter at Happy Buddha is the age your father would be, if you had a father, with skin the deep tan of tea. He has an accent and needs a haircut. When he asks if you want ice water, his tone is almost an accusation, and it takes you a minute to understand what he’s said. Say, “Yes please,” and smile brightly. Try not to be disappointed when he doesn’t smile back.

Winston skips the moo shu and the lo mein and the General Tso’s chicken, all the things you and your mother love, and orders dishes you’ve never heard of. “You sure?” the waiter says. He looks at you out of the corner of his eye. Then he says something to Winston in Chinese, and Winston looks at you and nods. Nod too, as if you understand. The waiter finally scrawls a few characters on his notepad. After he goes off to put in your order, ask,

“What did he say?”

“Oh,” Winston says, “he wanted to know if you were Chinese.”

The food, when it comes, isn’t bad, but it’s strange. Its textures unnerve you: blocks of tofu the consistency of your mother’s flan; crispy yellow noodles and brown gravy and knuckles of spareribs that are mostly bone. The waiter watches you eat from across the room, sitting at another table and smoking a cigarette. Try not to catch his eye as you put sugar in your tea, as the spareribs slip from your chopsticks again and you reach for a fork.

When dinner’s over, Winston pays with a fifty-dollar bill. Then he goes to the bathroom, and the waiter says something to you that you can’t quite make out. Say, “Hmm?” and miss it again. You can’t understand until he says, quite clearly, “Do you want to take this home?” and you realize it isn’t the accent: he’d been speaking Chinese. Say, “Yes, please, wrap it up,” and hope he doesn’t notice how red you’ve become.

While you wait for your doggie bag, look at the placemat, now stained with grease and drops of brown sauce. Find your birth year and learn that you are a dragon. It makes you think of yourself as sleek and powerful and assured, not small and traitorous. It says: You are determined and passionate, a quick learner. Look the waiter in the eye when he returns and tell yourself that the look in his eyes isn’t pity.

After Winston drives you back to your dorm, wait for him to leave, then slip across the street to Pinocchio’s and order two slices of pepperoni. Clap them between two paper plates and smuggle them back to your room to eat alone, with a rerun of Friends on.

A few weeks later, Winston calls and asks if you’d like to meet his mother for Sunday brunch. She comes down to visit, he says, every couple of weeks. Hide your surprise. You’ve gone out a few times—to a safe PG-13 comedy, and to the first football game of the season, where you held his hand in the pocket of his coat and tried to explain what a blitz was. You haven’t even mentioned him to your own mother yet. Is it time, you think, to meet parents?
“She really wants to meet you,” Winston says. “She thinks it’s wonderful that I’m meeting other Chinese students.” Feel a rush of warmth, like a deep hug. Wonder about this woman: a Chinese mother. What does she look like? You can picture only your mother with her hair dyed black. Say, “All right, what time?”

Winston decides on The Vineyard, the wood-paneled restaurant everyone takes visiting parents to. By the time you get there, two minutes early, he and his mother are already seated at a white-clothed table. Mrs. Liu wears a fur coat, dark and sleek, and two gold necklaces. On her left index finger is a circle of jade the size of a dime.

“Mackenzie,” she says. She holds out her hand but doesn’t shake yours, so that you end up grasping the tips of her fingers like the corner of a wet dishcloth. “You so thin,” she says. For a moment you think she’s going to pinch your cheek.

“Thank you,” you say after a pause, and she smiles at you with her lipsticked lips closed, as if you’ve made a mistake. She orders a cup of fruit salad and a croissant, and you feel vaguely disappointed at the Europeanness of it, though you and Winston have both ordered waffles, with bacon.  

“What your mommy do?” Mrs. Liu asks.

“An architect,” you tell her.

“And your daddy?”

You have a stock answer, a stock tone for this.

“Oh, it’s just my mom and me,” you say. “She adopted me as a single mom. Just the two of us girls.”

“Mm-hm,” she says, as if you’ve said something fascinating.

Winston’s mother is a feng shui expert. Feng shui, as far as you can tell, is good luck through interior design. She doesn’t work. His father is some kind of businessman, in China a lot. This week he’s in Shanghai. Mrs. Liu asks what your major is, and you tell her you haven’t decided yet. When she lifts her eyebrows, add, “But I’m thinking of East Asian Studies.”

“You want to learn about your culture,” Mrs. Liu says. “That’s gooooood.” She draws out the last word like she’s spinning a thread of silk. Then she smiles, a real smile this time, and slices a chunk of cantaloupe with the side of her fork.

“You adopted?” At your nod, she says, “Very important, you learn about your culture.” The way she says it, like an edict, makes you feel entitled. Culture glistens in the distance, like the prize in a scavenger hunt.

After that, brunch follows a pattern. Mrs. Liu speaks to you in Chinese. You can pick out only your name, which comes out like three words: Ma. Ken. Zee. Smile blankly while Winston says, “Mom, remember? Mackenzie doesn’t speak Chinese.” Mrs. Liu apologizes, patting your hand with hers, which is pale and cool and soft, like a little satin cushion. “You keep listening, you pick it up,” she says each time. “You born with it, inside you understand it. In here.” She taps her chest.

Don’t tell them about the package in your mailbox last month, the eight-CD set of Introductory Chinese from Barnes & Noble, the note from your mother saying, “Picked up one for myself too—we can learn together.” Lesson One: “How are you? I am an American. I speak a little Chinese, but I don’t speak well.” In your mouth the words tasted strange as gravel. Don’t tell them how Lesson Two bewildered you, how you forgot the word order, how you jumbled the words for “eat” and “is,” the words for “buy” and “sell.” How when your mother called last week, sounding like the woman on the tape, you understood nothing until she spoke in English. “Do you want to have a drink at my place? Lesson Eight: Meeting People.” After a moment: “Are you not there yet?” Try to forget the care package that arrived yesterday, chocolate-chunk cookies, hot cocoa mix, tortilla chips and salsa, a note from your mother that read, “I promise to stop propositioning you.” Focus instead on Mrs. Liu’s eyes, the same deep brown as yours. Chant her words in your mind: you born with it, inside you understand it.

After the meal, say goodbye in the parking lot. Mrs. Liu takes your hand and the jade in her ring presses into your fingers. She says, “Mackenzie, I buy a lot of art for our new house, Chinese art. Maybe you want to come and see it? Learn about your culture?”

“I’d love to,” you say. Behind her, Winston beams.

“Good,” she says, and gets into the car. Winston pecks you on the cheek and whispers, “Call you later,” and they’re gone in a streak of pale gold Lexus.

That night, go over to Winston’s room. Kick off your shoes and sink down onto the bed. Like you, like most other freshman, he has a single; the university believes it prevents rooming conflicts. But the rooms in his building are older, and awkwardly shaped: the desk has to go in the niche in the wall, the bed in the corner, with the closet at its foot.

“So that was my mother,” he says, looking at you sideways from the chair.

“She’s nice,” you say.

“She likes you. She wants you to come by the house. Next weekend, maybe.”

You feel a tingle in your shoulders and feel his eyes resting on you. Don’t meet them. Survey the built-in mirror on the closet door, the cinderblock walls painted dingy off-white.

Winston says, “So your mom adopted you alone?” Tell him yes. Tell him, “Nowadays that’s not allowed. Nowadays there are more rules. You have to be married. You have to be straight. You can’t be blind, or hard of hearing, or have a wooden leg or epilepsy or someone else’s kidney. Nowadays they screen you to make sure you’re not a criminal, or a crazy.”

Don’t explain that she’d always wanted a baby but never found the right man, that when she read that China was opening its orphanages she’d cried right there in the coffee shop, tears spotting the newspaper. That when she came to China to pick you up she had horrible stomach cramps all sixteen hours, threw up three times into one paper bag and another and another, as if her body were atoning for the lack of labor. Don’t tell him that when she first picked you up in her arms, she whispered, Hello beautiful, where have you been all my life? These are private stories. Push them to the back of your mind and give Winston your biggest ironic smile. Say, “Good thing my mother acted fast.”