Familiar Strangers, Strange Familiars

Which flag do you fly? the man sitting next to me on the train asks, carefully looking at me. I’ve been staring out the window for the past three hours, using my iPhone to document Chinese landscapes of Olympian construction sites and fields of trees planted with military precision. I’m confused and a little scared by his question, so I answer, I have an American passport. He seems satisfied. You’re a foreigner, he says. When he extracts his wallet to pay for a foil-wrapped meal, I see a red hammer and sickle on his identification card.

A photo of the author and her cousin in their grandfather’s bedroom in Fuzhou, China.

A photo of the author and her cousin in their grandfather’s bedroom in Fuzhou, China.

When I was five years old, I left home with a stranger I was told to call Auntie Wang. I had been living with my grandparents since I was born, with only faint memories of my parents, who left for the United States when I was a toddler. I don’t recall how I was informed of my family’s decision to send me to the US, but I do remember the sting of my immunization shots and being suddenly put on a diet of English vocabulary. My grandparents’ strategy for minimizing my terrified crying was to assure me I could return to China after a week if I didn’t like living with my parents in the US. At the airport, I tried to hold Auntie Wang’s stone hand; my chattering was greeted with silence. I had thought I was going to attend first grade with my best friend, Wang Fan. I was going to catch tadpoles in a lotion jar, eat fireflies in the waning light, spit brown gum into the twisted concrete pond full of lily pads. In old photos my home is a haze of gray quadrangles, but I remember it as the yellow of ducks and the viridian corduroy of my winter coat. I boarded the plane with a faint recollection of my mother’s voice dissolving unevenly into the black thread of a cassette tape.

In the air I had no books to read and my chaperone closed her eyes in exhaustion. So I slipped away to hide — but after I accidentally locked myself in the bathroom I cried hysterically, throwing my fists against the door as I succumbed to nightmares of being abandoned in the airplane after its arrival in the United States. I did not trust Auntie Wang to come searching for me, but she was the one who kicked open the door and pulled me out. It was June. Sticky in Luoyang, heavy with the heated cries of cicadas.

The author, being held by an uncle.

The author, being held by an uncle.

For a long time after I left, I saw China as a second home, sometimes more of a home than our wooded split-level in suburban New England, where people working at CVS would occasionally ask me if I spoke English. My parents cheered for the Chinese national team during the Olympics and once took me to a Women’s World Cup match at Gillette Stadium, where I joined them in humming along to the Chinese national anthem, which I didn’t know. They live in Northern California now. Their local Costco carries tubs of ghee, halo-halo ice cream, and freeze-dried packs of Chinese sausage. My mother barely speaks English anymore.

After five years of living in San Francisco, I mustered enough confidence to call it home. And then I moved to Berkeley.

A July 4 dinner at the author’s parents’ home in Fremont, California.

A July 4 dinner at the author’s parents’ home in Fremont, California.

Time skates back to find me in a figure eight. I’m slow to play catch-up. Familial time, geological time: change doesn’t register in the body until it has moved beyond visibility. Only now do I begin to realize what it means for me to exist as a propagation of genomic material and countless environments, lives lived and lost, a catch-cloth of residues. Umbrellas splashed with dirt-laden rain, villages of trash, and rivers white with waste distributed across summers in China have taught me their lessons year by year. Statistics and figures and graphs are only the flat faces of a two-degree increase in temperature, increased desertification, decreased crop yields. As Timothy Morton writes in The Ecological Thought, “even the time of living and dying takes a stretch of the imagination.” Cognition only grazes the surface of time, which moves between the “mesh” of people, place and beings “animal, vegetable, or mineral” like an electric current.

I am taken with Morton’s dissection of the Western notion of ecology as “earthbound,” especially when he notes, “we also want ecology to be about location and the local. It must feel like home, we must recognize it and think it in terms of the here and now.” But what if home feels like nowhere, and nowhere feels like home? In China, I tell people that my home — my 家— is in the United States. Meanwhile, I am stymied by the same question when it is asked here. “California” is considered an insufficient answer in many parts of this country, and it feels pointless to speculate about why I’ve received the question Where are you from? far more frequently than its origin-less analogue, Where do you call home? I may be from China, and while it is a home, it is not home, in the unqualified, absolute sense. A foreigner everywhere, a local nowhere, a floating fish out of water. Yet what if we find ourselves increasingly able to collapse “home,” “here,” and “anywhere”? What if home really is found in inter-relationality — most apparent in our family, but also in connection with the beings, objects, landscapes, and other living and non-living elements with which we share a space? If we associate locality with ideas of “home,” and “home” is an unbounded site, can we see the “local” as a designation to be claimed, rather than a temporally or geographically defined proximity?

In Chinese, the character for “home”, 家, is synonymous with the word for “family.” 回家, to return home. 看家里的人, to see family, the people of the home. 别客气,这是你的家,don’t be polite, we are your family, this is your home. (My father’s family used to tell me, with pride, that Zheng is one of the most popular surnames in the province of Fujian, of which Fuzhou is the capital.) Through this rhizomatic set of relations, you can ostensibly find home anywhere in the world, and maybe in the future and the past, too. I’ve been told that we have relatives in Russia and Singapore, and that one great-great-uncle labored in the gardens of San Francisco residents nearly a century ago, before he died young and was interred in an unmarked grave. My physical alienation from China means that whatever home I create will be, in part, a fiction — a China of the mind, a chimera fused with past dreams, present concerns, and future projections.

A distant aunt in Fuzhou, whom I did not recognize. She, however, knew me by name.

A distant aunt in Fuzhou, whom I did not recognize. She, however, knew me by name.

I used to tell relatives in China that I was from Luoyang and they would correct me by telling me that one’s hometown is inherited from one’s father. This meant that mine was Fuzhou, where I was neither born nor raised. I visited when I was eleven, for my Nai Nai’s funeral. I remember approaching the entrance of the village — Jiangbian, by the river — and seeing that it was encircled by a milky, marble-gray creek of trash, a toxic moat dotted with islands of plastic detritus. I remember dogs with matted fur and sagging nipples sipping from it. I remember a funerary parade through the village, the entire community in mourning, burning paper money, clothes, houses, cars, and televisions for my grandmother to enjoy in the afterlife.

This June, I asked my grandfather and aunt to take me back to Jiangbian, where our ancestral home was slated for demolition at the end of the year to make way for a shopping mall and a “Commercial Business District.” The house was erected during the Qing Dynasty and had housed many generations of our family, who possess a clan plaque in the village community altar. I don’t know what will happen to village altar when the demolition takes place. I wonder how my relatives’ notions of “home” — and mine, too — will change once they move into the brand-new condominiums with which the government has supplied them. In Jiangbian, distant family members I had not spoken with in years — and whose names I hardly knew — spent days preparing a banquet for our arrival. I said thank you, thank you for your hospitality. My Po Po looked hurt and said, don’t thank me, this is your home. Will it still be my home after the land has been excavated and gridded with glass and concrete? Will it still be my home when my father is no longer alive?

My Po Po laughed as she asked, What is there to take a photo of?

My Po Po laughed as she asked, What is there to take a photo of?

Our home in Jiangbian, slated for demolition later this year.

Our home in Jiangbian, slated for demolition later this year.

It is hard to overlook the pollution in China when you visit. Lifetimes of development are compressed into years, months, weeks — my own mother barely recognizes her hometown of Luoyang. Can you believe that even Luoyang is getting a subway system? she asks me incredulously. A recent Google search for “Luoyang, China” yielded a photo of my birthplace in a CBS News photo essay titled “Extreme photos of pollution.” The first image in the essay is of a young woman bent at a river the color of pomegranate juice, with a two-paragraph caption that begins as a lecture: “These pictures illustrate the importance of reducing greenhouse emissions and curbing the flow of harmful pollutants into the environment.” Media coverage about Chinese environmental issues takes on a persistently strident tone: a selection of headlines from the New York Times section titled “China and the Environment” includes “Why Build Kenya’s First Coal Plant? Hint: Think China” (February 2018), “The World Is Embracing SUVs. That’s Bad News for the Climate” (March 2018), and “In a High-Stakes Environmental Whodunit, Many Clues Point to China” (June 2018). My favorite might be “Life in China, Smothered by Smog,” from December 2016.

China as metonym, via Google Search. (Search conducted on September 6, 2018.)

China as metonym, via Google Search. (Search conducted on September 6, 2018.)

Last spring, I began to interrogate my deeply encoded readings of China as a toxic, morally gray place blighted by fake baby formula, smog, and mountains of garbage. In the essay “Toxic Animacies, Inanimate Affections,” Mel Y. Chen observes Western media’s coding of toxic drywall from China as a biological threat, positing that this reading “metaphorized as war” and acted as a “symptomatic signifier of a war of capital flows.” Chen writes that the conditions of labor — and here I insert or pollution — need “to be made just visible enough to facilitate a territorial/state/racial assignation of blame, but often not enough to generally extend the ring of sympathetic concern around affected peoples.”

I can trace my own slow acculturation into this narrative, starting as early as 2004. While researching this essay, I was inspired to dig up photos from family trips to China. I used to title these pictures with commentary, and images from that time have names such as “and the water is CLEAN,” “why is the sky blue here,” and “a little spot of oxygen in a city of carbon monoxide.” The force of my own position, even as a high-school teenager, astounds me. I wanted so much to be American, was so afraid of being seen as vulnerable to Chinese propaganda. Unlike those people, living over there.

Teenage insecurities.

Teenage insecurities.

Again, I find myself turning to Chen. In their paper “Racialized Toxins and Sovereign Fantasies” — which defines a sovereign fantasy as “the national or imperial project of absolute rule and authority” — Chen traces the panic-ridden construction of a “master toxicity narrative” about Chinese products since 2005, and how it subsumed the earlier (perhaps more realistic) narrative of domestic lead toxicity among Black children living in impoverished neighborhoods in the United States. I distinctly recall my own fear after seeing news reports from that period vigorously warning Americans of the dangers of Chinese-made products, and the 109 Amazon reviews for a memoir titled A Year Without ‘Made in China’: One Family’s True Life Adventure in the Global Economy encapsulate for me the hysteria surrounding US consumer dependence on Chinese manufacturing. The “trade war” that erupted last summer suggests that these fears have only grown in potency over the past decade. Citing Priscilla Wald’s research demonstrating that scientific accuracy yields to mythical representations when faced with strong narrative demands, Chen mounts a convincing argument for how “the Black children who disappeared from the lead representations [in the mid-2000s] did so precisely because the new lead was tied to ideas of vulnerable sovereignty and xenophobia, ideas that demanded an elsewhere (at least not interior US) as their ground.”

Chen’s ideas forced me to consider how frequently I hear about the “return” of toxicity to US soil, and rarely about the consequences of our psychologically and materially toxic activities abroad. While scouring the internet for stock images of “Chinese pollution,” I stumbled upon an article titled “China formally notifies World Trade Organization that it will no longer receive foreign trash,” which circulated on Chinese media in July 2017.

A sampling of the more than 8,000 comments in response to the Weibo article “China formally notifies WTO that it will no longer receive foreign trash.”

A sampling of the more than 8,000 comments in response to the Weibo article “China formally notifies WTO that it will no longer receive foreign trash.”

Indignant, horrified, and enraged, the Chinese netizens voicing their concerns about this article are humanizing elements against the bulwark of American media depictions of apocalyptic Chinese wastelands, which often pit narratives of capitalistic endeavor against one another: one a story of successful industrial development, the other of wantonly catastrophic ruin. Their ravaged environment, which they destroyed through haphazard urbanization. Their ecological negligence as they try to follow in our footsteps. As Michael Ziser and Julie Sze argue in “Climate Change, Environmental Aesthetics, and Global Environmental Justice Cultural Studies,” global climate change “is largely the revenant environmental price of Western economic systems that have sought to concentrate environmental costs in the Third and Second Worlds.”

Chinese media had reported on the government’s new waste import requirements in mid-2017. Yet a glance at the publication dates of major articles about China’s more stringent waste import requirements suggests that this news did not generate significant attention in the US — which exported thirty-one percent of its scrap commodities to China in 2017 — until early 2018, as formerly-exportable shipments of waste plastic began to accumulate in waste disposal facilities across Europe and the US, sending recyclers scrambling to find new markets “in an effort to keep material flowing.” Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia — where will the material flow next? Did the mountain of trash that crushed seventeen people in Mozambique earlier this year find its genesis there, or abroad?

Co-inhabitants on the banks of the Yellow River, in Lanzhou, China.

Co-inhabitants on the banks of the Yellow River, in Lanzhou, China.

I needn’t look nearly that far for material evidence of a worldview that privileges certain bodies and lands over others. Here in San Francisco — touted by the Mayor’s office as the “greenest city in North America” — sits the former Superfund site of the old Naval Shipyard, right along the Bay. Once placed on the US federal government’s National Priorities List as one of the nation’s worst toxic sites, the surrounding neighborhood of Bayview-Hunters Point was — as of 2006 — also where eighty percent of San Francisco’s sewage was treated. Inhabited by a historically Black community, the surrounding neighborhood of Bayview-Hunters Point saw residents reporting high rates of asthma and other health issues. Despite an active contingent of environmental justice advocates in the neighborhood, the civil engineering firm tasked with testing and cleaning the contaminated soil at the Shipyard was permitted to continue operating in Bayview-Hunters Point for years after a 2012 investigation found that the company had falsified its data samples. The City of San Francisco’s delayed response to this crisis looks even more suspicious when one observes that the Shipyard is also the new site of a $7 billion redevelopment project from mega-developer Lennar. The Shipyard and Bayview-Hunters Point are home to communities experiencing rapid demographic, cultural, and economic change, but also communities whose political fortunes surface the question: Which bodies and lands deserve to be free of contamination?

When the plastic bottles clogging the waterways of my ancestral “hometown” across the Pacific can potentially locate their origins overseas, perhaps even from the Berkeley Recycling Center, I begin to grasp just how deeply my “homes” are entangled with one another. I also marvel at how these entanglements are not quite as fluid as they might appear to be; movement is free only in certain directions, and for the right bodies, objects and commodities. The terms of migration are written by those with access to economic power, those who fly the right flag. I am reminded of how my parents acquired most of our furniture from yard sales or as hand-me-downs when I was growing up, and how their and my domestic spaces continue to reflect this syncretism: the Van Gogh prints, the label-less Modernist armchairs, the objects designed for obsolescence yet given new life and context.

Yard sale (living room), mixed media digital collage, 2018.

Yard sale (living room), mixed media digital collage, 2018.

Which flag do you fly?

Don’t be polite, this is your home.

“Home,” that troubled mesh of the political, economic, and personal, never fully free from contamination. Maybe it’s an idea that never really belonged to any of us, after all.

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