In the summer, Shanghai smells of ripe and soured lychees, decaying melons, and bodies suffocating in the heat.
This summer will be my third in China and mark the beginning of my fourth year living abroad in Shanghai. This July will mark the three-year anniversary of having lived in this country as an expat, returning to the States for a week at most, just two or three times a year.
I still can’t get over this feeling of immigrant guilt, of adapting to a new culture, or failing to adapt to a new culture. This, being in Shanghai for three years keeps bringing me back to my first memories in America, nights spent crying on the small mattress I used for a bed at the time because I could’t express in English, because I would see friendly strangers who would say hi and I would run away in tears because I couldn’t understand them and I was embarrassed to tell them that I couldn’t understand them. I remember being unable to distinguish between the words for elbow and knee and the kids in line at recess laughing because it made no sense, then realizing days later what I had done.
And now I’m in China, and I’m grown up. And I no longer run away when my neighbor mentions something and I can’t understand what she is saying, but that same feeling, I feel it again.
I don’t think D fully understands. He has never been an immigrant. He has never had parents that embarrassed him by speaking a different language in public, or ordered food with an accent, or mispronounced such a simple word that it would make 14-year-old me want to crawl under the table and never come out.
When D speaks Chinese and I can sense the errors, it brings back years spent trying to get my parents to say ‘a’ instead of ‘the’ and getting into arguments because their grasp of the English language wasn’t what I wanted.
I spent so much of my adolescent life trying to blend into a new culture. Despite my parents’ best effort, I succeeded. So much so that it became my own, and my relatives in Russia no longer recognize me. They tell me that the Russian I speak feels translated from English. And so, after three years in China, I am unable to reconcile how my desire to be authentic to who I am with my desire to fully embrace China.
My refrigerator is packed to the brim with arugula, kalamata olives, and swiss cheese. When my parents stored leftover borsch in my refrigerator at home, I was mortified. Should I be mortified now because my refrigerator doesn’t have lajiang or fermented lotus root? If I put soy milk in my latte, does that make me Chinese?
At times, I beat myself up so much over the lack of effort I’ve put into trying to fully understand Shanghai.