The thing they do not tell you about Beijing, Eli realizes three days into his internship with Peking University, is the way people stare.
The other shocks — the toilets, the dryness, the smog—those he had expected, had been prepared for. Had been warned about a dozen times before in brochures and on blogs, by professors and by his mother—careful about the food, she had whispered as she hugged him at the terminal, their porter standing awkwardly aside with the luggage, don’t eat anything too greasy or fried. Never drink anything on an empty stomach. Always boil your water first. Try the Peking duck — it is your only chance to have it. Properly, at least. Wear a mask when you’re on the train and if you stay out long. When he had opened his suitcase that first
evening in the dorms, he had found a notebook in the top compartment, filled with neat rows of relatives’ numbers and cultural landmarks to see.
But what his mother had not mentioned, had forgotten to mention in all her lists and last-minute lectures, had been the stares.
“Wu kuai wu,” the woman at the stall says, holding out a cup of soymilk and a length of fragrant, golden dough. Weeks of routine have made theirs a practiced transaction, and now the vendor doesn’t even ask for his order when she sees him approaching. Eli hands her a five yuan note and five small coins, nods his thanks, and nibbles at the youtiao as he continues down the street, a dozen pairs of eyes burning on his back.
It isn’t their fault, of course. In many ways, China is better than America in this; in China, they see the color of his skin — too dark to be Han Chinese, but light enough to be mistaken for anything from Desi to Middle-Eastern to Latinx — and think novelty instead of threat, curiosity instead of criminal. American means bleach-blonde hair and cornflower blue eyes, and while Eli has the clothes and height associated with his nationality, he also has dark skin and curly hair and relative Mandarin fluency. To Beijing residents used to seeing Americans as visiting businessmen and language instructors, these features make Eli even more foreign than his white co- workers, an intellectual puzzle of but where are you from? Logically, Eli knows it is an improvement, freakshow instead of horrorshow. And yet there are times, late night walking back from the lab or early mornings on the trains, too little sleep and too much caffeine ringing in his head — there are times, when the pressure of those stares overwhelm him. Hot days and long nights and experiments that never seem to work, his grandmother’s ghost on every corner and his mother’s ques- tions ringing his ears, what are you thinking are you crazy what do you think you’re doing —
He thought he’d known once, the answers easy and at the tip of his tongue. It would help his med school application; it would be a chance to conduct cutting-edge research with experts in the field, to connect more fully with a culture he’d known primarily through family vacations and potluck din- ners. That was what he had told his mother, the explanations he offered until he wore her resistance down — not completely, of course, because his mother took a lawyer’s attitude toward arguments, but enough for her to relent, frowning even as she watched him board the plane.
Eli closes his eyes, the dough suddenly heavy and tasteless in his mouth.
When he opens them, his grandmother is gone, and the city stretches out before him: a palimpsest of old imperial architecture and tall new buildings, narrow streets and wide boulevards and traffic-choked highways that wind together into the shape of Beijing. An abstract expressionist painting of a city, expansive and exasperating by turns, yet somehow familiar despite the disorientation. Somehow right, in a way Eli cannot quite articulate but which he feels in his bones.
As it should be. This is his city, after all, his country even if he does not look the part — his because it had been his mother’s city, and before her, his grandmother’s city, hers by birth and blood. The city she had been born in, the city she had loved in, the city that — in the end, lungs ashen and hands shaking with fever — she had chosen to die in. Laojia. Home.
In the end, over the doctors and clean air, over the grand- son who had just started college, the daughter who had begged her to stay — over all that, his grandmother had chosen to come home.
What are you thinking? Why are you here? What are you doing?