I recently returned to the U.S. to attend my grandfather’s funeral in northwestern Michigan. My grandfather Ed was well liked, and friends and family came from all over — Nevada, California, Ohio and even Canada — to pay their respects.
Perhaps it’s because I live so far away, but I was repeatedly introduced as “the grandson from China,” which led to a lot of questions. Isn’t China becoming more capitalist? (Absolutely.) Do the Chinese celebrate Christmas? (Only in a commercial sense.) Have you eaten dog? (No.) But would you try it if you were served dog? (No, really I wouldn’t.)
How bad is the pollution? (Ever seen a fish at the bottom of a really dirty tank? That’s me on some days.) Do you ever feel like you’re being watched? (Despite my reassurances that the government has bigger fish to fry and that I’m not an activist, my grandmother worries that I’m being surveilled.)
I answered their questions as best I could, but after a while I came to dread the “C” word. “I don’t think I can answer another question about China,” I told my brother during the visitation service a few days after I arrived. Why, I wondered, are people back home so curious about China? It could have something to do with the country’s ascension on the global stage as the world’s second-largest economy, trailing only the United States.
According to a Pew poll released in July, the world increasingly believes China will eventually surpass the U.S. to become the top superpower. There’s also the fear that the two countries are on a collision course. That the finger-pointing and accusations over cyberhacking and intellectual theft could escalate, or that the US will be drawn into the heated territorial dispute between Japan and China in the East China Sea.
On the plane ride back to Beijing, I sat next to a woman from Cynthiana, a small town in Kentucky located between Lexington and Cincinnati, Ohio. She was headed to Europe for a week-long vacation. When I told her where I worked, she, too, asked a lot of questions about China. I explained how I ended up there, and that, before the recession and before U.S. newspapers started hemorrhaging jobs, I had pictured myself working in a big market like Chicago.
“Well, I always believe that when one door closes, another one always opens,” she said.
Until another door opens, when I return home I’ll always be “the guy from China.”