From China To The U.S.: Student Juggles Two Worlds

Aug 16, 2011
Originally published on August 16, 2011 6:10 pm

The end of high school and the beginning of college is a momentous time for any teenager — a time of shifting identities and evolving family relationships. Now imagine going through all of that in a country other than your own. Mandy Lu, 19, did just that. Here are her reflections on the two worlds she straddles — as a college student in Greensboro, N.C., and as the daughter of migrant workers from northeastern China.

A couple of months ago, I went back to China for the first time since before I started college in the U.S. It was my first trip home in two years.

When I saw my parents and grandmother at the airport, I felt awkward. I didn't really know what to say to them.

The first thing my mother said to me is, "You're not fat." She always tells me I've gained weight when I talk to her over Skype.

Whenever I cross the border between my two worlds, for the first few days, I feel like I'm in a daze.

I have to find an identity for myself in a place that's so familiar and yet not familiar at all. And I'm all on my own whenever that happens, because no one around me knows my other world — or the kind of person I am in my other world.

My parents are from northeastern China. They're migrant workers, living in Beijing. Financially, they're not very stable. They run a traditional medicine shop doing acupuncture and massage. They work seven days a week. I look at how hard their lives are, and I feel guilty that I can't help.

It's hard for them to get a grip on what things are like for me. I don't think they know enough about America to have the capacity to understand certain things. Like how I don't eat steamed buns for breakfast at school. Or how I could disagree with my professor. Or why a dance party at college where everybody cross-dresses is fun.

So we end up talking about mundane subjects like what I want to eat for lunch.

On my trip home, I spent a lot of time sitting around with family eating or just snacking on sunflower seeds. My parents think it's important for me to connect with my relatives. But I have almost nothing to say. Sometimes I wonder if I'm actually related to them.

As conversations at the dinner table would get louder and louder, I would have flashbacks to the racket my friends and I would make in the cafeteria over someone's silly trick with a straw, or the racket we'd make with test tubes and beakers in the chemistry lab. I found myself missing all of that.

At the same time, seeing where my relatives live was a reminder of my roots. My aunts still live in a migrant workers' enclave on the outskirts of Beijing. It's chaotic and cramped, and fights are frequent.

This past year at school, I lived in a standard freshman double. The room was about the size of the place where my whole family of three plus my grandmother used to live. Many of my college friends complained about our dorm. But for me, it felt like a really a safe and comfortable place to be.

I have been back from my visit to China for two months now. I'm still debating whether I should put pictures from my trip on Facebook. Here in the U.S., I've been unconsciously only putting my "American" self out there. Maybe I'm afraid to show my differences. Or maybe I'm simply avoiding the many questions I know will come my way.

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(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIEGEL: Finally, this hour, we return to the Hidden World of Girls, our series produced with The Kitchen Sisters. The end of high school and the beginning of college is a momentous time for any teenager, a time of shifting identities and evolving family relationships. Well, now imagine going through all of that in a foreign country. Nineteen-year-old Mandy Lu did just that.

MANDY LU: Well, after 13 hours of arduous journey, I am finally in Beijing, and it feels kind of weird. That was me a couple of months ago, on my first trip back to China since before I started college in the U.S. It's been two years. When I saw my parents and grandmother at the airport, I felt awkward. I didn't really know what to say to them.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken)

LU: The first thing my mother says to me is: You're not fat. She always tells me I've gained weight when I talk to her over Skype.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken)

LU: Whenever I cross the border between my two worlds, for the first few days, I feel like I'm in a daze. I have to find an identity for myself in a place that's so familiar and yet not familiar at all. And I'm all on my own whenever that happens, because no one around me knows my other world or the kind of person I am in my other world. My parents are from northeastern China. They're migrant workers living in Beijing. Financially, they're not very stable. They run a traditional medicine shop doing acupuncture and massage. They work seven days a week. I look at how hard their lives are, and I feel guilty that I can't help.

It's hard for them to get a grip on what things are like for me. I don't think they know enough about America to have the capacity to understand certain things. Like how I don't eat steamed buns for breakfast at school. Or how I could disagree with my professor. Or why a dance party at college where everybody cross-dresses is fun. So we end up talking about mundane subjects like what I want to eat for lunch.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Foreign language spoken)

LU: That day was kung pao chicken. On my trip back home, I spent a lot of time sitting around with family eating or just snacking on sunflower seeds. My parents think it's important for me to connect with my relatives, but I have almost nothing to say. Sometimes, I wonder if I'm actually related to them.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Foreign language spoken)

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LU: As they got louder and louder, I would have flashbacks to the racket my friends and I would make in the school cafeteria over, you know, someone's silly trick with a straw or the racket we'd make with test tubes and beakers in the chemistry lab. I found myself missing that. I've been back from my visit to China for two months now. I'm still debating if I should put pictures from my trip on Facebook. Here in the U.S., I've been unconsciously only putting my American self out there. Maybe I'm afraid to show my differences, or maybe I'm simply avoiding the many questions I know will come my way.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.