“Jiren lixia” is a Chinese idiom that means to live under someone else’s roof. When I was little, my mother would mention it to scare me into submission: It was a warning that were she to abandon me, I would then endure horrific abuse in another family. When I was about to leave China, she used it to remind me that I, a Chinese person, would never be fully accepted by a white society. I would have to live at the margins, begging for scraps.
My life in America has been a record of proving my mother wrong. I put ice cubes in my drinks, and the chill does not make me sick. I completed my doctoral program; my female brain does have the capacity for physics. I sit at tables where I am the only Chinese woman: I do not blend in, and I do not want to.
Yet these days “jiren lixia” comes to my mind often without any prodding from my mother. The president of the United States wants to wall in the country against immigrants. Relations between my homeland and my adopted home keep deteriorating. In the name of national security, the White House is restricting scientific collaboration with China; in every Chinese student, it sees a potential spy.
China has become a superpower, and that has brought not confidence or magnanimity, but menace and insecurity. The country’s expanding wealth and hawkish posturing conceal a shrinking civic space. Lu Xun’s writings are disappearing from textbooks.
Select symbols of traditional culture are hailed as sacred, even as their historical context is hollowed out. The government has been cracking down on religious practices and ethnic customs, and it is tightening its grip over Hong Kong. There is only one politically correct way to be Chinese.
In April, a white reporter eating at a McDonald’s in my hometown was accosted by a young man who called him “foreign trash.” As I read that story I felt inundated with guilt, which I often do when I read news about China. I know it is egotistic to assume the moral burden of a nation. I also know that there is no other place whose actions I feel both so responsible for and so helpless about.
Last month, the municipal government in Beijing announced plans to criminalize the “defaming or slander” of traditional Chinese medicine. Bad-mouthing acupuncture or herbal remedies could amount to “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” an offense in the penal code that covers neighborhood brawls as well as political dissent.
“The motherland is by your side.”
But what is left of a person if she doesn’t have a country? And what is left of a country that cannot accept foreign bodies or unruly minds? The China I carry in me is not only the country as it is, but also China as it was, has never been and could still be.
Yangyang Cheng (@yangyang_cheng) is a particle physicist and a postdoctoral research associate at Cornell University.
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