First Dispatch from China: On Allergies, and an Intro


I have been reading Evan Osnos’ book on China and thought I would reboot this blog to sketch down my own observations of the country during my visit July-August, 2015. Osnos grew up in the US, first visited China in college and later stayed for years; I am doing the exact opposite. I have felt differently every time I returned, so I look forward to how this experience will turn out to be.

This will hopefully be a series of crudely written essays. But note my blog title: snippets at best, so don’t hold your breath.

(Please go easy on the Anderson Cooper reference. I acknowledge that I am in China under the opposite circumstance.)

Twenty-four hours after I arrived home in Shenzhen, China, a web of red rash rapidly crept up my body. Unnerved, I called our family doctor. She suspected food allergies: my first dinner here had been at a buffet that my parents’ acquaintances had invited us to, and given the cornucopia that my stomach had turned into, the allergies could have been caused by anything.*

Alienation, however corporeal and minute as the one in this allergy episode, used to be a running theme in my relationship with China since I left it five years ago. Countless times in my homecoming visits have I wondered if the country had become a stranger to me as much as I her. My city, known for its awe-inspiring speed of development, has turned into a daunting labyrinth; my peers’ new Internet-laced speak made me question my ability to use my mother tongue; my food allergies reached new heights. Pineapples went first, then lychees, then oysters.

I am not allergic to any of these three in the US.

Yet now I apparently have to strike out another yet-to-be-named allergen from my Chinese diet.

But to speak of China as a place I have drifted away from is to oversimplify, for my relationship with China has evolved and became more complex over the past five years. When I first returned home as a college freshman four years ago, I had been simply desperate to come back to America. I had arrived in Shenzhen through the air-conditioned halls of Huanggang Customs and the second I stepped onto mainland China’s soil, a wall hit me: the densely humid and hot air that a year in Massachusetts had made me forget. I kept revisiting that moment in the ensuing month for the uncanny metaphor it evokes, that this country, with its heavy Internet censorship, anti-LGBT and misogynist norms (the former is starting to change, however; for the latter, see an excellent piece from my friend, the wonderful Nancy Yun Tang), and questionable food safety, had suffocated me as much as the climate that I barely tolerate.

I returned to China for a second time in 2012, during which a delay in visa renewal had left me stranded for three extra weeks and cost me half a month of school. I was so anxious and felt I needed to do something that I came out to my parents. It seemed appropriate: the liberation that I felt from no longer needing to fulfill their fantasy of my presumed heterosexuality mirrored that of letting go my own fantasy of what China should be. I tried to reconcile: perhaps, as my personal life had sailed beyond my parents’ view, so had China beyond mine. Perhaps after reminding so many others, I had lost sight on the conflation of the state with the people. With these possibilities in mind, I shifted my focus to the latter and soaked in; in turn, my anxiety about China seemed to begin to unravel.

Last summer, during my two-and-half-month stay at home with an Amherst diploma in hand and grad school to look forward to, I felt I had finally found solace and a way to relax. The tension I felt from being in this country had softened to the point where it became bearable. Yet it was also then that I accepted the inconvenient fact: that I had become a foreigner to the country in which I spent the first 18 years of my life.

And now, as I unpack in my old bedroom and settle in, I wonder how my relationship with China would be, this time around—

First, there are things so deeply-rooted that I can effortlessly reactivate in my mind. I wish I could make a grand statement about cultural resonance, but it would be disingenuous, not for the lack of truth but for the lack of salience. Instead those things are the tiniest, even laughable details: always remember to carry packets of tissue when going out (because public bathrooms in China usually don’t carry toilet tissue dispensers), beware of delicatessens in supermarkets (because you never know how safe the seasoning is), and cross the streets as if the cars always had the right of way (because apparently they do, especially if they are Ferraris).

There are also things that I take for granted, bizarre as they come. Exhibit A in the news today: Zhicai Wang, a key culprit in the 2008 Chinese milk scandal, which WHO described as one of the largest food safety incidents in recent memory, has been appointed Chief of Husbandry by the National Department of Agriculture.

And there are things that stun me: Shenzhen’s real estate market, for example, shoots up so much despite a national slump that sellers are deliberately defaulting at a cost of 20% of purchase prices to keep up with the stratospheric price jump. In fact, apartments in my neighborhood have at least doubled their prices in the past 12 months.

Don’t expect keen insights or full-fledged analyses: in these posts (if I write more than one), I am less interested in broad strokes of this country, or even its changes. Instead, I hope to document in quick sketches the changes I see as an attempt to re-acquaint myself with China. Future posts (if they happen—again, no promises) will be shorter than this one, and definitely less bombastic. Until next time 🙂

* I don’t have a photo of the buffet, but since I mentioned food a few times in this post, here’s a photo of a rare halal restaurant that just opened near my house. It sells food from my hometown, the smallest autonomous region in China with the greatest population density of the Hui people (the dominant Muslim group and one of the most prominent ethnic minorities in China).


One thought on “First Dispatch from China: On Allergies, and an Intro

  1. My fear would have been contaminated food, not allergies. Indeed, the fact that these foods don’t cause allergic reactions in the west imply that allergies isn’t the issue.

    Your topic greatly interests me as I am working on my own little treatise: The Utter Failure of the Shenzhong Mission. Shenzhong was supposed to be creating Leaders for China, not FB, Google, Apple, Citigroup, et al. and yet, these are quite symbolic of where its best and brightest have ended up. I can’t blame the students for choosing freedom, clean air, prestige and open spaces over polluted air, tainted food, censorship and overcrowding. Nevertheless, the fact that so many are deploying their talents outside of China supports my basic premise. If you’d like to take an early shot at my thinking, your comments are always welcome.

    One other note. China will continue to suffer needlessly until enough Chinese are willing to STAND UP for what is right. You know, SACRIFICE. America’s founding fathers did that a few centuries back. As a culture, America today knows little of such sacrifice. Fortunately for America, we have the world’s best and brightest who do understand and live accordingly. In America. China’s loss, America’s gain. And yes, I am talking about you, among many others.


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