What does your name mean? she asks.
I chew on my chicken bake, deliberating. I don’t know, I say, and feel weird.
Somehow, later that day, Google Translate is open. Chinese to English. But: I have forgotten how to write my own name in the language it was given in, in the language I spoke first. In the back of my closet I sift through heavy stacks of paper (my mom will have to clean it up, and she will be annoyed, but not mad) until I find my workbooks from third grade Chinese school. 敬怡.
Respect and harmony, I tell her the next day, feeling weird again.
Huh, she says, and goes back to playing handball.
In college do I finally understand the feeling is shame.
The first job my mother gets in America makes her bleed. My dad buys her thick gardening gloves from Walmart but she still returns home with cuts on her hands. In China she taught at a medical school, but how can she teach here when she cannot even speak the language. I don’t want to do this, she says, and then she doesn’t. We buy everything with my dad’s graduate student stipend. I become a quick fan of Kid Cuisines.
I am used to Jingy, Jingi, Ginji, but this one takes me by surprise.
For some reason I have never gotten that treatment, says the white boy I am in love with. I have sent him the receipt: one pineapple oolong for Shang Hi from the teahouse we both enjoy. It is twice the price of a Kid Cuisine meal.
Obviously, I think, but I don’t say this because he means well. In his apartment there is an REI catalog, the New Yorker, a fridge magnet of his parents and three siblings, smiling in summer clothes.
I am jealous of his upbringing.
Jingyi, she says, except she doesn’t say it like that. She says it like how my mom says it on the phone to China. Jìng, ripe with volition, a splashless dive from a hundred feet. Yí, a weightless ascent to the surface, a finishing calligraphic stroke.
Chengxi, I say, like a white American.
She gives a small smile. Just call me Sissy.
What’s the difference between a street fair and a street party? my mom asks. She says these phrases in English, awkwardly. I went to the fair a month ago, but today they are having a party. So we go downtown and find out the answer is nothing.
On the walk home, she starts complaining about her new white co-worker. All she does is flirt with the other white one, and demands to be a manager because she has a PhD. But then she stops: the job is a point of pride. I make good money, and I can’t even speak English, she says, shrugging.
I have decided to Google my name and I am upset with what I see. There must be a lot of respect in academia. I feel like it is predestination. Jingyi Li, Columbia scholarship recipient. Jingyi Jessica Li, UCLA biostatistics professor, PhD from Berkeley.
When I enroll in her alma matter, she is the reason my email cannot be my name. Instead I settle for a time of day, the name I have used online for five years. It impresses my professors. I can’t believe it wasn’t taken, they say. Yeah, and all variations of my name were, I reply. Huh, they say.
Having moved to the Bay two years ago, my parents are now trying to buy a house. Single family, demands my mother. I don’t want another town house. That’s not the American Dream.
But: it is too expensive here. The high school my sister attends is very competitive. And: they are always sending money to China. To be able to make the down payment, they must dip into their retirement funds.
You are so lucky, he says, words thickened by a tongue normally formed around Japanese. Even though you have a very Chinese name, your English is perfect, since you have been in America since you were three years old.
In the book I am reading, the Chinese protagonist’s white boyfriend learns to speak Mandarin. But when he visits her family, he sticks to English. Why bother to learn if you’re not going to use it when it matters most, she asks, frustrated. I feel limited, he replies. Like I can’t express my humor, my personality, to them.
It is my second time in China since leaving. There is a huge feast. I keep on mixing up my relatives, who ask me a lot of questions. Most of the time I can only answer yes or no.
Do you know the only thing I know how to say in English, asks an uncle, or maybe it’s the husband of a cousin.
Long live chairman Mao! he exclaims, and everyone laughs, and drinks some beer.
I get an important looking email for a speaker invitation and forward it to Jingyi Li, PhD. She replies immediately: It’s just spam, but thanks.
When I was visiting PhD programs while working full-time, I only saw my parents when they drove me, usually at midnight, from the airport back to where I lived for work. The last mile.
In Chinese, America translates to 美国, měiguó. Literally, beautiful nation.
I am leaving America for two months. My parents are dropping me off. Have a safe trip, they say. Maybe when you come back, your stuff will be in a new house.
They joke, but in their eyes there is hope.