“I’d like to renounce my American citizenship.”
No heads turned, no conversations stopped in the wood-paneled office that represented the United States’ interests in Hong Kong. The soothing background music wasn’t cut off. No cautions were forthcoming, no warnings, no efforts to talk me out of such a rash decision. The woman behind the counter simply nodded at my request, as if I’d just asked for some water, and handed over a couple of innocuous-looking forms. “Read this and sign here,” she said.
I’d chosen to commit this extraordinary act in Hong Kong because I was familiar with it, having stayed there when I was working in China in 1993, just a year before. Not to mention the fact that the pseudo-embassy in Taipei did not have the authority to process such matters; Taiwan, the nation for which I’d decided to discard my internationally coveted U.S. passport, wasn’t even recognized by most of the world, including the United Nations.
As I was thinking this, a brief, sharp panic gripped me. The pen in my hand felt heavy, like the handle of an airplane hatch mid-flight, and the enormity of my decision momentarily held me in its sway, every potential version of my future shouting back at me through space and time, vying for my attention. I had to forcibly remind myself that I’d arrived at this decision through a long process of considering my options; I’d considered what might happen if I left this course and returned to the United States, what kind of life I might live, what regrets I might harbor, and what might replace the country I was abandoning.
* * *
I was a strange child. Growing up in nine houses in three states due to my parents’ peripatetic urge to escape whatever circumstances they found themselves in, as if they were unable to fight the pioneering instincts of their ancestors, I’d grown used to being that unknown element, the new kid. Even in my own family, being eight and ten years younger than my brother and sister, respectively, I’d grown up amid hints and cryptic references to my family’s life before I came along. I was on the wrong side of a divide in our family’s history into the Golden Past and the Disappointing Present, a wall that kept shifting whenever I tried to pin it down. As far as I could tell, everything seemed to have changed on a day in 1967 when my aunt and two of her children died in a fire that consumed the small apartment above my grandparents’ garage. It was hardly ever mentioned, and I found out about it only as a teenager. But from the time before the fire — and before my birth a few years later — came stories of trips, vacations, good jobs, and high times. Afterward, heated fights and bitter silence. Though I suspected that little had changed except my family’s perceptions of the past, the fact was that I’d come later and didn’t belong.
After being the new kid at whatever unfamiliar school I found myself in following each move, I would become the unpopular kid, the strange kid; most often I was invisible, leaving only the slightest imprint on others’ realities. As a result of this variable-wavelength existence, I was always saying the wrong thing at the wrong time; my words either went unheard or were misunderstood. Fortunately, being born on Christmas, I never had a real birthday party to reveal my lack of friends.
Unable to even communicate with other kids my age, much less anyone else, I withdrew through a long series of playground tussles into the more navigable world of television, movies, and books, where the characters’ inner thoughts were on display for any perceptive reader, in science fiction paperbacks where the characters explored new worlds. One of the first movies I ever saw was Star Wars; and even though the stories that attracted me were the stuff of fantasy, the people in them made more sense than the people I knew in real life, which felt like a movie where the film had been flipped. I tried different ways of looking at the world through whatever frames I could lay my hands on, from magnifying glasses to binoculars, from colored Plexiglas pieces to my parents’ old Argus 75 camera, trying to see things the way others did. But I just ended up needing glasses myself.
One bright morning not long after I’d graduated from high school in 1987, I found a light-blue overseas mail envelope, its edges checked with red and blue, amid the usual assortment of junk mail in the postbox. A dark blue circle stamped on the edge read “Taipei, Republic of China,” intricate Chinese characters embellishing the postmark, including the outline of the island of Taiwan. Dr. Harold C. Hill, who would be my Chinese professor when I entered college later that year, had sent his greetings from the island nation off the coast of China.
Over the previous few months, various letters of acceptance and denial from the handful of colleges to which I had applied had been delivered to our house in Maitland, a suburb of Orlando, Florida; I’d recently decided to attend Washington & Lee University on the strength of a single visit to the beautiful old campus in Lexington, Virginia. The truth was that I still had no idea where I was actually heading.
I had decided to study Chinese because foreign languages constituted another kind of frame through which to see the world, gates to places where I could slip out from under myself for a short time and, hopefully, reset my faulty communication abilities. The more foreign the better: I’d taken three years of Russian in high school and had won a few awards at language competitions, even traveling out of the state to compete in regional contests. I’d already signed up for second-year Russian at W&L, but I wanted something new and more challenging as well, an Asian language, either Chinese or Japanese. In the high-flying 1980s, Japanese was the focus of business students and commerce; to me it seemed high-tech and superficially cute, shiny, and sterile. Chinese, on the other hand, was earthier and more honest, yet harboring greater depth with its broad tones over the clattering consonants of Japanese. The sound of Chinese speech stirred my imagination, eliciting images of the sweaty backroom chefs and whirling swordsmen from the old kung fu flicks I snuck out of my room to watch late at night, my face inches from the darkened television screen as I hunched in front of the hulking wood-encased Zenith in the living room, the audio turned down lest the shouting figures wake my sleeping parents.
My parents would have frowned on my nocturnal TV excursions. Having grown up in 1950s Oklahoma, they were leery of my interest in faraway places, seeing it as a sign of contempt for the safe, secure environment they had worked so hard to provide. Russia was already strange enough to a Cold War veteran like my father; an interest in Asia was downright unnatural. It even held an evil aura for my grandfather, who had fought the Japanese in the Philippines in World War II.
As far as my parents were concerned, nothing good, praiseworthy, or even remotely redeeming could come from such bizarre interests. When I brought home an album of traditional Chinese flute music I’d borrowed from the library, my mother took one look at the cover, which sported titles like “Ode to My Tractor” that were obviously classical pieces whose names had been changed during the Cultural Revolution, and demanded I remove it from the house immediately.
This attitude baffled me as I came to realize, as most teenagers do, that my parents weren’t the people I’d wanted to believe they were, and that, once I stepped across the boundaries of what they considered acceptable behavior, I would be on my own. Yet I already was: My brother and sister, both much older than I, provided me with glimpses of their lives for a short time, but they too were part of the Great Before, and vanished into their own lives in other states as soon as they could get away. I was on my own for most of my childhood; both my parents worked, and I unlocked a series of empty houses as we moved from state to state, making and losing a few friends along the way, but mostly learning how to be by myself.
Languages weren’t just windows on other places; they allowed me to replace the assumptions of my existence with the kind of direct exploration I craved. Every time we drove past a local strip mall that housed a kung fu “temple” at night I would stare into the bright rectangle of light, trying to catch a glimpse of the twirling figures inside. I imagined that if I somehow gained access to such a wild, ever-changing environment, I could become agile enough to maneuver around all of the false images everyone held and relate directly to the world around me. Self defense would be only a side effect.
The day after I’d signed up for taekwondo lessons at a place just off Interstate 95, my parents gave me a lesson of their own: They drove me down to the school and made me demand my money back from the Korean teacher in front of the entire class of students, who stood in their white uniforms on the blue mats, staring at my embarrassment. Eventually I was grudgingly allowed to take a cheap karate course taught by a young white medical technician in a community center across the street from a donut shop; but after I managed to win a fourth-place medal at a competition and strode into the back yard to show my father, he told me in tones instilled by decades of employment in the aerospace industry that the only logical conclusion was that were only four contestants in the competition.
He said he hadn’t gone to see me compete, but he was right: I had placed last. You’re doing this for the wrong reasons, his expression said.
But I didn’t know what the “right” reasons were, or the identity of this stranger everyone thought I was.
* * *
Mandarin Chinese was my first class at Washington & Lee. The university was a different place during the term than I’d imagined it would be when I’d visited over the summer, when the beautiful green lawns and dignified old red-and-white buildings of the campus had been empty. Most of the students were from southern conservative families, and some 97 percent belonged to fraternities. My excitement at being out in the world for the first time was tempered by regret for my lack of research into this aspect of the school. In fact, the college was so conservative that women had not been allowed to enroll until 1985, a couple of years before I arrived there.
Being unpopular had become my main mode of existence no matter where I was, and I’d come to appreciate the freedom and isolation that lack of popularity provided. The few friends I did make at W&L were all members of the university’s International Club, located in a rickety old house across from the gymnasium. One of these was my fellow Chinese student, William “Boogie” Avery, who lived in the same dorm. One of the few minority students at W&L as well as one of the most good-natured people I’d ever encountered, Boogie was also a musician, as well as completely uninterested in the university’s fraternity-based social circles.
Five of us sat in the small classroom the brilliant first morning of lessons. Professor Hill, a large, older man with white hair, reminiscent in both looks and movement of a well-educated polar bear, entered smoking a pipe and staring at us severely behind large, thick glasses that magnified his eyes. During that class we were introduced to the four tones of the language, asking each other repeatedly if the mountain was high, and answering that it was, indeed, high. Afterward, as we made our way back to the dorms, one of the other students told me how amazed he was at my Chinese ability. “Dude! You’re, like, fluent! How do you do that?” he asked, incredulous.
I had no idea what he was talking about. Beyond glancing at a few textbooks from the library back in Florida over the summer, I hadn’t studied the language at all. But the thought of thanking him for the compliment never crossed my mind; I simply didn’t want to jinx myself so early on: “You’re crazy,” I told him. “We learned three words.”
One of the other Chinese words we learned that year was yuanfen, which is often translated as fate or destiny. It is a thing that you and something or someone else both possess if you are meant to be together; more than a simple connection, the word connotes belonging with each other. I’ve heard it described as an infinitely long thread made of red silk that binds certain people and things together. More than qi — the energy that in Chinese philosophy is thought to be inherent in all things, and which is seen as more indiscriminate, more manipulable in its distribution — yuanfen is predetermined by many factors and difficult if not impossible to avoid.
In the following months, I began to enjoy the challenge of pronouncing Chinese words, especially the tones, understanding the nuances that occurred when they were linked together. Once I realized that the tones, sometimes falling, or rising, sometimes dipping or sustained, were inseparable from the characters, I couldn’t think in terms of words with wrong tones but rather in terms of the completely different words they became with different tones, and my progress accelerated. Though memorizing characters was tedious work, the grammar was simple enough, and I began to focus on the idea of seeing the other end of that intriguing postmark that had landed on my doorstep back in Florida. I looked into study abroad programs and found two options: One was in Harbin, in frigid northeast China, where, the description made plain, there was precious little actual interaction between foreign students and regular Chinese people under the strict communist regime.
The only other choice was at Tunghai University in Taichung, Taiwan. Taiwan had been known as “Formosa” or “Free China” by my parents’ generation, at least until Jimmy Carter de-recognized it in favor of the People’s Republic of China in 1979. As I’d grown up in the mild climates of Florida and Texas, I would most likely have chosen the southern option in any case, but it felt natural, almost as if it had all been decided upon beforehand; I was beginning to suspect the presence of yuanfen in my own life. For one thing, the University of Massachusetts, through which we could participate in the program, offered a generous scholarship that would make the trip possible for me. For another, it just happened that a large group of Taiwanese exchange students were cadets at the Virginia Military Institute next door, where I was taking trumpet lessons from the band director. As a member of the International Club, I invited them to some of our functions and heard fluent Mandarin as spoken by native speakers in person for the first time. Of course I had heard Professor Hill speak, as well as some of the more advanced students, but it wasn’t the same: Hill spoke as most Mandarin teachers did, with a strong Beijing accent, though the ever-present pipe in his mouth caused him to slur everything together in an almost incomprehensible fashion. The more advanced students hacked at the language in an ugly, functional way. It sounded like a completely different tongue from that of the native speakers; the structure was there, but there seemed to be nothing within. I began to realize that everything I had learned was just a rough guide to using the language to communicate, like notes on a page of music. “Chinese is like falling into a bottomless pit,” Professor Hill told me when I asked him about this. “You keep wondering when you’re going to hit the ground, but you never do.” His pipe tipped upward as he gave a rare smile at the thought. He loved languages and spoke quite a few, picking up my second-year Russian textbook and reading passages for fun when he entered the classroom.
Over the summer following my freshman year, I learned that I would be rooming with an older student who was just returning from a year at Tunghai University, the school in Taichung where the exchange program was located. His name was DJ Hatfield. Everyone in the International Club told me he was a “real character,” and that I’d like him. I assumed from this that people saw him in a similar fashion to the way I felt they saw me, i.e. quirky, somewhat distant, and a bit naive, and I wondered if he too was pursued by false assumptions. I wrote him a letter, hoping to impress him by adding, a bit pompously, that I was the best student in my Chinese class.
When I met DJ at the start of term in the fall, he was soaked to the skin from the rain, holding several pieces of luggage in the doorway of our dorm’s living room like a half-drowned cat holding a dead mouse. Ignoring the growing puddle at our feet, I introduced myself, and he let loose with a long stream of what I assumed was Chinese, but of which I could make no sense whatsoever. Up to then I had prided myself on understanding at least a portion of what the native Taiwanese students were talking about, but now I realized that they had most likely been simplifying their speech and slowing down for my benefit.
Dismayed at this apparent deficiency, I redoubled my efforts when the term started. The combination of living with DJ and occasional interaction with the Taiwanese cadets helped me over the next several months, as well as the arrival of Ms. Gu, a plain-spoken assistant Mandarin teacher from Taiwan. It was through her that we got a better sense of the language as spoken by actual Chinese people. By now, our class numbered only four; the student who had so admired my three words on the first day of class had dropped out after months of claiming he had a cold and couldn’t speak.
The rest of us were all planning to study in Taiwan the following year. I was looking forward to the adventure, showering DJ with questions about his experiences at Tunghai the previous year. He described his outings with local students and his disdain for the watchful eyes of the jiaoguan, or elderly military officers assigned to keep students in line. He would pepper his English with Mandarin terms as well as Taiwanese words, shrugging as if he couldn’t remember the English anymore and then staring at whomever he was speaking to as if challenging them to doubt him.
My anticipation grew as the date of our departure approached. Every trip to the Lexington travel agent down the street was a cause for celebration, hints at the grand journey ahead; the arrival of my freshly minted passport heralded a great adventure. When I got back to Maitland after term ended I packed early, stuffing entirely too many possessions into a large rolling suitcase and a clothes bag; the next year held so much promise that it seemed like an ocean, vaster even than the one over which I would soon be flying.
Then a shadow descended, not just on my plans, but over history itself. Lying on the green shag carpet of the Holiday Inn in Daytona Beach, brushing sand out of my hair during one last awkward vacation with my family before my departure, I looked up to see fuzzy, shaky video of tanks rolling through the streets of Beijing on the evening news. News reports showed protests rising up all over China, but especially in the capital. Workers were beginning to join the student protests in Tiananmen Square, a protest that the government had ignored for weeks. The military responded with force. It was June 4, 1989.
My parents, of course, had never been particularly happy about me going to Taiwan; they would had preferred a less exotic location, a more familiar (European) culture, or better yet that I just stay in the United States like a normal person. They blamed Professor Hill for my interest in Asia and took me aside when I introduced them to DJ during the holidays to whisper harshly, “That boy is a communist! How dare you bring him into our home!”
The events at Tiananmen served as valuable ammunition, fortifying their arguments against my plans. I tried to point out that Taiwan was a long way from Beijing, but to them it was all the same. The sight of the man standing in front of a line of tanks galvanized their misgivings: It was no place for their son, their perfectly normal American son, to be.
But if anything I was even more adamant. I felt then that the main point of college was to get me to a place, not only physically but mentally, where I could shed the expectations and uncertainties of an angst-ridden adolescent and find my place in the world after ridding myself of what I saw as my parents’ shortcomings as much as my own. With the fierce certainty of youth, I knew that my upcoming journey, of putting myself in an entirely new context, was the key to this, and Tiananmen Square had only served to galvanize my aspirations; I couldn’t give up, not when I was so close. I’d never argued as vehemently with my parents on any subject before that, and when it became apparent that the unrest in Beijing was not spreading, they finally gave in. I packed the last of my things and lay on my bed, wide-awake.