The man at the Publix checkout stares as I pack groceries in. He is middle-aged, with leathery skin, maybe Hispanic. After a minute, he cracks.
“Ni hao” he says. “Chinese? Me too!” He guffaws. “Just kidding.”
I fumble with the tomatoes, dropping one. I don’t speak. I am tasting, in that moment, distant memories of being yelled at while walking along harbors, beaches, the side of some dive bar in a city I don’t remember. I am hearing in my mind the ni-haos and the ching-chongs and hey you got some Asian persuasion going on there, loud and leering, and suddenly I am furious. Anger, black and bitter, courses at this pathetic, stooping man who does not know my name. Un-fucking-believable! This man! This man who is handing me my receipt, telling me to enjoy my stay, giving me directions to a restaurant where the manager will give me a discount.
Another memory. A different place. I am standing in an airport, the heat settling on me like a sticky web. People shout across the crowd in snippets. Den wo! Wait for me! Liang Bao! Two bags! I’m dazed, carried along in the crush of people. A Chinese customs officer asks for my passport.
“Ni hao,” he says, “how long will you be staying?”
“Just a night. I’m here for a …” I have never learnt the Chinese word for layover. I grope around. The officer leans in to hear me better.
“It’s my first time in Shanghai.” I say, finally. But it isn’t. Twenty-one years ago, I was born here. My mother’s sister and her family are waiting for me when I walk out of the airport. I recognize them from the photos on our fridge, back in Sydney. I greet my Aunt with the customary polite words.
“You sound like a wai go ren,” she says in surprise. “You sound foreign.” This jars me. I smile weakly. My cousin has yellow and orange nails and kind eyes. She grabs me in a hug and hooks her hands around my arm, chattering. I don’t know much about her, other than what my parents whisper sometimes after dinner. That she’s failing in school. That she can’t find a husband.
They’re taking me on a ferry ride, they say. It’s a gloomy day and the sky is just wispy cloud matter, smothered under a thick mat of pollution. Garish pink lights edge around billboards. Everything is written in complicated, elegant slashes. I can’t stop looking at the words. I have been so used to seeing Chinese compartmentalized, limited to dirty red signs in Sydney’s little Chinatown. Here it flows around me, to the rhythm of the boat. Some tourists are standing near the railing. It’s a husband and wife, fiddling with a DSLR camera. I get the crazy urge to shout out at them in English. Hey! I’m not from here either. The couple passes me, chatting in low guttural tones. They are German.
Later that evening, my family takes me out to a local seafood shack that’s supposed to be the best in the city. Men squat outside, de-shelling clams, and the juices all run together in the street. A steaming, spitting tray of red crayfish arrives. My aunt shows me how to dig into the salty flesh, and everyone crunches deliciously. The table of people next to us is drunk: a group of be-spectacled young men roaring and waving bear bottles around. A girl sits in its midst, smoking lazily. She catches me watching, and I flush and pick up an oily claw. Only when we leave the restaurant, do I look again. She’s still staring at me, her long black hair slipping across her shoulders. She smokes and stares, smokes and stares, until we walk back into the slick streets.
Wake up, Auntie says, shaking my shoulders, it’s morning. The whole family accompanies me to the airport. They help carry my bags to the check out desk. My uncle peels off a few yen bills and pushes them on me.
“No, no, no,” he backs away, when I protest “You’ll need it.” We stand there, awkward, his money clutched in my fist. Goodbye, he says. Goodbye, my family says. Good bye, good bye, and then they leave me to return home, leave me to all the pale, false ni-hao’s that I must receive over the next year, me, the foreigner, until I reach this ni-hao, this one offered to me in Miami by a cashier who doesn’t understand. Later, I will go outside and see that it is a sunny, clear day.