Six a.m., EST time. I don’t know what the time really should be right now. The heat settles 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 words.
“You sound like a wai go ren,” she says in surprise. “You sound foreign.” I smile weakly. My cousin has yellow and orange nails and big 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 man. My mother has given me a bag of gifts – Australian nougat, creams made from sheepskin oil. When she packed them into my bag with slow and insistent care, my father scoffed at her. So many products, so much waste, he said. What do you think they will do with this stuff?
It’s polite, she said. They’ll understand.
They’re taking me on a ferry ride. 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 has been unleashed on every neon light, scrawled on every paper surface. 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 German.
Sitting in their cramped apartment, my aunt brings me a cup of herbal tea and a photo album. She sits with me and points out names as I flick through faces and faces of my black-haired relatives. This is your mother’s uncle. Your mother’s best friend. Your mother’s godmother. In the photos, according to the style of the time, nobody is smiling. Their lips are pressed together, their hands in their laps. Flick. On the next page is a grainy sepia photograph of a solemn couple in traditional Chinese clothing. Your grandparents. I pause. Both sets of my grandparents died years before I was born. My parents don’t like to talk about it. It is the first photo I have ever seen of the people who raised my mother. My grandmother has her short hair gathered at the neck. My grandfather stands next to her, his hands clasped in front of him and a grave expression. It is impossible to discern any more of their personalities, so I search their features greedily for any legacy that has trickled into my own. But my eyes are larger, my face narrower, my nose slanted higher. Did they know how far away from home their children would scatter? Would they love me, even like this? I touch a finger to their ghostly faces.
In the 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 run together in the curb. 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 beer 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, you’ll miss your flight. The whole family accompanies me to the airport. They help carry my bags to the check out desk, where the line snakes down the center of the terminal. I tell my family that they don’t need to wait with me, that they should feel free to go home. My uncle digs in his pocket, pulls out a handful of money, peels off a few yen bills and pushes them on me.
“No, no, no,” he says, 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 false, pale ni-hao’s that Westerners in the street will shout at me over the next year, the foreigner, the Chinese girl in a Western world, the Western girl with a Chinese face.
I wait with the others passengers in the check out line, a terrifying thing made up of bags piled six feet high on trolleys, and people chatting loudly to each other. A story occurs to me, one that I have not heard in years. My mother used to tell me about pushing me as a baby around Sydney Harbor in the shiny pram they had just bought. I was less than six at the time, perhaps even less than four, a messy, wet creature that kicked in her harnesses. Sometimes, she said, she would get lost, and afraid of asking for help, with her limited English, she would just keep walking. She would make the rounds along the green rails that fenced in the waves that were emerald from afar, murky up close, her mouth pursed. One time she was lost for three hours, pushing me steadily in the pram, saying nothing, until my father, worried and hissing, where have you been, finally found her sitting on the steps of the Opera House, with her head in her hands.