How Does One Dress to Buy Dragonfruit? True Stories of Expat Women in Asia is a new anthology edited by our latest columnist, Shannon Young. For the sake of the Displaced Nation audience, Shannon has generously agreed to carve out a few tasty morsels from the writings of the 26 female writers within the collection that highlight their feelings of displacement within Asia. Take it away, Shannon!
Thanks, ML. I’m excited to be doing this. The very first excerpt comes from a piece by Dorcas Cheng-Tozun, called “The Weight of Beauty,” which covers the insecurities she experienced as a Chinese American woman living in China. Dorcas worries that her command of the language doesn’t match her Asian face and her average American weight is considered fat in China (she knows because strangers tell her!). Despite the difficulties, she finds an unexpected connection with her slim, beautiful, bilingual Mandarin teacher.
Here is the beginning of her story:
“The Weight of Beauty,” by Dorcas Cheng-Tozun
“If you went running every day, you could lose some weight.” A maintenance worker with a receding hairline squinted at me as the elevator in our apartment building rose far too slowly. This was the first time I had ever interacted with this man. Unfortunately, he was speaking Cantonese, which meant that I understood him perfectly.
“Mmm…” I responded, avoiding his eyes.
“Really. If you ran every day, you could lose some weight,” he repeated, concerned that I had not given him a proper reply.
I flashed him a tight smile, but I did not trust myself to say anything else before he stepped out of the elevator. As I watched his stooped, retreating back, I tried to remember how I was considered “petite” and “tiny” by my American friends. But the US was, literally, half a world away.
When my husband and I moved to China in the summer of 2008, my body’s relative mass seemed to triple during the time it took us to cross the Pacific Ocean. From my first day living in the industrial city of Shenzhen, my weight was a favorite conversation topic of friends, colleagues, and acquaintances alike. “You’re rather fat,” I would often hear. Or, “Did you gain weight? You look fatter.” If I stepped into a shop, sales clerks would rush forward, stopping my progress with wild gesticulations communicating that they had no merchandise remotely close to my size.
My figure was not the only thing wrong with me in the Middle Kingdom. I had grown up speaking Cantonese in the United States, but I knew barely any Mandarin. And judging by the reaction of the locals, my lack of language skills was by far my greater sin. Restaurant waitresses turned up their noses at me; grocery store cashiers clucked their tongues at me; taxi drivers quizzed me endlessly about my deficiency in Mandarin. My life in China at times felt like a series of one-act plays in which characters emerged with the sole purpose of telling me how stupid, fat, and just plain wrong I was.
“Ignore them,” my husband Ned, whose Turkish and Jewish roots had combined to make him look generically Caucasian, urged me.
“How can I?” I protested. “They’re everywhere.”
“But their opinions don’t matter. They don’t know you.”
That was the problem: they thought they knew me. I was a Chinese woman living in urban China, so knowing how to speak Mandarin was the minimum criterion for proving my sentience. It was equal to a blonde, blue-eyed woman in a cowboy hat and boots in rural Texas barely comprehending a word of English. It just wasn’t supposed to happen.
In exasperating contrast, the locals regarded Ned like a creature with magical properties. They were entranced by his height and broad shoulders, his light hair and green eyes, and they immediately set the bar for cultural competence at zero. All he had to do was say, “Ni hao,” and the same individuals who had been glaring at me as if I had insulted their ancestors as far back as the Tang Dynasty would glow with beatific smiles and tell Ned how amazing his Mandarin was. Ni hao was Ned’s universal password to obtain what would forever be denied to me: respect, attentive service, automatic entry into heavily guarded buildings, and a mysterious fount of Chinese joy and happiness that seemed to emerge only at the white man’s touch.
“He’s so handsome,” Chinese women would tell me, glancing at him through fluttering eyelashes. “Is he your boyfriend?”
“He’s my husband” was a Mandarin phrase I quickly learned to say.
Under the daily barrage of insults and sneers, my former life in the United States as an independent, competent, well-adjusted young woman began to recede from memory. It was as if that old version of me had never existed, as if I had always been the overweight, bumbling idiot that 1.3 billion people seemed to think I was.
I learned to wear an I-don’t-care-what-you-think expression on my face, but in reality, my defenses were only shadows of battlements. I felt as if I was constantly under siege; even the most innocuous encounter could become a surprise assault.
One day I greeted a deliveryman at the door of the office where Ned and I worked. I had done this several times before, and the routine was easy. All I had to do was say “Ni hao,” take the package, and sign for it.
But this time, when I handed the clipboard back to the deliveryman, he scrutinized my signature before eyeing me suspiciously. “Why don’t you have a Chinese signature?” he asked in Mandarin, a stony expression on his face.
“I’m American. I only have an English name.” I spoke slowly and gave him a small, apologetic smile.
“Why don’t you have a Chinese signature?” he repeated stubbornly, red blotches blooming across his forehead.
“I was born in the US I only have an English name,” I repeated just as stubbornly, all traces of the smile gone.
I didn’t understand any of the words he spat at me after that; he was speaking too fast and I was too shocked at his venomous tone. Knowing that I had just been deeply insulted, I refused to give him a response. We faced off in silence for a few tense moments before he turned on his heel, continuing to mutter vitriol under his breath as he walked away.
At that moment, learning Mandarin became my top priority. I contacted a company called New Concept Mandarin, which focused on teaching conversational survival Mandarin. They promptly responded, offering to send a company representative to my office the following day. When I told Ned about it, he asked to join in on the meeting to see if the classes were right for him as well.
The next afternoon, when I heard a knock at the office door, I jumped up from my desk. “I’ll get it,” I announced to the office in general.
Easing the door open, I called a cheery “Ni hao” into the dimly lit hallway. Then I froze.
“Ni hao,” responded the supermodel standing in the doorway.
I couldn’t stop the thought from entering my mind: If this woman isn’t from New Concept Mandarin, she must be a high-class prostitute. My eyes locked first on her dress, a body-hugging, black-and-white-striped mini that revealed every impeccable curve on her petite form. The shine of her straight, long black hair, which she casually tossed behind one shoulder, mesmerized me; her wide almond-shaped brown eyes, her thin upturned nose, and her closed-lip smile left me in awe.
As I stared at her, I remembered how I had barely brushed my hair that morning; how I had a grease stain on my blouse from lunch; how I had an angry zit on my forehead that was probably doubling in size at that very moment.
“Are you from New Concept Mandarin?” I asked in a squeaky voice.
“Yes,” the vision said confidently, with only a trace of a Chinese accent. “My name is Joanna.” She held out a tiny hand adorned by a French manicure.
Feeling oafish, I extended my sweaty, un-manicured hand and awkwardly shook hers. “Please come in.”
I shuffled to the conference table in the middle of the office, conscious that five pairs of eyes followed our progress. The room suddenly felt too open, too public. I didn’t want all my colleagues—and certainly not my husband—seeing what I saw: this epitome of Chinese beauty in juxtaposition with the ungainly, unkempt Chinese American who actually liked to eat.
I invited Joanna to sit in a black swivel chair. She descended gracefully into the seat and crossed her slender legs. I attempted to imitate her movements, but instead I had to steady myself on the armrests when I nearly missed my seat. Clearing my throat to hide my embarrassment, I asked Ned to join us.
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Readers, I hope you enjoyed that morsel! Want to read more of Dorcas’s story? It’s the second in the book, so you’ll be able to finish it if you download the free sample on Amazon. (The e-book and paperback of Dragonfruit are available at all major online retailers.)
And if you’re curious to find out more about Dorcas Cheng-Tozun and her writing, she can be found at chengtozun.com.
I look forward to sharing more excerpts from the Dragonfruit anthology over the next few months.
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Thank you so much, Shannon! Displaced Nationers, any comments on what Dorcas had to say in this passage? Have you ever had the experience of having people look at you but not believe you were (or weren’t) speaking their language? I speak of the phenomenon known as cognitive dissonance…which can make one feel very displaced. Tell us about it, or any other responses you’ve had to this excerpt, in the comments!
STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s announcement of the September Alice Awards.
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