Mosquitoes in America

Second Prize in the 2011 Harvard Undergraduate International Travel Writing Competition

Do they have mosquitoes in America?” my thirty-some year old, tattooed, and chain-smoking cousin asks me one night as we sit under the stars of a humid Hunan night sky. It’s a question I have been asked a surprising number of times this summer, and one people continue to ask me during my three week journey – a journey facilitated by trains, buses, farmer’s vehicles, and the kindness of strangers and acquaintances alike, that would take me from Shanghai to Beijing, where my subsequent five week stint at a French orphanage in a rural village on the city’s outskirts would begin. He asks me this while keeping a half-hearted eye on his one-year-old son, whose little shoeprints are visible everywhere in the dirt of the courtyard, a

byproduct of the free-reign he is given to chase the chickens. I’ve learned not to laugh at this question, as is usually my natural response to seemingly ridiculous inquiries, but instead – with a practiced straight face – explain that there are indeed mosquitoes in America, and that “yes, they do leave mosquito bites just like the mosquitoes in China.”

But tonight, his question gives me pause. Tonight, on the birthday of my grandmother, I think about how foreign I must seem to the gathered crowd of almost a hundred family members who have come, not only to honor my grandmother, but also to honor my return to the local village, a place I have only been to a handful of times in my life. It is the eightieth birthday of my wai-po, the correct address for my maternal grandmother, which differs from the address I give to my paternal grandmother just as the address given to my father’s older brother, younger brother, mother’s brothers, and every other relation known would differ as well. The Chinese really are quite meticulous in how they name things; names seem to serve the purpose of accurate description more than anything else. My grandmother and my entire mother’s family come from Hunan, which means – quite literally – “South of the Lake,” while my father’s family comes from Hubei, “North of the Lake.” As a child, I often wondered, much like all other melodramatic and angst-ridden immigrant children who indulged too much in the literature of Amy Tan, if there was a place named Meihu, meaning “Place With No Lake to Speak Of,” that I could hail from.

I am here in the land South of the Lake as a three-day pit stop amidst a tour of China, part of a larger journey north to Beijing, capital of the People’s Republic and my birthplace, which will be my home for five weeks as I live and work at Bethel, which is at once both an orphanage and sustainable farm. Just as I feel as if I straddle two worlds back in the States, balancing my strong Asian heritage with a very American environment, I am clearly in two different spheres of movement in China as well. There’s the collection of international ex-pats that colorfully adorn my life, people such as my lanky Dutch boss Matt, whose golden locks warrant head-turns and paparazzi-like photography, who stick out like neon highlighters against beige paper, and the native 1.3 billion Chinese that I feel kinship towards, including my cousins and aunts and childhood friends – friends who are living the life I, too, would have led if my father and mother had not crossed the Pacific Ocean in ’91 and ‘93 respectively, a time period, as my father likes to remind me, when he still had to gather the signature of “every old hooch of a Communist official in the city of Beijing” just to garner permission to leave the country.

There is not much, if any, overlapping of my two circles, which resembles a Venn diagram drawn in the third-grade to illustrate a scenario in which there are “no similarities between the two.” I will spend the rest of my time in China dividing my time between these two spheres, never to feel completely at ease with one or the other. The orphanage is a world to itself, I

suppose, constituting the gray matter around my metaphorical Venn diagram of my time in China this summer. It is a place like no other, a contradiction of sorts, a haven, an isolation cell, and a refuge. I spend my Mondays through Fridays within this walled, eighteen-acre compound, teaching the children in the morning and farming in the afternoon and traipsing through town in the evenings.

There are a number of visitors to the complex; these are various patrons and missionary groups who sometimes give me the strangest looks. It sometimes catches me off-guard until I realize what they are seeing for the first time: blind, Chinese orphans at a French-run orphanage who live in a walled paradise of sorts and are taught by Western volunteers and taken care of at night by hired local women. I have just recently stopped giving these children that same questioning gaze, and I have stopped because, to these children, this is home in every dictionary definition of the word; there is nothing more natural to them than having alternating caretakers every two nights or teaching Braille to their newly arrived teachers or talking to strangers who hope to sponsor them and visit them sporadically, often cutting short their class time. The orphanage is called Bethel, and in all my time there, I will never learn what the name means, but the children never ask what it means either. For them, it just means home; they use it interchangeably, as if “Bethel” and “home” are English language homophones.

This is their home, and they cannot see – both literally and figuratively – that it is strange and foreign to everyone else around them.

There is one weekend when Lauren, a classmate of mine from Harvard who would eventually live two floors below me when we return to school, convinces me to go with her and our coworker, Julie (pronounced with a very heavy French accent), to climb the ruins of the Great Wall about one hour north of the city. So, on a rare blue-sky Saturday morning, Lauren and I make our way by subway to meet Julie and her Russian flat-mate, Sasha, who will lead us on our expedition. We carry only two backpacks, which are filled with our rations for the day; between the four of us we have scrounged up two plums, four bottles of water, a bag of potato chips, half a package of Oreos, and three Ziploc bags filled with a Papa John’s pizza ordered the night before. Any first-time visitor to Beijing will discover that one can order almost anything by phone. Telephone orders include, but are not limited to: meals from McDonald’s (or anywhere, for that matter), groceries, pedicures, and of course, Papa John’s.

As we set off on our climb, driven to a navigable impasse by a local farmer who chauffeurs off-the-beaten-path vacationers in his sputtering minivan from the 1970s on the weekends, we make the mistake of following Sasha, later to be known as “Crazy-Russian-Sasha” to the roped off path on the left. The six

subsequent hours we spend suffering from dehydration, sprained ankles, utter disorientation, and eventual triumph are strikingly memorable for many reasons – some are blatantly obvious, such as survival of the descent of a fifty-foot-drop, and others are more subtle, such as coming to the realization that these were the only six hours I had spent with my friends (friends who belonged to the “sticking-out-like-a-sore-thumb-in-China” circle on that invisible Venn diagram) without being bombarded with stares, double takes, requests for pictures, or my personal favorite gape-and-point” reactions. It is a strange feeling, to know that only amidst the ruins of an ancient wall, which once protected the empire’s Han people from the invasion of the Hun foreigners, would I not be made aware of my precarious balancing act between Han and Hun, between belonging and belonging to strangers.

There are weekends of clubbing, when one really begins to sense the new wave of foreign presence in China, and which my Han/Hun conundrum is driven out of my head by loud pulsing music more associated with the underground raves of Europe than the new, flourishing clubs of Asia. There are mornings spent walking to and from the market, filled with haggling and pushing and picking through vegetables in the hope that my definitive muttering and clucking of my tongue will give the illusion that I know what separates a good cucumber from a bad cucumber, and evenings filled with riding the tandem bicycle into the nearest town, with the sole purpose of buying a bing-qi-

ling, a cheap ice cream that costs less than a postage stamp in the United States. Life begins to blur together. The children become more and more mine, in the possessive attachment form of the word, and the lifestyle begins to feel familiar. After enough nightly visits to the local fruit stands and Grandma’s, the lone local restaurant, the people in the town begin to know me, not by name, but instead as “the interpreter” since I spend much of my time interpreting for the curious locals who want to ask my “glamorous” foreign friends questions about their life.

Once, I am instructed to ask my “beautiful American friend” if there are mosquitoes in America. The middle-aged “black cab” driver, who is reposing near his second-hand Passat while drinking a beer, asks us – or should I say, asks my “American friend” Lauren – this question because we are swatting away at the swarms of mosquitoes that come with the dusk. He thinks this is because we are unused to mosquitoes, but what he does not realize is that, as a general rule, Americans are much more dramatic and exaggerative in their actions than the Chinese. Where I fit into this categorization of being American or Chinese, which might be more of a spectrum than a discrete binary classification, is unclear because – as much as it surprises me – I am hurt that he does not consider me American, because after all, if I am not considered American, then by process of elimination I must be considered Chinese. In that case, why do the native Chinese workers relegate me to the “foreigner” table during lunch hours, even when I have spent hours working with

them in the classroom or in the fields? It is a question I cannot answer, and choose to ignore more and more as time I stay at Bethel longer and longer. Mondays through Fridays, there is always some semblance of unity between the Western management and local employees, but when the weekend arrives, all residents of Bethel, save for the children and a rotating staff of selected caretakers, hop onto a shuttle and disperse into completely separate worlds.

There are weekends spent with Diane, a forty-year-old missionary from Texas who heard the voice of God and packed up her classroom, her house, and her two daughters to travel to a continent she had never visited for the purpose of spreading His word by teaching Kindergarten at a Christian school, the only one to exist in Beijing. She is the definition of foreign - overweight, blonde, and fairly Irish in her complexion - and her foreignness is made even more apparent by the fact that she has only learned to speak three or four Chinese phrases fluently in her two years spent living here. I am struck by the image of someone like Diane in a place like China – she sticks out in every way possible here to the extent that she sends me to pay her water bill sometimes because she has yet figure out a way to do it without causing a commotion in the bank on the first floor of building, yet she seems completely and utterly at home, bamboo coasters, no potable drinking water, squatting toilets and all. She is introduced to me as “the Queen of Kindergarten”

at Bethel, for she teaches there in the summer, and shortly after she convinces me to go to the market with her in search of “cheap, sparkly shoes.”

She and I make a strange pair as we walk to the market that Thursday morning, our flip-flopped feet kicking up dust and debris under the scorching sun. She, who attracts points and whispers and giggles, and I, who nobody would look twice at, with my almond-shaped eyes and jet-black hair, if it were not for the fact that I was standing next to her. Yet, between the two of us, she is the one who, despite her jokes about being the “fat, white girl in China” feels that this is her home. Much like the children of Bethel, she stands among the stares and ogles and never expresses to me any qualms about where home is for her and her girls.

One night, I ask her, as she is preparing a peach cobbler with enough sticks of butter to make Paula Deen wary, “don’t you ever miss Texas?”

She looks at me as if I’m crazy (or a “flaming liberal,” which is the same to her) and half sings and half shouts at me, “honey, of course I dooo!”

“Why don’t you move back then?”

“Well,” she begins as she hands me yet another stick of butter to mix into the cobbler, “besides the fact that I am listenin’ to God’s instructions by bein’ here, if I moved back, I would miss this place too much!”

Her logic is not too logical, but I let it go for now and keep on adding butter to the cobbler to “give a little umph to these dinky little Chinese peaches.”

The weekends I manage to separate myself from my hodge-podge of English-speaking friends, I become a different version of myself. Instead of the loud and confident college student who is constantly swearing up a storm, I am a stuttering niece or a quiet goddaughter or an awkward cousin. There is a strange aspect to this love for family, which pulls me away from the pulsing nightlife of Beijing and comfort of English-speaking cohorts, to sit instead through the awkward silences of family dinners permeated by questions typically exchanged between strangers. Even though it is painfully forced or silent much of the time, I am pulled back week after week to spend more and more time with a family that I have mostly only known through photographs and conversations with my parents.

One night, after a day spent shopping at various knock-off filled markets, my college-aged, male cousin who I have dragged with me through countless stalls in search of the best knock-offs that local manufacturers have to offer convinces me to have dinner with him and his parents. That night, as I sit at the distinctively round Chinese table, whose glass turntable is buckling from the weight of the fourteen dishes ordered by my uncle, I become uncomfortably aware of the sad gaze that my aunt gives me on-and-off throughout the night when she thinks I am engaged in conversation and do not notice.

I do notice.

It is not the first time I have gotten this look in China, and it will certainly not be the last. It is a look that speaks to me all the sadness stemming from being strangers with kin, kin which is valued more than gold, more than fame, and more than life itself sometimes. Kin which is traced back eighty-six generations in our family but has lost me to Mei Guo, the “beautiful country,” the name the Chinese have given to America. The look is fleeting, but it speaks to me more than the works of all the great bards and poets and lyricists I have ever encountered. It is unsettling and it is loud and it is heartbreaking, but it is also too much for me to deal with right now, so I let it go for the moment and resume chewing on the “Spicy Hot Cow Tongue,” a delicacy here I’ve been told.

The next night, I return to Bethel and find that the water has stopped, which is quite common in rural mountain villages. It is slightly before seven-thirty, which is when the youngest of the children are called to brush their teeth and then tucked into their bunk beds, so I go and play dump-trucks with my “students” under the pretense of helping them review for their math exams the next day. As my kids are slowly called in for their nightly routine one by one, an old memory hits me – a memory in which I am being called into our one-bedroom apartment after hours spent catching fireflies with the neighborhood kids on a typical Midwest summer day. I see myself, four years old, without any qualms about where home is. “Home is here,” I recall telling my

mother that day, when she is questioning me to make sure I can find my way back to our small abode in case I am ever in trouble or kidnapped or just plain lost.

Home is here. At some point in my life, I must have forgotten that. Being a traveler of the world does not mean being a citizen of nowhere. It just means that, as Diane was trying to tell me and these kids are constantly showing me, you do not find your home – you make it. Sometimes, it means, as my aunt’s lingering gaze conveyed to me, that you must be away from another home. It is a slow, sinking thought. One that I will tuck away, fall in and out of love with, and maybe one day forget, but tonight, as I tuck these children into bed, it satisfies the traveling wanderer in me. Home is here.

Back within the walled hutong of my grandmother’s house, I don’t know any of this. The confusion from being halfway across the world for nearly a month is catching up to me, as my mind spins from thinking of my own foreignness. I am not sure of much tonight; my identity, my home, my culture are all a blur to me. As I sit with my young cousin and his even younger, burgeoning family, we listen to the nearby revelry of our traditional peasant birthday celebration, and I know that there is only one thing I am sure of at this moment, that whether I am lying in a hammock in a sleepy Ohio suburb, sitting on the stoop of my dorm in Cambridge, pushing through the crowded streets

of Beijing, or being caught by a Hunan heat wave in my grandmother’s courtyard - the mosquitoes will always sting me.

It does not matter if they are American mosquitoes or Chinese mosquitoes. In all honesty, there is a strange yet simple comfort to being welcomed home - wherever that is – with, as I refer to them as, kisses from the natives.

“Yes,” I answer eventually, “there are mosquitoes in America just like the ones here.”


The Harvard College Writing Program is pleased to publish Yiren Lu's essay, which won Second Prize in the 2010 Harvard Undergraduate International Travel Writing Competition. The Competition, which was co-sponsored by the Harvard College Writing Program, the Office of Career Services, and the Office of International Programs, invited Harvard undergraduates to submit travel essays written about their experiences while studying, volunteering, interning, or working abroad as undergraduates. The panel of judges included Writing Program faculty as well as Dean of Undergraduate Education Jay Harris.