Illustration by Emma D.

The high-pitched spike fiddle was at it again. I saw excitement on the faces in the audience. They were holding their breath in anticipation of a looming battle scene on the stage. I was amazed. Since when did Peking opera become the cool kids’ entertainment? I remember the sound of the spike fiddle growing up in Shanghai when my grandma glued herself to the small television set in her bedroom to watch syndicated Peking operas. To my ears, which had been tuned in to Western classics, the sound was foreign and jarring. My parents and I would wonder out loud what had attracted her to this “dying art form,” and then leave her to savor the thrill and joy of a performance none of us had either the patience or the knowledge to appreciate.

But this time things were different. I was a 24-year-old graduate school student at a prestigious university in California. I sat down with hundreds of fellow students from various ethnic background to watch, for the first time, a full-length Peking opera, and for the first time I was mesmerized by it. The melodies shifted between the loud tunes from the barren terrain of northwestern China and the soft folk songs of south-central villages. My imagination galloped like an untamed stallion, traveling through remote and mystical places as the music progressed. Loud cheers exploded from the audience when the red-faced war hero and the white-faced villain appeared on the stage and planted themselves firmly into battling position. What were they fighting for? What led to this theatrical hostility? All I knew was that it was a dramatized version of a true historical story, and I wished I had paid more attention during my Chinese history classes in high school. I felt ashamed. I was a WESTERN history buff. (I had been discussing the origin and consequences of the Hundred Years’ War just a few hours before.) The two characters soon engaged in an epic battle, the brilliant colors and rich embroideries of their costumes mixing and merging as they swiftly alternated their stage positions. My brain was still frantically searching for cultural references that would help me better understand what was happening while my senses simply surrendered to the spectacle.

As the audience dispersed after a standing ovation, I sat in my seat silently, engrossed in thoughts. The opera had left me exhilarated. But my long years of arrogance towards the art form, and my lack of knowledge of Chinese history, frustrated me. Who am I? Why am I well-versed in Western culture while ignorant of my own? These questions had been tormenting me ever since I moved to the U.S. from China and started living the “American dream” that my dad had painted so vividly for me as a little girl.


It was 1986. My proud parents were beaming and applauding. I had just recited “Hickory Dickory Dock,” and it made them immensely happy. Every Saturday since I was four years old, Dad would bike me for an hour, rain or shine, to the other side of Shanghai so that I could sit among 30 toddlers and enthusiastically chant Chin-English after our young teacher. The post-class performance at home led my parents to believe that I was a genius. “Like a native speaker!” enthused my father, who had met zero native English speakers. Grandma, however, had a communist revolutionary’s high alert. She was not convinced. Moreover, she was not convinced that I should talk like a “foreign devil” to begin with: “I don’t see why Little Bean needs these English lessons. Our government takes care of it already. Children learn the imperialistic language from grade three. You two are burning money for nothing!” Grandma was never shy about her opinions.

Dad chuckled. Mom glanced at him disapprovingly. Grandma was right about them wasting money. The Chinese economic reform of the late ’70s, which gradually embraced a somewhat freer market in the wake of Chairman Mao‘s death, had not been felt. For a decade since my parents started working, they had a monthly salary of 36 yuan (which, by the mid ’80s, amounted to about 10 dollars). The cost of my English class amounted to more than a quarter of their combined salaries.

But Dad had a hidden agenda. Two of his best buddies from middle school had taken advantage of the connections of their parents and gone to embrace “imperialistic America” at the end of the Cultural Revolution, an abysmal period marked by extreme censorship and persecution that lasted from 1966 to 1976. They had reported back:

“Americans find reasons to march on the streets every day.”

“The president has been cursed and scolded and fried all over. But you know what? Still nobody is put in jail. It’s the president who seems to get worried.”

“The two parties have been barking at each other and politicians on both sides are made fun of on late-night talk shows. We are enjoying the circus.”

America, that’s where my child has to live. It has freedom! It has DEMOCRACY! Without consulting Grandma, Dad had made up his mind to launch me into “the perfect country,” no matter how much money and energy was required. And English classes were only one small part of his elaborate plan. He convinced my mom and together they spent another quarter of their salaries dressing me up, American-style: T-shirts with a polo logo on the pocket, sneakers with a crocodile yawning, and jeans with a red Levi’s tag. “To become an American, the kid needs to dress like one first!” was my father’s justification for paying for labels.

We started to observe Christmas every year. Dad did a field study at a handful of Western restaurants in the neighborhood and decorated our small apartment accordingly. Poinsettias surrounded the plastic Christmas tree—the real kind was not yet available back then—along with empty gift boxes. Lights were dimmed and candles lit. A small fortune would be spent on a New York-style cheesecake. Western cookbooks were nowhere to be found, so Dad took me and Mom to sample the dishes at the famed Red House Western Restaurant. But the rosemary roasted turkey, brussels sprouts in a sherry bacon cream sauce, and vanilla-flavored bread pudding all proved too daunting for my mom to replicate. So Grandma made her specialty dishes: stir-fried vegetables and bamboo pith, diced chicken with garlic and soy sauce, sweet and sour pork ribs, and dumplings, finishing off with the New York-style cheesecake. “The sweet cream of the cake goes surprisingly well with the soup!” Grandma beamed. She was cajoled into celebrating the holiday in exchange for a chance to show off her Chinese cooking. After dinner, my proud parents would ask me to lead our gang of four in singing the “Christmas carol” I learned at English camp. We ardently chanted “Edelweiss,” not knowing that the song really had little to do with Christmas.

And Dad did not stop there. He took me to classical music concerts shortly after the city started to open up. “Bourgeoisie and decadent!” Grandma fumed. Beethoven was deemed a hopeless “capitalistic roader,” and his works were banned during the Cultural Revolution. Dad became a big fan of his and took me to every concert he could find. “To cultivate Little Bean’s appreciation for Western music, we have to start early,” my father comforted my mom, who was appalled upon seeing the receipt for the tickets. I soon learned to power nap, sleeping through the stormy symphonies and emotional concertos. But Dad was not discouraged by my lack of enthusiasm and insisted that I would like the music better if I knew how to play it myself. Taking out two-thirds of his savings from the bank, he bought me a shiny new piano. He then temporarily swallowed his pride and got in touch with a middle school classmate who worked at the city’s education bureau. Recognizing the famed “king of fistfights” from my father’s days serving in the Red Guard, the man phoned up a professor at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music and asked her if she could take a five-year-old student. The professor, facing the danger of babysitting a musically clueless kid, courageously agreed.

Professor Xiang turned out to be a great teacher with abundant patience and skill. I had freakishly small hands. She devised special “hopping” techniques for my left hand to cover the inadequacy of my right. It was painful to look at, but we all somehow got used to it eventually. With her help, and my two-hour-per-day mandated practice, I made quick progress and soon was able to play numbers that no longer sounded like a monkey throwing a tantrum on the ivories. Dad was so pleased with the professor that he almost slipped into a bout of depression when she defected. Destination? America! That was two years into my training. One day the professor informed us of her upcoming visit to the States to see her daughter. Dad jokingly asked her if she would come back. “Of course! I am an old party member and I have a career and a family here. How could you ask such a question?” Professor Xiang flustered. Dad apologized repeatedly. “I really felt shameful of my low revolutionary consciousness for a moment,” my father said later. “But see what happened? No one ever heard from her again. Now her husband lives here alone!”

After the traumatic incident, Dad sat me down and laid out rules for the pursuit of the “American dream.” “What Professor Xiang did was shameful. You will go to America with dignity. In fact, you will go there invited! You will study hard and the invitation will come, you hear me?” He went on to tell me how he wanted me to be the next Qian Xuesen, the Father of Chinese Rocketry, who, despite being described by an American colleague as “no more a Communist than I was,” was portrayed by China’s Communist Party as a red-hot revolutionary who overcame all the roadblocks the evil American enemy put in his way to return to his motherland and develop a space program for China. “He was a super smart child just like you, and he was invited to the U.S. to study. You can do the same!” Dad said emotionally. Dad’s message was highly Chinese. Just like thousands of commoners’ children since the Han Dynasty who became part of a high society by chanting the Confucian doctrine until it was second nature, studying your way up was still tried and true wisdom, except that America had become the new high society, and we had voluntarily became second-class citizens in our own country.

Unfortunately, it turned out that I was no rocket scientist. By the third grade, my literature and art marks were at the top of the class, but math made my head spin and gave me stomach cramps. My teacher was ready to wash her hands of me and suggested to my parents that I may want to try my luck with private tutoring. Eventually they set their eyes on the city’s most expensive yet most prestigious math camp, long considered a cradle for gifted, U.S.-bound children.

On the day of the selection exam for the camp, my parents and I found ourselves in the middle of a flood of primary school children and their eager parents. “Hold my hand, Little Bean, and don’t let go!” Mom yelled, fearing that a small person like me would be easily washed away in the tide of people. Three auditorium-style classrooms were open to host more than 500 “one-and-only” children who came from every corner of the city for the annual exam. There were not nearly enough waiting rooms, so parents stood anxiously outside the exam rooms, pressing their foreheads on the glass windows and fixing their gaze at their little princes and princesses. I felt dizzy. I felt sick in my stomach. “3, 10, 24, 45, 73, 108…” The numbers on the paper were dancing to the melody in my head, turning into notes on staffs, but I had no idea what the next note should be. I looked up. I saw the faces pasted on the glass; then I saw my mom and dad. Eyebrows knotted, they looked like they were in a battle with those mysterious numbers. Meeting their eyes, tears ran down my face. I heard my little heart pounding as I expected to disappoint them. Through a hazy prism, I randomly picked one answer from the four choices I was given and moved on. Soon I was selecting answers randomly. I could not think. It felt painful. I was doomed.

A week later, Dad burst into cheers as he opened the mail. I was admitted to the math camp! Random distribution, I thought, was the most beautiful thing in the world. That seemingly small milestone had a profound impact on my journey to America. After more than a decade of toiling in the camp and defying my artsy nature, I was admitted to the best engineering school in Shanghai and eventually went to America on a math scholarship. Dad considered his dream realized the day he and Mom saw me off at the airport with tears streaming down their faces as I boarded my plane to California.

But my own dream had only just begun. While my highly Westernized upbringing in Shanghai indeed prepared me for many aspects of a new life in the U.S., the absurdity of years of obsession with a foreign culture eventually tormented me as I slowly navigated my way through a diverse society. I marveled at the proud smiles on people’s faces as they showcased African tribal dancing or Japanese puppet theatre or other cultural gems of a respective ethnicity. The fact that I knew so little about Chinese culture–like the spectacular opera and the martial arts and the elegant ribbon-and-fan dances–started to become a source of agony. I struggled to understand my identity, striving to bridge the gap between the two distinctively different cultures. I had doubts about “who I am.”

After years of feeling conflicted, I finally initiated a sit-down conversation with my beloved dad during one of my visits to China. Together we pondered long and hard how far one should go to embrace a different culture in order to be part of a perceived elite class of the world, whether the inevitability of losing some of one’s native identity along the way is worth the prize, whether we had ironically stripped ourselves of our own freedom of choice in the very pursuit of freedom, and whether individuals with a so-called “third world identity” really even have a choice when it comes to “the survival of the fittest.” These questions remain open to this day, but with continued dialogues and contemplation, with persisting efforts to educate myself on my native Chinese culture, the healing has certainly begun. Some day my own American dream may just come true, when I find peace in my yellow-hued skin and a precious balance between the West and East, both of which I call home. ♦

Vicki Zhang grew up in Shanghai, China, and graduated with a master’s degree from the University of California in Santa Barbara. She is an actuary for U.S. and Canadian consulting companies and a freelance writer. She has written several short stories and is currently working on a new play about a Confucian household in the early 19th century.