I had been trying to live in two worlds: spending time in China, improving my Mandarin, learning what I could of Chinese history, of my grandparents' pasts. Then there was my American life. Classes, jobs, money, rent, Netflix, friends, growing older. What country, what story, what character, what experience can I claim? Do I want to tell the story of my grandparents, or do I feel that, to do justice to them, I have to?
In an essay titled No Reconciliation Allowed, Said revisits the varied landscape of his childhood. He was born in Jerusalem, spent his childhood as a refugee in Egypt, was educated in elite English-language schools, before building his career in the US. "Why, I remember asking myself, could I not have had a simple background … ?" he asks, " … all Egyptian, or all something else, and not have had to face the daily rigours of questions that led back to words that seemed to lack a stable origin?"
I will go back to China to visit my grandparents' graves. Meanwhile, the old apartment in Hefei has been sold. When my brother and I were children, there were so many people who gathered in that apartment. Now the generations have scattered. My aunts grow greyer every year, and my cousin's children, mostly strangers to me, will soon be teenagers. My three oldest cousins are married, and some have moved to other cities or emigrated to the US. Before, Hefei felt like the core of the family and we, the ones in the US, were the outliers, the moons in orbit around the planet. Now we are all dispersed.
I wonder what life will be left for me in China in the future. I've long nursed vague plans of moving back to China to live for a few years, to get to know it better and solidify my place there. But with each year that passes in the US, such a move gets harder and harder to make. I wonder at what point I will have to choose – or if, with the passage of time, a choice was already made for me.