When I was five years old, I learned the right way to pirouette—to lift from my “core” even though the relevé was in my toes, and to follow one spot with my gaze, twisting my neck as far as I could and whipping my head around as fast as possible, so that the instant not focused on that one spot was almost inexistent. This is how dancers stay in balance when they turn—their bodies spin at dizzying speeds, but their minds are concentrated effortlessly on one point in the distance.
I think back to this time in my childhood and am relieved that I’ve had dance. It must have been strange for Vittoria, who had been my ballet instructor for 2 years by then, to teach me these foundations of her life’s art, because I didn’t like to talk to anyone. If I didn’t want to communicate through language, at least I had a mode of expression through movement.
My grandma Jean has four children. Two of them married Caucasian Americans, and the other two, my mom and my older aunt, both married men from Beijing. I recently learned that she highly disapproved of all of these spouses—she wanted her kids to marry Chinese Americans, just like them. I don’t think it’s because she particularly disliked Americans, Caucasians, or Chinese people, but because she wanted her children to fit into the strange realm of American culture, but still preserve their roots of heritage.
Apparently her feelings against these mixed marriages had been strongly asserted. My aunt says that she had a white boyfriend who knocked on the door to pick her up once, and my grandma chased him out with a toy gun, threatening that if he ever came back he’d really get it. Thinking of my grandmother, it’s difficult to imagine her acting this way. She’s one of the nicest and calmest people I know. Most of us grandchildren call her “Lao Lao”—maternal grandmother in Cantonese. My cousins D and J do also, even though their maternal ancestors “came over on the Mayflower.”
I was born in Manhattan on December 5, 1986 and lived with my parents on Pineapple Ave in Brooklyn Heights. They decided to move from Brooklyn to Beijing two years later, and for a few months we could visit my dad’s parents and siblings daily. My mom was pregnant with my brother at this time. One day I started punching her in the stomach speed bag style, and when she asked me what I was doing, I said that if I had a brother, I knew my parents wouldn’t love me anymore.
Eventually he was born, though, and we became a special family at this time, since my mom is American, and was the only woman that anyone knew who wasn’t constrained by China’s One Child Policy.
In the spring of 1989 the Tiananmen Square massacre occurred. Beijing had been overwhelmed with rioters and the government was issuing orders to halt public transportation and close off the country’s borders to prevent anyone from entering or leaving it. Panicked, my mom gathered a few of our things in a bag, and prepared to flee the country. No one had cars in Beijing at this time, but somehow we knew a man who was a cab driver, and he picked my mom, baby brother, and me up from our apartment to take us to the airport. My father had to stay behind, because he is a Chinese citizen, and therefore banned from leaving the country.
My mom says that I sat in silence during the whole car ride, but that my brother was screeching and crying. She was worried that the officials wouldn’t allow her to take my brother to the States because he was born in China and she hadn’t yet filed for his U.S. citizenship. She continued through the motions of customs and security at the airport, however, and when asked for our passports, she asked the man ahead of us in line—who happen to also be Chinese American—to hold my brother so she could free her hands. She took my and her American passports out of her purse, and before she could think of an excuse as to why my brother didn’t have one, the official let us go, presumably thinking that the Chinese American man holding my five month old brother was our father, and that my brother was American too.