I sink into a plastic folding chair, finding relief from oppressive heat. The stranger across the table examines the glistening sweat on my forehead, his kind bronze face concerned.
“You. Drink water.” He points at me and draws out the syllables in Mandarin, each sound slow and deliberate. I stare, bemused by his simplified words and awkward gesturing. At my apparent incomprehension, he mimes drinking, holding up a plastic cup. Astonished, I laugh. He assumes that I do not speak Chinese, that I am American born—a product of Western culture.
At the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, among mountain songs, vibrant ethnic costumes and Shamanistic rituals, I am conspicuous despite my modern dress, as my neon green “VOLUNTEER” nametag brands me as an ideal target for curious tourists. The Festival this year celebrates the cultures of the Mekong River, Northern Ireland, and Virginia. I have volunteered in order to learn about global customs; my knowledge of my native culture is sparse.
I had boxed up my past before moving to America eight years ago, when a new continent deemed my old-self foreign. I donned jeans, changed my name, embraced the fluid English language and read voraciously. Mandarin became sharp and discordant in comparison, yet I could not neglect the language of my childhood completely. I thought my two worlds irreconcilable, awkwardly connected by a string as ill placed as the hyphen in Chinese-American.
Here on the National Mall, I am the only means of communication between the Americans and many of the artisans, who were invited from a myriad of small farming villages in Southern China to showcase their talents. They chuckle at my frantic hand gestures as I test my mother tongue, conversing in Mandarin and translating to English for visitors. I feel the gaps and creases in a language that I had long ago tucked away for the intimacy of family.
The artisans possess exceptional skills. He Guoyao, a Dongba priest, can read thousands of pictographic characters and bears the duty of passing on a near-extinct religion. Li Changzheng splashes designs of brilliant colors on her daily dress, simply with needle and thread. Cheng Zhirong creates fantastical dragon and phoenix sculptures with a spoon and melted sugar in a matter of minutes. Standing among them, I wonder about the contributions a mere sixteen-year-old girl can make.
“Ooh, it’s so pretty!” A young girl runs up and sticks her nose close to a sugar dragon. Zhirong, the candy-maker, motions for me, and I explain to the girl that the dragon is pure sugar. “Mommy, it’s candy!” She bounces. Her excitement is contagious. “Exquisite…Beautiful…” The crowd breathes in awe. One woman taps me on the shoulder, “Please, tell her that her work is surreal…a gift from another world. Tell her thank you.”
I abandon my inhibitions. As Zhirong takes my hand and calls me “little sister,” I find my place in this group of extraordinary people who crossed oceans to melt barriers between ethnicities and nationalities through sugar sculptures and painted words. I, too, am a bearer of traditions. But more importantly, I am a student of the ways of the world, fascinated by these colorful traditions, backgrounds, and experiences that define the beauty of humanity. Coming here, I had struggled to balance the duality of my background, believing that one will inevitably outweigh the other. I know now that the choice is not necessary.
I smile at Guoyao and his furrowed brow—no longer a stranger—as he phonetically paints in pictographic characters the English words I have taught him, “You’re welcome.” I see a miniature masterpiece and realize that culture is not shelved behind glass cases in D.C. museums. It is in the life that I once thought backwards and dull—the Chinese way of life that is a part of me.
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