Chinese Strokes | Teen Ink

Chinese Strokes

January 30, 2019
By amandacvs15, Yonkers, New York
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amandacvs15, Yonkers, New York
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Favorite Quote:
"... don't be boring." - Paris Hilton
(also, because I'm a rebel)
"Those who choose the beginning of the path, chooses where it leads to." - The Beautiful Creatures Series by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl

Author's note:

[Warning: Spoilers Below]


As someone who's interested in East Asian Studies, I've recently watched lots of documentaries and read lots of articles about what's going on today in China, Japan, Korea, and other countries in the area. A lot of what I saw shocked me - and I already had some background in the area. Today (as part of the newfound fascination in this region's culture) when we hear these these countries, we think of anime characters with high pitched voices, catchy K-Pop songs with militaristically precise dancing, and Chinese spring rolls. 

However, after learning everything I know now, I think it's important to remember that the grass isn't always greener on the other side - we are all human after all.

Therefore, through Mei-Mei's narrative I chose to juxtapose how society forces her to ask, with how she really is. I chose, although hesitantly at first, to show also how Chinese politics affect her life. The pressure she feels as a result of the one child policy. The oppression and expectation for domesticity from girls, even though it's a communist country. The incredible levels of pollution in the country due to overpopulation and unregulated industrial environmental conditions, and adverse health affects they could have. The emphasis of studiousness in China, as demonstrated by the gaokao (entrance exam) and unhealthy amount of hours spent studying for it. The inequalities of gaokao scores in different regions. The beauty standards calling for thin and white girls with small faces. That calls for tall, wealthy boys. The shame that comes with being an unmarried woman over the age of 25 and being called a "leftover woman."

If you look at the words in the story carefully, you can see all of these ideas, but you can also see how much Mei-Mei's struggling with them. One of my favorite instances of this is when she sees the foreigner girl on the street with her grandparents, and belittles her by saying that she saw, "Nothing of note." Evidently, we know that she was very focused on this girl, bearing strong jealousy towards her. However, jealousy would not fit the image set in place for her, and she makes an ambiguous statement that she knows is satire (and I like to think that Mei-Mei is laughing to herself in her mind after she says this), but everyone else sees as a unimpressionable comment.

Other instances of her struggles include how...

She is forced to put her family above everything, but is kept away from them in order to make her study endlessly for days and days. She's unimaginably bright, but is "encouraged" to leave the top college she worked so hard to get into in order to get married. She dreams of dancing, but cannot because of her responsibilities. She's deterred from studying abroad like she wants, and must show an undying, blind loyalty for her country. Her father passes away because of how the air pollution has affected him. She studies Journalism, the quintessential study of expression, but must forfeit her voice to make her society happy. 

One way to easily tell when Mei-Mei is being herself versus her societally complacent version of herself is through her descriptions of color. All her flashbacks are all lively, colorful, and descriptive, but the closer to the present it gets, the more bland and stale it gets for her. 

Her name itself is irony - truthfully, her first name I got from a favorite children's book of mine, "I Hate English!" and her last name came from one of my new favorite shows: Fresh Off the Boat. However, it does hold meaning. Why does her first name, "Mei-Mei," mean "younger sister" when she's an only child? Why does her last name, "Huang," mean "yellow" if her current life is so bland, joyless, and colorless?

The life of a Chinese teenager - the life of a Chinese teenage girl nonetheless - is definitely a tough one. But then again when you think about it - whose life is ever easy?

The author's comments:

Definitions for Niche Terminology:

再见 (zàijiàn) - Mandarin for “good-bye”

Air Quality Level (AQI) - When in the 150 - 200 range, the air is considered unhealthy. Everyone may begin to experience some adverse health effects, and members of the sensitive groups may experience more serious effects.

Qi - The circulating life force whose existence and properties are the basis of much Chinese philosophy and medicine.

Manhwa - Chinese comics.

Gaokao - The Chinese National College Entrance Exam that senior high school students take annually on June 7th and 8th. The total period of study for students taking the test is 12 years.

风云变幻 (fēng yún biàn huàn) - A Chinese idiom literally meaning, “irregular weather”, but referring to a changeable situation or being amidst the winds of change.

Cram schools - Establishments found in China, Japan, and Korea meant entirely to focus on their respective college entrance exams.

Hongbao - Red envelopes or packets filled with money that are given during the Chinese New Year.

Spring Festival - Chinese New Year

不作不死 (no zuo no die) - Mandarin slang meaning “If you don't do stupid things you won't end up in tragedy.”

小时 (xiaoshí) - Mandarin for “hour”

打工 (dagōng) A colloquial word connoting manual, physically heavy, low-status labor.

風水 (feng shui) - Chinese geomancy which claims to use energy forces to harmonize individuals with their surrounding environment. It is also an ancient method of placement used to construct and optimize residences or businesses to facilitate the flow of chi and bring about happiness, abundance and harmony.

Mei-Mei’s rolling backpack wobbled behind her as she walked along the emptier-than-usual sidewalk. The uncomfortable moist warmth of her own breath in her HEPA particle-filtering face mask tried to lull her to sleep, but the stinging in her eyes kept her alert. Wearing the thick cotton of the mask so often itched her sensitive skin, but she enjoyed how it at least made her face look smaller. Also, the risk of contracting emphysema and having her family struggle between whether to treat her with herbal or western medicine was a thought she’d much rather avoid thinking about.

Baoding’s air quality index was at a not-so-easy-breezy 199 according to the app she had gotten on her new phone (at least, she believed it said 199 - the device overheated and she dropped it faster than you could say zàijiàn). The faintest ashy gray tinge stitched itself into the air as factories generously released their stormy clouds into the atmosphere. On days like this where the heavens seemed to lower themselves to earth, Mei-Mei would usually not risk the well being of her qi to go out and about - whether it was to go to school or even to buy manhwa. However, there was only a few months left until she had to take her gaokao, and her parents liked to remind her of it by saying that this was, “fēng yún biàn huàn” - or irregular weather.

After a few minutes of walking, her watery eyes followed a hazy white blur in the distance. It was her bus, creaking slowly to a stop as its fluorescent lights melded with heather air - a dulled green, orange, and yellow.

She imagined that those lights would be the last modicum of color she’d see until cram school was over. Her mind whirred a cacophony as it conjured images of slate walls and bodies overtaxed by monotony. Mei-Mei mentally prepared herself for the jaded fingernails, dulled and placated skin, and inconsolable vehemence of pencils gouging into decoy gaokao exams.   

Whooshing her mind clear and mercurially rushing to get one of the last seats on the bus, she quickly passed her bus ticket to the driver and sat down at one of the only available seats next to a haggard looking Japanese man.

She remembered her plans to chop half her name and move to Japan in her youth. She’d much rather be “Mei” to mean “beautiful and reliable” than “Mei-Mei” and to be a “little sister.” Her aunt Liu Yang was moving there to find work (and admittedly, adventure) while Mei-Mei was only entering junior secondary school. But unfortunately, her parents didn’t entertain her reverie for a half second. They refused to have their own daughter’s name associated with one of China’s infamous unmarried, “leftover” women. Impulsively, she countered that perhaps spending at least a smidge of time in fresh air might do her some good, but they pretended not to hear. Mei-Mei’s face turned as red as the hongbao her relatives gave her annually during the Spring Festival. In actuality, Mei-Mei’s failure to uphold the strong Confucian values her parents had instilled in her led to her hongbao for that year being lighter than usual, a strict reminder that Mei-Mei should be more filially pious in light of being born a daughter - the only child her parents could have without being heavily fined and ostracized by the government and society. After this, any time she wanted to refute her parent’s decrees, “No zuo no die” reverberated in her head like a gong - she knew that speaking unnecessarily would only bring her trouble.

For the rest of her years, Mei-Mei remained silent as a mouse. Her teachers praised her excellent behavior and reassured her parents that many tall, wealthy men would likely have interest in her. She was a long-haired Han Chinese and had a height of 167 cm, even tall perhaps by some western standards. The only thing in Mei-Mei’s way was her face. Sure, she had a small face and a tall nose, but her full set of lips and tan skin were her adversaries. She remembered spending a summer indoors, praying to the Buddha for skin as light as milk, only to feel made a fool of when it remained the hue of oversteeped milk tea. Her curves were nothing to be envious of nor pitied. Once she saw a beautiful European girl buying dumplings from a street vendor in Beijing while visiting with her maternal grandparents. Mei-Mei could barely withhold her simultaneous fascination and jealousy of the girl’s straw-colored hair, butterfly pea colored eyes, and milky skin. Her lips were small and pink like she had just eaten a popsicle. When her grandmother asked her if she had noticed the walking porcelain doll, Mei-Mei ambiguously replied that she had seen nothing of note.

Such memories felt as though they had occurred dynasties ago. The older she got, the more every passing xiaoshí mattered when it came to her gaokao score. Her parents were tireless workers - her mother was a factory worker who made headphones, and her father was a dagōng. Their desire for her to improve the Huang family name and succeed farther than they had in turn motivated them to wring out every ounce of energy in devotion to Mei-Mei’s studies. After all, studying for the gaokao was a lengthy process, and sending your child to a cram school costed a small fortune. However, if it got Mei-Mei into a university, her family would think it was all worth it: she would truly believe that the color yellow - which her last name was supposed to represent - was lucky. Being less developed than modern cities, Baoding’s good feng shui may allow its students to seek graduate studies with lower gaokao scores, but with fewer seats allotted to them per university, competition was fierce.

After sitting in the bus for more than half a day, Mei-Mei’s legs felt numb. The driver trudged to a stop, announcing that they had arrived in Xi’an. Xi’an was in Shaanxi, only one province over from Hubei where her home city of Baoding was, but Mei-Mei still already felt her homesickness to her toes. As she got off the bus she noticed four other students her age dismounting their wobbly legs onto the fixed concrete, also each carrying some sort of luggage - both the physical and emotional kind.

The bus drove off, cutting a short-lived path through the fog. She could’ve sworn that through the window, the Japanese man she was sitting next to the whole time was looking out the window at her with pitiful eyes. Mei-Mei’s nostrils flared secretly under her air mask. He was the foreigner trying to feed himself from the fruits of her country.

A small distance away, a gangly, strict looking man introduced himself as Mr. Lee. His short black hair looked as though it was shorn with a razor, and his square glasses did nothing to reflect the droopy bags under his eyes. He waved them to follow him, and the five of them resigned themselves to follow this mysterious man to what they hoped would be a better life.

A noise louder than a street market pierced the morning. It must be someone’s alarm clock - the school one had a more hollow sounding twang to it than the shrill hearty noise that this alarm was making. As if sharing a room with three other girls wasn’t enough, she now had to succumb to the whims of their study schedules. It seemed Buddha thought she was asking for too much when she begged for night-owl roommates: instead she got locked in with roosters.

Mei-Mei couldn’t even remember whether she slept a single xiǎoshí. Her hand, almost on its own, tried to reach for her phone on the nightstand. It took her longer than she’d like to admit to realize where she was and that it was gone. Cram school felt very much how she imagined military training to be like: unyielding, rigorous, character-building, and devoid of any distractions. She wasn’t even allowed to call her parents - she hadn’t heard theirs or her grandparents’ voices in months.

She instead tried looking out the window to discern the time. If it was black outside, that meant it was still night, or at least early morning. If it was gray, it meant that it was daytime. The single measly glass pane was thoroughly covered in bars to prevent the faint of heart from getting any funny ideas, but after turning her head just the right way, she was able to figure out that the sky outside was still as dark as her under-eyes: pitch-black.

For months, her daily routine was so monotonous that she felt like a living robot running through the same code someone drilled into it over and over. The administrators of Xi’an Cram School were determined to get their exam results one way or another, especially since they already collected a hefty portion of all the parents’ paychecks. The mental image of her parents forced her to get up and begin getting ready. To be able to withstand the mind-numbing nature of the past few months, she liked to imagine that her actions were a dance. She imagined herself in a beautiful red dress, barefoot, dancing ballet on a stage with music in the background, not a book in sight.

Instead, she picked one of her seven default outfits to wear out of her backpack, got ready for the day, studied with the extra time on her hands, and upon hearing a hollow twang, rushed to class.

Pencils already sat on her desk, ready to tackle yet another practice exam. She watched as the stragglers walked in, the teacher screeching at them through bullhorns as if their lives depended on it. The reality was that their lives were actually in jeopardy for it. If a teacher’s performance was deemed unsatisfactory by the higher ups at the school, then they got the boot. Likely, for many of them, money was tight already, and the bonuses this job offered them should their students make remarkable improvement was enough to get them moving throughout the 16 hour school day.

Soon enough, the 9 hour long practice exam began. In her mind, Mei-Mei laughed bitterly to herself. If she put all the practice exams she took over these 8 months together, they could circumnavigate the globe. If only she could pass on the real thing - to have that freedom of no longer having to face the injustice of unoriginal concepts being pounded into her head over and over again - her gratitude would render her speechless.

As she took the exam (the Arts version - her parents thought it improper for a girl to take the Science version), she imagined the bright sounding voices of Japanese cartoons, the smell of street food walking down Beijing’s markets with her grandparents, the pictures of beautiful forests and beaches that she saw online. She heard her own voice, loud in her ears, shouting at her to do her best no matter what, as though she were her own little sister cheering herself on from the sidelines. With only one week left until the day she took the exam, Mei-Mei used all these memories as a final burst of fuel to prepare for her exam.

Mei-Mei only forgot one thing about fuel - it eventually becomes smoke.

The Baoding Daily Times - Mei-Mei Huang’s Heartwarming Story!


People across Hebei province were undoubtedly in shock upon hearing that Mei-Mei Huang, a humble girl of working-class parents, was announced to meet the gaokao score requirements for Tsinghua University - China’s most prestigious - on June 24th, 2017. An incentive and sign of hope for students from less reputable areas and low socioeconomic statuses across the country, the chances of a such a case occurring - and for a girl nonetheless - has begun to stir controversy as to whether allowing students from certain provinces to enter with lower scores is giving an unfair advantage. When we spoke to her two years ago, Mei-Mei enunciated her desire to study journalism and attributed her phenomenal scores to her love for her parents and for her country.

“I thought I had to do my best, because as my parents’ daughter, and as a Chinese, my society deserved the best of everything I had.”

When we caught up with her this year, Mei-Mei had since gotten married to a suitor of hers and dropped out of Tsinghua to prepare for starting a family together and to support her husband’s efforts in starting his own company.

“Originally, I wasn’t too interested in my husband - I was so focused on my studies, I hadn’t noticed him. But when my parents visited me on campus for Chinese New Year, he introduced himself to them and my father was so ecstatic that he urged me to set time aside for him. My father had a stroke in late 2018 while he was working to pay for my cram school. Without me around, he was always forgetting to put his mask on while he was outside. His last dying wish was to see me get married and to see his first grandchild.”

Although he was able to witness the wedding, Mr. Huang had unfortunately passed away before he could be there for his only daughter’s pregnancy. When her mother was asked to comment, she responded, “I picked out their house for the best feng shui. Since I moved in with them, I had prayed for them to give birth to a healthy grandson, and the gender has since been confirmed in that favor. My husband was a very proud man, but I think that such news would have made him the happiest of all.”

Mei-Mei had confessed that she has already written a note to her future self. We wish this lucky girl the best in her future endeavors! Congrats, Mei-Mei Huang!

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