I looked up from my desk at the gray clock hanging on the wall in front of the room. The hands slowly ticking, minute after minute after minute. Murmuring surrounded the room like smoke clouds a room. Everyone was bustling with anticipation for the new school year to begin. My gaze drifted from Mr. Ni to the clock on the wall and back to the teacher. Why hasn’t he started yet? He walked up and down the room slowly, eyes staring at the space in front of him, as if in deep thought. I examined my pencils and pens laid out on the desk in front of me, knowing that these would become my friends in the next year. I looked up again, wondering why we still hadn’t begun yet when I heard the footsteps in hall outside the door.
The moment his foot touched the tile floor, the room went dead silent, everyone straining to see the boy who had just walked in. In truth, he was no different than any other boy, tall and stocky, handsome even, yet there were two things that made all of us stare: his hair, which was bright orange, and his skin which was white with brownish dots. My mind instantly brought back a picture of a younger version of this boy I had seen before, a blurry projection of reality.
Suddenly, I heard a voice cry out, “Cameron? Cameron Johnson?!” Upon hearing the word, the entire room exploded with the name. Cameron, the same name as the boy who had attended our school before he left nearly four years before; the foreign American boy, who had captivated so many people back in first grade before he left; the boy that had amazing Chinese for a non-Chinese-person Cameron.
After the greetings had quieted, and the redness on his face had cooled, the teacher directed him to a chair, and of all places, he landed right beside me. I smiled a little awkwardly as he sat down, not knowing what else to do. How do I treat someone who is so different than me? Do I treat him like a foreigner, like a Chinese person, like a friend, or a classmate? These questions raced through my mind as he set up his desk with pencils, a notebook, and a water bottle. After finishing he looked up at me and smiled, and whispering he said, “Thanks for not making a huge deal about me coming in… What class are we having first?”
My mind went blank with an answer. Was I talking to a fellow Chinese person or was this a white person, who actually wasn’t butchering Chinese with incorrect tones and grammar. I looked in his face trying to search for an answer.
Finally I stuttered, “Umm… I think we have history first. By the way... your Chinese is um… really good.”
“No, not really. Not that good,” he whispered back, and that was all he said before reaching in his bag for his history book.
Again my mind was shaken. That was not a foreigner’s answer, but a Chinese one. A foreigner might have said, “Thanks, I am working on it.” or “Really, thanks.” Neither of these response would have been wrong, but it would have been foreign, more confident. His response though was very “Chinese”: in denial of the good to show humility.
The rap on my desk woke me from my thoughts. I looked up to see my teacher staring down on with a meter long ruler resting on my desk. I nervously glance from side to side, trying to find out what the others were doing. Out of the corner on my eye I saw Cameron signaling with his hands to me “page thirty-two”, so I quickly blurt out, “Page thirty-two”. As if partially satisfied, the teacher walks away, and I sneak a small-mouthed thank you to the foreign boy.
Now my brain really hurt. This did not match up with the previous thought I had about him. This was not a Chinese thing to do: to save your classmate from the teacher’s wrath. A Chinese person would have just ducked their head, acted like they were reading in order to not receive punishment, which is a form of submission. But he was willing to risk punishment to save me from the teacher’s wrath. This was different.
Throughout the entire class, I was faced with the same two sides of Cameron, and the question, “Could two cultures collide and remain appropriate,” haunted me the entire day as I watched Cameron discuss and challenge different concepts, yet submitting and interacting with the class and the teachers.
I have always been taught to live submissively and passively, not to challenge the teacher. Along with never trying to find creative ways to figure out a problem, and do things the traditional way. The Chinese live in tradition and submission, doing it the way their parents did, as their parents had. Yet sitting beside me was a person, a foreigner who was embracing both cultures, who understood both cultures, and could move between them effortlessly. He acted in both Chinese and American ways, speaking with both submission and independence.
These questions and thoughts continued to plague me for the rest of the day, no… really for the rest of the year. I was attracted to his ability to adapt to both cultures. When I could not resist any longer, I finally gathered up courage and asked Cameron my questions.
As my questions spilled out like a flowing river, all he did was smile, and nod slightly. After I had finished my thoughts and feelings he described himself in a way that I had never heard. It was something that stuck with me for the rest of my life.
He simply said, “I am an cultural egg.” Seeing the confused look on my face, he smiled again and explained, “You know, just like an egg is white on the outside and yellow on the inside, I too am white on the outside and yellow in the inside.”
“But how do you choose between the cultures? Which will win out?” I blurted out.
“I don’t,” Cameron stated, “I allow them to flow freely. When I am around Chinese, I act Chinese. But when I am in America I adapt to American ways, and act like an American. They don’t really conflict with each other; they actually mesh beautifully. By understanding both cultures I feel that I can relate to more people. Just like an egg yolk doesn’t come in conflict with the egg white. I don’t have conflict with Chinese and American culture. Sometimes it is easy to determine which part is yellow and which part is white, but there are times I feel like a scrambled egg because it is all blended together.
These words sink into my brain like an anchor.
Years later I moved to America as an adult with my family. When my daughter was in American school, I remembered what that foreign boy has said years before, “I am an egg.”
I remember one morning when my adorable daughter walked into the kitchen where I was making breakfast and asked, “Mommy, am I Chinese or American?”
I looked at my adorable daughter, her eyes so innocent, recalling how I had searched Cameron’s eyes on the first day of class.
I pointed to the bananas on the counter. “Do you see those bananas? You are like a banana yellow on the outside, but white on the inside. Just like yellow doesn’t come in conflict with white, your Chinese side and your American side don’t fight, they are happy together.” With that I handed her a banana; my little cultural banana.