Skin Deep

September 27, 2009
A full ten seconds has gone by; I’m not fooling anyone here. An awkward cough wrenches its way from my throat. A bead of sweat zigzags down my cheek, and not only because of the lack of ventilation. Offhandedly, I find myself wishing my school offered more pragmatic courses, like “AP Fruit Market Transactions.”

The market vendors conceal quiet chuckles behind their hands, nudging each other knowingly as they eye this waiguoren, the foreigner from America. Never mind my pencil-straight hair and almond-shaped eyes. Never mind that my kitchen probably has enough soy sauce to flood a third world country. Never mind that I can wield chopsticks in a dozen different ways. What is irrefutable proof in America fails to cut the cake here. To them, I am still just a white person hiding in a Chinese skin, unable to tell the ripe fruit from the unripe.

When I returned to Shanghai last summer, my family immediately took an unofficial vote and decided that I was no longer truly Chinese, despite the number of times I tried to demonstrate my chopstick aptitude. My mother was prone to minor heart attacks at the littlest things, like my paying for ice cream by myself (“She’ll be cheated out of her money!”) I refrained from pointing out that numbers, at least, were universally constant.

After nearly two weeks of diligent lessons in fruit selection, I finally obtained the coveted permission for an independent trip to the market. In an attempt to blend in with the locals, I carried only a small wicker basket and a tattered Ziploc bag full of coins, but of course the vendors all recognized me by then.

The melons were still in season, and an entire line of covered tables displayed samples of fruit in all shapes and sizes. The sellers hadn’t forgotten me—at each stand, I was greeted with a condescending smile and an outstretched hand with a piece of fruit already in it. Their disdain couldn’t have been greater than if they had patted me on the head.

One vendor holding out a perfectly rounded melon caught my eye. The outer skin practically glowed, the sugary scent of fresh fruit wafting up irresistibly. Eager to demonstrate my newly mastered skills, I rapped the fleshiest part of my knuckles against the underside of the fruit, expecting to hear the solid bong of a ripe melon. Instead, the sound resonated hollowly in my ears, and I realized—it was weeks under-ripe! In my best intimidating voice, I mustered up a passable Chinese accent and accused the vendor of trying to cheat me out of my money.

His astonished expression was priceless, and I couldn’t help but throw him a satisfied smirk. My perseverance had proven what skin-deep indicators could not: I had the potential, if not the upbringing, to retain the part of me that was still truly Chinese.

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