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“So, where are you guys from?” The jovial, large man with the big knife sliced up the sausage I had just pointed at and smiled at my mother and I expectantly.

Going on this trip with my mom had turned out differently from what I’d expected. She first introduced it to me as a mother-daughter trip to California. But, my mother had used a Chinese-American travel agent that she found in the free newspapers my parents pick up from the Chinese grocery store. So, she ended up signing us up to travel with a Chinese tour agency that promised to take us to see everything there was to see in six days. In a way, we got our trip to California. We saw the Holiday Inn in Los Angeles. We saw the small Danish-styled village of Solvang on our way to San Francisco. We spent two days in San Francisco, most of which was spent wandering around in the cold, in Chinatown, or both. The rest of the trip was not in California. We saw Las Vegas, the Grand Canyon, the Hoover Dam, parts of the Yosemite, and various other rest stops disguised as destinations.

But the main thing that really fascinated me about the trip was the people. Most of the other travelers were couples and young families from China. They traveled differently than I was used to, bringing fresh produce onto the bus and packing very lightly, especially minimalistic in the case of the older travelers. They went to great lengths to avoid the sun and took pictures of everything.

The tour guides mostly spoke fluent English and Mandarin. Stories and instructions had to be repeated—spoken first in Mandarin then again in English, though I suspect I was the only listener. I had always known that my Mandarin skills were lacking but being surrounded by seventy people who only spoke that language really pointed out how disconnected I was.

When I’m around my friends, people who are decidedly not Asian, I group myself as a Chinese person. I will proudly talk about my heritage and marvel at how different I am to them. Though the fact that I’m Chinese-American can make me feel special, it can also make me feel separated. My parents don’t care about the same things that their parents care about. I have different worries than they do and it shows whenever we have a conversation. They can catalogue everything that they “are.” German, French, English, Polish, Italian, Irish, Scottish…they have so many different cultures that it’s all become the same. Then there’s me. I am racially one thing—Chinese. But, sitting on a bus filled with Chinese people makes me realize that Chinese is more than an ethnicity and I don’t fully belong there either.

When our group was walking on the streets of Las Vegas on our way to our next destination, an African-American man in loose-fitting clothes and bloodshot eyes sidled up to my mother and I. Perhaps he could sense how un-Chinese I was because he started talking to me and seemed to know that I could understand.

“Man. I love this country,” he grins up at the sky. “America. Am-erica. Beautiful place.” He seemed harmless. High. Definitely high. But, harmless, nonetheless. So I answered nicely.

“Yup. It sure is a great country.”

My mother was a bit alarmed and moved us further away from the man who was huffing on what was definitely not a cigarette. Still, when he asked us where we were from, she made sure that he knew that I was born and raised in America.

“We live by Detroit. She was born there. She’s American.” The man continued his patriotic love poem and my mother continued repeating,

“She’s American…she was born here…my daughter is American.”

For the entire trip, she had told people that I was born here. It was both an apology and a status symbol. Sorry, my daughter doesn’t speak Mandarin so she can’t answer your questions. My daughter was born here, not in China. This country that you are all so eager to have your pictures taken in, this is her country. She is an American.

The man assembling my sandwich stares at us expectantly.

“Michigan. We’re from Michigan,” I answer.

His brow furrows and he falters. I hear the question before he says it.

No, where are you from?



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