For most of my 14 years, summer has been about trying to read all seven Harry Potter books in a week, eating stale Easter chocolate, and watching Korean soap operas with subtitles.
Then there was two summers ago. My family and I vistited my extended family in Yanji, a city in the furthest reaches of northeast China bordering North Korea and Russia. City is probably too generous a term for it. My brother and I searched for hours to find it on a map of China, but the closest thing we could get to is a moderately-sized neighboring city. The most well known feature around Yanji is the Trans Siberian Railway, where the non-tourist line, with 18 hours between stops, runs through the area.
Yanji is like San Francisco turned upside-down. The sky is the same sticky tar as California’s sidewalks, and the buildings are skyscrapers that had given up reaching for the stars. Its small, dilapidated airport is muggy and sticky. A few bored police officers stand in the front, looking as though they would love nothing more than for someone to commit a crime, so they’d have something to do.
Then we are through passport control, and confronted by dozens of relatives I never knew I had. People stare at us, with our matching rollerbags and department store sandals, like we are aliens. I can’t catch a thing they are saying -- their language knitted together so tightly that I can’t even decipher which word was which. Not the broke-and-broken-but-brilliant-college professor, not lady-who-couldn’t-stop-obsessing-over-my-brother’s-eyebrows, not man-who-kept-shaking-my-hand.
I still can’t remember their names.
I can’t tell what they are saying, but I know they are constantly complaining about each other. Based on grandmother’s translations, they are the bluntest people I have ever met. A person’s gained weight? Say her dress doesn’t fit. Bus is old? Woah, man, your bus needs fixing. Man’s dying of cancer? Well, at least you’re not dead yet.
Which brings me to meeting my grand-uncle. In Asia, white is the new black for funeral colors. That’s why he’s wearing it. It is a constant reminder that he is dying, and it is almost as if he is actually death: the slip of a white-clad man. He clings to me and my brother like a barnacle.
My relatives’ normal is nothing like my normal. While insulting someone is A-OK, an adult not drinking at least two beers (for lunch!) brands you with the worst social stigma. In trying to fit in, my father gets drunk enough to tell me that he’s better at math than me but I’m more driven than him, that he doesn’t actually know which house from Harry Potter I belong to, and that, unfortunately, he loves me and my brother both equally.
The food is greasy and strange, and my brother and I can’t make left or right of it. I become something of a ninja master at pretending to chew food and appearing to scoop more onto my plate than I actually do, and fill my meals with water, more water, and the strange canned-pineapple topped cake we get at breakfast.
Smoking. They do it indoors, they do it outdoors, and judging by the smell and questionable burns on our hotel room’s couch, some people had done it in there, too. My uncles hold a cigarette between their teeth and take long drags from it with no hands, releasing amorphous clouds of smoke that leave me disappointed that they can’t blow elegant circles, like hobbits in Lord of the Rings.
My translating grandparents are sucked into conversations with their generation, and my non-Mandarin speaking family decides it is time to communicate. My father is accepted into the middle-aged male fraternity because of his drinking skills. My mother whips out her trusty iPad mini and, when Internet connection allows, attempts to use Google Translate, which turns out to be a false friend. When she tries to say ‘What is this (gesturing to ambiguous meat product) called?” Not sure what they think she means, but she gets a lot of laughs (the drinkers), a few scandalized looks (ladies at the other table), and a raised eyebrow (my grandfather, who does nothing to correct her). My brother takes solace in the fact his video game sounds the same here as it did on the plane.
I decide that actions speak louder than words, which means taking milk and drinking it, letting all my relatives hug me without tensing up and going on long trips in the rented, very-dented bus. I improvise, searching or drawing crude pictures of what I need, which becomes especially handy when my brother loses his retainer. But I do say one thing in broken Korean many times, and it might be “thank you” but also might be “the thoughts of them goats” or something equally random. The intention is there.
It is in Yanji where I am anointed Queen Bee. I become that girl because I’m half-Asian, or hapa, like steaming, white-brown rice: Irish and Korean ancestry mixed into a fat-cheeked, big-eyed teenager. I am four inches taller than everyone else, even when they are wearing heels, and my skin looks powdered pale in the bright sunlight. One of my cousins (removed cousin?) who speaks English says to me in an excited whisper, as if she is spilling secrets at a slumber party: “One person here thought I was your sister.”
One day, we all trundle onto the bus and head for the North Korean border. This is not the DMZ, but the China side: a concrete bridge spilling into an untamed wilderness that fades into ravaged, barren hills. Shops and dirty convenience stores litter the surrounding streets -- a tourist party embracing a grim wasteland. You can walk halfway across the bridge, unsupervised, if you’re a Chinese citizen.
We stare at the broken-down town across the river surrounded by miles of bare hills: Anything resembling a tree has been chopped down and burned for heat. People are trapped over there including some of my relatives and however many spawn they had. Or maybe they are all dead. When we walk to the border, I’m not allowed to cross for reasons that I don’t understand, because the security guard is talking so fast that his words melt together like the sun is melting my brother’s almost-American ice cream drumstick into his hand.
It is then when I realize I’ve forgotten my glasses. I don’t care, though, because neither me nor my relatives are able to see the one thing we care about. Not even with the best eyesight and years of training with iSpy books can we find find my great-grandparents’ family and friends.
The candies, Hawaiian Host-brand chocolate covered macadamia nuts my grandparents packed, are melting in their little plastic holders, and I feel somehow saddened by the fact that they had made it so far to end up here, placed in front of the grass-covered graves of my great-grandparents, submitted to the sun’s brutal whims. And though misplaced, my sadness seems fitting for this situation. I treat it like church. My brother treats it like church. My father pretends not to be out of it after so much daytime drinking. My mother tries not to fret about the fact that none of us are wearing sunscreen.
My relatives, on the other hand, look like they are having the time of their lives, smiles on their faces as we all pay our respects, which cost us a bushel of bananas, some oranges, alcohol and said candies. But it isn’t like church: It’s a celebration. We even get to eat the chocolate, which mostly gets all over my hands, and I am amazed how good it tastes after sitting on the grave of a dead person.
Back in California, my father never looks at beer the same way again, and my mother downloads all the grainy pictures onto the computer, so now we have an album titled “Summer Trip 2015.” My brother downloads a new Star Wars game, and it seems somewhat forgotten.
When I am home and tucked safely into our family’s Toyota Highlander, I gently touch my knuckle to the cold glass windowpane, then plant my forehead onto it and marvel at how the road never wavers, how it feels like we were driving on air for how smooth it is.
It is only then when I realize something about that slightly broken, constantly honking, hot bus in Yanji, where I spent hours staring out its window. The reason for the cloudiness and the stubbornness of the window in Yanji was because it was made of plastic. I wonder where, in a world of plastic windows, my great-uncle is. He had slipped into the whiteness of the clouds. And very suddenly, I am thankful I had been towed to a remote Chinese not-quite-city when I could have been reading Harry Potter.