by Margot Durfee

a brown leaf drifts lazily through the air, pirouetting and fluttering until it softly lands on the cobblestone
only to be crushed
under the sole of a dirty white sneaker. the air is crisp, every sound, from the hollering of children, to the music drifting through kitchen windows, to the ringing of bike bells is
clear, bright
trees rustle as their remaining leaves depart. small, grey sparrows hop along the street in search of scraps to feed their babies.

Mei-Lin walks down a narrow, winding road lined with hutongs: traditional one-floor Chinese courtyard homes that have large wooden doors, chipped red paint, and brass handles, that have housed the same families for generations, that have been slowly bought out by the government
and reduced
to street blocks of waist-high rubble
and replaced
with flashy cafes and department stores.

Mei-Lin has lived in Beijing her whole life.
she has walked past the same buildings and people every day after school since she was little.
and yet,
when she passes by the children chasing one another, the elderly women peeling vegetables on their doorsteps, the men smoking and drinking tea and playing chess,
when she smiles at them, all she receives are
blank stares.
she feels
isolated, invisible, as if she is on one side of a tinted window and the rest of the world is on the other. she has been alive long enough, and experienced enough,
to know that she doesn’t fit in,
especially in a country as racially homogenous as China, where her biracial-ass sticks out starkly
her chestnut hair and hazel eyes
a constant reminder
that she isn’t “one of them,” even though she has similar features: a rounded, flatter nose; almond-shaped eyes; straight, thick hair.

she identifies as a (mixed) Chinese person. she celebrates the Lunar New Year and Mid-Autumn festival with her family, she is near fluent in Mandarin,
but still Chinese students in her classes mock her pronunciation, even converse in front of her as if she cannot understand
restaurant waiters automatically hand her a fork,
give her an English menu
recommend westernized dishes,

one day, after a birthday party
her friends decided to do an
“Asian-only” photo and they asked her to

off she goes again
chasing a receding current
so close yet forever out of reach
she is confused when her very culture and city she calls home do not seem to want her
as if she is pretending to be something she is not
as if there is another life she should live, that she belongs in
except there isn’t

she feels stranded
like she’s jumped on a boat
and only too late
has she realized
everyone around her is on another

it didn’t help that her mother
her anchor
the one who taught her about her culture
how to make dumplings during Chinese festivals
and become an expert bargainer at markets
and muster the courage to compete
and fail miserably in
the weekly badminton contest at the local park
was diagnosed with lung cancer when she was fourteen
and passed two years later

her father tries
she knows he loves her
but he’ll never be able to understand
like her mother did
nor will she be able to go into a room
with any hope of passing
when her very tall, very white, very American father
walks in behind her.

a hot iron slab hisses as a dollop of silky batter is ladled
a wooden spatula deftly spreads the batter into a thin pancake on top of which
a whisked egg poured
a crispy wonton wrapper placed
fresh green scallions and toasted sesame seeds sprinkled
all swiftly folded into a neat rectangle
a jianbing
is handed in a crinkly paper wrapper to Mei-Lin,
who gratefully receives it with her wind-numbed fingertips, her rosy cheeks blissfully enveloped in a warm, fragrant cloud.

she used to go here with her mother
striding arm-in-arm down the road
strangers returning their beams
sun glinting off windows
on chilly days, they would stop at the little food cart on the street corner
and each buy one
and walk to a nearby park and sit on a bench overlooking a reflecting pond

her mother used to say min yi shi wei tian:
Chinese people value eating to the highest degree
that no matter how she looks, speaks, moves through life her love for Chinese food roots her identity
all the moments she has felt included have been around food
passing steaming stacks of dim sum across tables with her extended family who give her chopsticks and speak to her in rapid Mandarin with no mercy

at the jianbing stand
month after month
year after year
they greeted the same woman behind the stove
with her mother, she felt whole
she could practically see the connection in people’s heads, realizing she was Chinese
affectionately calling her “xiaomei”
xiaomei, what will you both order today?
aww, you are so sweet xiaomei
see you next week xiaomei
xiaomei, where is your mother?
when she went to the stand
for the first time
the woman smiled at her warmly and prepared her regular order

There are days when Mei-Lin fears forgetting
her culture, her language, her identity
but today, munching on her jianbing,
beneath a swaying willow tree
its dancing leaves a spectrum of green reflecting off the glassy pond
she feels her mother smiling with her
and she is whole.