THE BLOG
07/16/2014 12:02 pm ET Updated Sep 15, 2014

Why Am I Speaking Chinese in England?

I haven't been home in two months. I've been bouncing from country to country - from doing research in Hong Kong to backpacking through Spain to studying abroad in Oxford - and I feel very lucky to have all the opportunities to do so. But it's the summer after my freshman year, and all of a sudden I find myself aching for the comforts of home, for something more than a room that isn't my own and a suitcase that contains all my life possessions (at least, for now).

Funny thing is, home can be found in the most unlikely of places. This morning, I learned my room had a doorbell for the first time when a woman rang it and told me she was here to clean my dorm (a luxury that Duke doesn't offer, but this is Oxford, y'all). And so I stumbled out of bed and let her in, and I busied myself with tidying up my room as she entered. I was slightly mortified that it was 10 in the morning and I had just woken up, but I digress.

We worked in silence for a few moments - her changing my sheets, I moving piles of jeans and dirty t-shirts from the backs of chairs to the drawers that they belonged in - until she turned to me and asked, "Are you Chinese?"

Here's the thing. When most people ask me this, they begin with the slightly more subtle, "Where are you from?" to which "Houston," is never the right answer. Eventually, we get to "Well, my parents are from China," and the accompanying, "Ahh, that's what I thought."

But I answered her with "yes," and she fired off some follow-up questions, consisting of was I born in the U.S. or China (the U.S.) and could I speak Chinese (yes, Mandarin).

And then she switched to Chinese.

And we conversed.

She asked me about where home was and I told her Texas, and she asked me if that was close to New York. I told her no, but I had lived in NYC for two years, and she nodded and said she had never been to America.

America, in Chinese, is "Mei guo." "Guo" is the word for country, and "mei" means beautiful.

I told her the provinces where my parents were from, and that my entire extended family lived in China. I told her I visited every other summer.

She told me my Chinese was "bu cuo." Not bad.

She asked me how old my parents were.

She told me about her son.

She asked me if it really did cost a lot of money to go to college in America.

I laughed. And said yes.

She asked me what I was studying.

I told her I wasn't sure. "Maybe biology."

She nodded. "Bu cuo."

And then, a little while later, she told me that she was finished cleaning my room.

"Goodbye," she told me in English.

"Goodbye," I replied in Chinese.

It has been months since I have spoken to anyone in Chinese. And it was just one conversation, for maybe half an hour, so maybe I'm thinking too much into it. But in that brief period of time, I was no longer in a stranger in a foreign country.

It's funny, because I speak English more fluently than I speak Chinese, and yet I felt more comfortable speaking to her than I have in a very long time. I have always struggled being Chinese-American. I have always struggled trying to figure out whether I could ever be truly American or truly Chinese. In my college applications, I said that I had finally learned that I was both, but sometimes I feel like I'm not one or the other.

But it has been months since I have been home, months since I've had my dad's cooking or heard my mom call us to dinner. It's been months since I've conversed with my siblings over rice and vegetables and Chinese sausage, and months since the fluid cadences of Chinese have washed over me.

Today, though, I found out that home is more than a place or a meal, and it is more than the people surrounding me. It's the familiarity of a language that I grew up speaking, and I know that I may not be fully American or fully Chinese but what does that matter, when I can come to an English-speaking country and I can hold a conversation in Chinese?

Maybe I will only ever feel comfortable when I am not defined as Chinese or American, but a little bit of both but also some of neither - in the end, I am just me.

Sign up for our email.
Find out how much you really know about the state of the nation.