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The Ring
A refugee's progress

It is windy. The sun hides behind a dark gray ceiling. It will rain soon. From an invisible loudspeaker a voice penetrates my inner silence: "Last call for Lufthansa Flight 443 from Berlin to Boston."

My parents help my 84-year-old grandmother to stand up. They say, "Take care of yourself. Be careful with new people and call us as often as you can!" They speak without looking in my eyes.

But I can see their eyes; they are red and wet. My grandmother's lips are shaking. She touches my face with her tender but cold hand and says, "Study hard, and if you can, come to China to see me!"

Outside, it starts to rain. I pick up my drawing portfolio and stand there motionless, voiceless. Then the word good-bye slips from my lips and, in what seems a second later, I am in the sky. I feel a hard object in my pocket and discover a platinum ring. It is my grandmother's ring. My nose becomes sour and I close my eyes.

Hitler's favorite architect, Albert Speer, designed the building of the Immigration Bureau of Berlin -- sharp-edged concrete in cold gray, magnificent windows three times as tall as they are wide, and a marbled foyer so lofty and vast that inside it one feels like an ant in a Gothic church. An androgynous voice calls my name but only the echo is audible. From behind a wooden door whose nameplate reads Frau Herzog, a middle-aged blond woman with green eyes appears.

"So, Mr. Zheng, your application for a German student visa has been rejected," she says. "I don't see any reason why you should continue your education further in Germany. You have been allowed to stay here for 10 years and now you have the German high school diploma, which allows you to study elsewhere. Within the next 30 days you must leave the country; otherwise the police will take care of your transportation back to China -- at your own expense, of course."

I am enraged, but I say in a calm voice, "My parents have German citizenship. Why can't I at least receive a student visa?"

"I can explain this to you," she answers. "Your parents came before the German reunification, and have paid taxes for 15 years. This fact allowed them to receive the German passport. Your case is quite different. You came after the reunification, when laws concerning working permissions for foreigners were changed. As a foreign high school student you were not allowed to work here. Thus you couldn't pay taxes, which means you don't have the right to apply for a passport. We let you stay here to complete your high school studies. Now you are done, so I don't see any reason why you should be here in Germany any longer."

The explanation is so inhumanly logical. I've lived in Berlin for 10 years; I won a nationwide architectural competition and graduated from high school with the fourth-best GPA in my class -- and there's no reason why I should be allowed to continue my education in Germany? It's even more inhuman to compel me to leave my German friends, and my parents.

My German friends accept me as one of them, as a German. We go together to the Oktoberfest each year; we talk about German politicians and celebrities; we all dream in German. Before each exam, I realize how much they perceive me as a German. My phone does not stop ringing until they have all called to ask questions about German literature, grammar, and spelling. I make fewer grammar and spelling mistakes than they do. I understand German literature and can analyze it more deeply than they can. My teachers call me "a Chinese tutor for German students." I appreciate this opinion because it means my German friends trust me. I help them with academic problems; in return they affirm that I belong with them, in their lives, in their country. Considering myself a foreigner is actually quite unfamiliar to me, because my whole environment confirms there is a German inside of me.

Of course, my parents do not think so. They see in me their Chinese son, as ever. We talk in Chinese, in our northern dialect. We eat only Chinese food because it is the best we know. However, back in China, I am not perceived as pure Chinese. Every time I visit my relatives, my cousins laugh when they realize that I do not know the famous people in China. People laugh at me as I wait for the green light to cross the street, because no one does that; in karaoke bars the computer stalls when I type in songs I remember from my childhood. Once when I asked my cousin to let me hear his CDs of a well-known Chinese rock star, he refused me. In a belittling voice he said, "You won't understand the social problems he sings about. You didn't live here for the past 10 years. You know nothing!" I felt as if I had been hit by lightning. It's true that I haven't lived in China for a long time, and that I know little about it beyond the human rights and environmental problems on the news. I am ashamed of being Chinese on my passport yet not knowing what is happening there.

Here I am, between two countries, with no identification from either Germany or China; a cultural bastard, legally rejected by the one and socially rejected by the other.

As I enter the American Embassy in Berlin, the pleasant atmosphere raises my hopes that I will get into the United States. The room is bright with American flags mounted in every available spot. A man behind a counter separated from the room by safety glass calls the appointment numbers in German with an English accent. Everyone in the room seems to be nervous but focused. I hear conversations in a variety of languages, mostly Turkish and Yugoslavian. In a small room, an American woman behind safety glass asks me in Chinese why I want to study in America. I am surprised that she speaks perfect Chinese, but I tell her calmly the reasons I have prepared for this interview. After five minutes she says that I should receive the American visa within the next seven days, and wishes me all the best for my study in Boston.

No, I am not in a dream. America is really willing to accept me. I feel honored by this opportunity but it means that I will definitely leave my friends and my family. Strangely, I am not sad at all, but overwhelmed by the fact that I will be allowed to work toward my goals in the one country where it is most possible to succeed. I have already forgotten China, forgotten Germany. I have found the place to be.

"Ladies and gentlemen, we are facing some turbulence. Please fasten your seatbelts."

I feel my grandma's ring in my hand. She must have put it into my pocket this morning. Why? This ring accompanied her for her entire life. When the Chinese Communists came to power, it was the only item she kept to remind us of our Manchurian origin -- even though it would have exposed our aristocratic past and given the Communists enough reason to kill everyone in the family. This ring secured the family's survival when she traded it for food during a harsh winter in the 1950s. When life and death were no longer at stake, she immediately traded back for it.

Now it's in my hand and I am not sure how I earned it. Maybe she wants it to bring me luck for my new start in America; maybe she just wants me to have something that will always remind me of her. Whatever others, Chinese or German, friends or relatives, say or think about me, she loves me as a person, as her only grandson. She understands how I feel being caught between cultures. Grandma, don't be worried anymore. America is as diverse as I am, as confused as I am. Maybe I am not going to another country. Maybe I am going home.

Duncan Zheng

Duncan Zheng '02 (born Shi Zheng) left China for Berlin in 1989 at the age of 11. He entered the United States in 1998, and is majoring in finance and economics at the Carroll School. This story first appeared in Fresh Ink, which features writing by BC freshmen.

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