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
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
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
"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
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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