A plum blossom by any other name

HOW can I possibly explain how I felt about China? All my life I have fought to be considered simply ``American.'' All my life -- despite the fact that my nose has the bridgeless Chinese mark of distinction, despite my Chinese name, despite the fact that I am half Chinese -- I insisted, ``Chinese? Are you crazy? I was born in California!'' And yet the pull was there. I read all that I could on modern China: what was happening, what it was like. Dragons began finding their way into the scribbles I drew on the borders of my notebook pages. And then the opportunity to go to China came, the home of half my ancestors.

In China, I stepped off the plane, jostled along the crowded ramp to the Peking airport terminal. I was hot. It was muggy. A hundred or more people scooted around, grabbing at their luggage. The native Chinese personnel came up to me and spoke quickly in Chinese. I was horrified. I am not Chinese. Why did they think I was?

I was overjoyed. I was not a foreigner, I ``fit in.'' I smiled nervously and stuttered in broken Chinese -- crammed from ``learn Chinese in three weeks'' cassettes -- ``Wo bu dong. Uh, wo shi, uh . . . meiguo, uh . . . ren.'' (``I don't understand. I am . . . American.'') They looked at me, wondering, and I felt stupid. I smiled quickly and searched for my father.

China was not what I expected. I wanted pagodas and quaintly dressed peasants, bicycles and. . . . I got high-rises and crowds, Western clothes, intermingled with pagodas and bicycles. I felt at odds. And then came Nanjing.

Nanjing is called one of the three ovens of China and in July, I understood why immediately. The air was so heavy and humid. My arms, legs -- my whole body was covered in sweat. Yet all around me there was activity.

The streets were lined with giant sycamores, shading the pavement, which was speckled with flecks of sunlight that managed to slip past the leafy roof and thus mirrored the dappled bark of the trees. The streets, the trees, all were woven into a single living tapestry.

Laundry hung in the trees and windows like paper lanterns, and vendors squatted on the curbs, their harvests of fresh watermelon, peaches, green beans, and ginger root piled into mini-mountains.

Everywhere there were people, walking, riding bicycles, and pushing strollers made from bamboo. Men and women pulled carts in tai chi rhythm, unable to move faster under their heavy burdens. Down the middle, trucks and jeeps and taxis and ``bread box'' buses criss-crossed their way through the heart of Nanjing.

I walked slowly, admiring the sites: the ancient power of the Zhonghua Gate where several thousand soldiers could fight and hide; the goldfish pond at the Taiping Rebellion museum with its sculptured trees and rock formations. Schoolgirls were giggling and passing a camera as they posed with their sun umbrellas and their garish fans. They paid me no mind. So long as I did not speak, I was Chinese.

Then we went 36 stories above the city to the Jinling Hotel's Sky Palace (restaurant/lounge). The Jinling is the largest hotel in China. I could see all of Nanjing, even the Yangtze River Bridge, one of China's proudest achievements -- designed by Chinese engineers and built by Chinese workers without the patronizing hand of foreigners. I could not make out the vendors beneath the trees but I knew they were there . . . their bicycle carts idle until the evening. Then I was told I was to see the park my father and his family, my Ye-ye (grandfather) and Ni-ni (grandmother), had often visited when they lived here, more than 35 years ago. The Sun Yat-sen Mausoleum.

The sun beat heavily on my head and I wished I, too, had an umbrella. The ancient pines whispered encouragement, with their caressing shade, but we must hurry on to the Linggu Pagoda, I was told.

As we traveled down the wooded road, I was told the history of the city. I was hot and half asleep. I heard fragments. Nanjing -- where Ni-ni had her elementary school. Nanjing -- where Sun Yat-sen lived. Nanjing -- official tree, the pine; official flower, the meihua. I drowsed. Meihua echoed in my dream.

Then we were at the pagoda. Twenty minutes and we must go, my father told me. He had to attend a meeting with people from the university. He pointed to a tall pagoda shining in the heat, glittering in typical Chinese joie-de-vivre colors -- red, green, gold, blue, and black. Twenty minutes.

``I'll wait here,'' my father said and sat beneath the pines, fanning himself. I nodded and hurried to the pagoda. At the base I looked up into the tightly coiled helix that served as the only stairway. Old men and women clambered up and children clambered down. I gritted my teeth and climbed. Twenty minutes, 19, 18. I ran. I began to pant, sweat poured from my forehead, rivers down my back. Fourth floor, fifth. Fifteen minutes. Sixth floor.

I ran harder, bent over double as the head space decreased and the curve tightened. Then at last! I had reached the summit.

I rushed out onto the ``balcony'' and gazed out over all of Nanjing. The view was slightly less than from the Jinling but just as impressive. My mind was reeling.

A breeze brushed my face, when suddenly! Meihua! The word shattered my thoughts. The official flower. My name -- May-lee (mei-li in Chinese). Mei -- as in flower, plum blossom. It was chosen by my Ye-ye, who is from Nanjing.

I made the connection. The meihua of Nanjing was the same Mei as my name. Nanjing is the city of my flower!

In ancient times it was believed that if someone called you by your true name, he could have power over you. Now suddenly I had discovered the significance of my name, which had previously only been a pain to explain to each new teacher I got in school in America. Now I knew my true name. I was inebriated with the discovery. The sun glanced off my watch and I remembered. I flew down the stairs and ran to my father, smiling.

I explained to him, ``Papa, I know why Ye-ye chose my name `May-lee.' '' I was overjoyed. I had gained the ancient power of the name. I had gained power over myself.

That night we went to the Sky Palace of the Jinling Hotel and sat and watched the city lights from the revolving ballroom as we ate chocolate cake. Someone pointed to the Yangtze River Bridge, two strings of golden Christmas lights against ebony silk.

I smiled inside. The dragon within me nodded approval.

I am American. I am also Chinese. I learned to accept these differences in China, the land of contradictions, in Nanjing, the city of my flower.

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