At the security counter at Beijing Capital International Airport, the agent checked my Canadian passport and asked me if I was born in China in a Northern Accent. As rehearsed, I waited for my mom to translate the question into English, then said yes. The woman nodded and handed back my passport alongside a piece of scrap paper the size of my palm.
My mom – who had now moved so close to me we might as well have been side-by-side on a morning bus into UBC – gave me the nudge, which meant it was time for me to start pretending I couldn’t write my own name.
I did not have to do this the last time I returned to China because I had still been carrying a Chinese passport. Last time, the security agent had asked his questions, and I had worn my flawless Shandong accent like a badge of honour. Last time, showing I hadn’t lost my roots had been a good thing, the kind of behaviour that had elicited responses like “very good, little comrade” or “yes, in China we speak Chinese” from the security agents. However, now that I was an ex-Chinese national and was re-entering China for the first time, different rules applied. This time, I had to apply to renounce my hukou, a secondary passport that served as a form of identification within the country. Because of this, I was legally required to write my original name in Chinese characters so that the security agent could look up my name and begin the procedures for my renunciation. If that happened, it would mean days – perhaps weeks – of bureaucracy in Jinan, the city of my birth, essentially transforming my entire trip into a series of waiting rooms, watching a screen for a number. None of us wanted to spend our entire visit waiting in offices.
“This is your name,” my mom had said as we waited for our flight at YVR, handing me a piece of paper with three characters on it that sounded like my name but wasn’t. “Practice it like you don’t know how to write it.”
“I know,” I had said.
“Take this seriously. Do you know how long Wang ayi’s nephew’s brother was stuck at the Shanghai airport because the security guard got suspicious? Three hours. Do you want to be there for three hours?”
“Why can’t I just practice this and get good at it so I won’t have to pretend like I don’t know Chinese?”
My mom had looked at me intently. “Because this isn’t your name. You shouldn’t be getting good at it.”
Just like that, the hukou, this tiny piece of identification I had forgotten about for more than ten years had turned me from proudly bilingual to so whitewashed that I couldn’t write my own name or understand a question as simple as 中国出生的吗?
I pretended as much as I could to fail at writing my name – getting the strokes deliberately wrong, writing the characters so poorly that they’d make a doctor’s prescription pad look like calligraphy, and most importantly, mistaking every character for another that sounded the same so the system wouldn’t match me. Asking Clara, my brown-haired, blue-eyed girlfriend of four years to linger behind me while I wrote helped to sell the illusion. That had been Clara’s idea, which I had dismissed at first. At that moment, I realized just how much it added to the whole façade.
As I wrote, I thought about the strangeness of what I was doing. Back in Vancouver, my friends would write the few Chinese characters they knew whenever they got the chance, and I’d nod and tell them that their writing was good and that they were still connected to the land of their ancestors (I recalled one friend specifically, who told me once that writing Chinese characters made her feel that her ancestors would find her across the Pacific). The thoughts of my friends put me in the mood to reminisce and made me thankful to my mom and dad for bringing me to a country where I could become someone with time to think grateful thoughts. Then I started thinking of what would happen if the agent caught me or, God forbid, somehow matched my or my mother’s name, and got anxious. On top of potentially preventing me from seeing my grandparents for the first time in five years and ruining Clara’s first visit to China, renouncing the hukou meant giving up the claim my parents had on the apartment they’d owned in Jinan since before I was born (the hukou was the document needed to prove home ownership).
I tried to shake off the thoughts by forcing myself to focus again on the paper in front of me, but when I looked down at what I’d written, I almost screamed. Somehow – probably due to muscle memory – I had correctly written the third and final character of my Chinese name. Worse, the neatness and fluidity of the character suggested that I had been writing Chinese all my life. I glanced up at the agent, who was looking at me with knit brows, and wondered if she had noticed the discrepancy, whether she’d paid enough attention to have caught me in a lie. I froze, unable to bring myself to hand the paper back.
“What the hell did you just write?” my mom said. She scooted me to the side and ripped the pen out of my hand. “That is not your name.”
She crossed out the last character and began to rewrite. But as she put pen to paper, she froze for a moment as well. She was stuck trying to come up with a new character because, like any good, normal parent, the first thing that would have come to her mind when told to write her child’s name was the real one. I watched her frown, watched her scratch her head, and appraised the security agent’s look of puzzlement at my mom’s look of puzzlement. That was the difference between my mom and me: she couldn’t pretend not to know Chinese. Her identity was too solid for that. I remember watching Mom struggle as another wave of intrusive thoughts flooded in: a cold interrogation room; an agent from upper government; questions about why we’d been trying to pass security with a fake name; and implicit accusations of espionage. I remembered the news stories about Yang Hengjun, the ex-Chinese Australian detained indefinitely in Guangzhou under suspicion of espionage while being subjugated to a dubious trial process. For a brief second, I feared that I would never see Canada again.
Deep down, a part of me knew the truth would have been less dramatic. Probably some forms to fill out. Probably a warning and a lecture. Possibly a fine. I’d grown up long enough in China to know it wasn’t so dystopic that it would bother persecuting people as insignificant as me and my family. Yet, in those moments of anxiety, I found myself unable to pull my imagination away from the stereotypical narratives of China propagated in the country I now lived in. It was then I understood what it meant to lose a piece of my home. It was to shed a certain knowledge you had of it in favour of another. It was then I realized that I was no longer different from my friends who could barely write their names.
My mom clicked the pen closed and handed the paper back to the agent. She glanced at it, then ran it through the computer, waving us through a moment later. As we rolled our luggage past the securities counter, I trailed behind a little to watch the next family approach. I wondered how they were going to write their names. Ahead of me, my dad began speaking to Clara.
“Did you know it was a Japanese invention?” he said. “In World War Two, the Japanese occupying forces used it to keep track of Chinese citizens under their control. After Japan’s surrender, the Chinese government eventually re-adopted the system to keep track of its own people.”
Clara turned around and called for me to catch up. “Did you know about this?” she asked when I rejoined the group. “How interesting.”
“Of course I did,” I said. “How would you have known before me?”
She seemed taken aback. “I was just asking.”
We headed out of the airport, hailing a taxi to take us into the heart of Beijing. A single character of my name stayed behind at the counter, buried under a sea of ink.
Audruin Yu is a first-gen, Chinese-Canadian author and teacher based in Vancouver, Canada. He mostly writes science fiction but is equally excited to write in other genres. His sci-fi works have appeared in Daily Science Fiction (under Tim Yu), The Colored Lens, and Translunar Travelers Lounge.