Jack Fei, named after my grandfather, was born in Seattle, Washington in 1949. If you type ‘Jack Fei’ in a Google search, you will see my photo (color) next to his (black and white). My daughter, Elizabeth thinks the resemblance is ‘uncanny’. In the exhibition, you may read about the experiences of ‘Chi Hao Fei’ one of Two Martyrs of Cathay. Chi Hao Fei was my grandfather’s uncle.
My father, John C.H. Fei, traveled from Peking to America to study economics at the University of Washington Graduate School in 1947. My mother came from Shanghai to America to join him and bear a child so both would be able to stay in the United States after the expected Communist takeover. Thus I entered the world around the time Communists took control of China.
Chinese was the language spoken in our house. I was home bound child having no social contact with other children. But my father taught me how to name things in English and would proudly have his number one son recite nursery rhymes to Italian shopkeepers.
By then, the family moved to Boston where I started nursery school. I noticed white children, black children, and brown children but no one who looked like me. I was different. I talked to nobody and nobody talked to me. I would spend most mornings staring out the window overlooking the Charles River. I would watch streetcars slowly crossing over a bridge, going somewhere.
At a teacher’s conference, my father was stunned when told his ‘genius’ number one son could be autistic. When he shared her feedback with me, I told him my teacher was kindly but rather stupid woman. My father concluded I had social issues that could be fixed by my learning to use English as a native language. His way of encouraging this was to poke fun and tease me when I spoke Chinese.
So I learned to stop speaking Chinese, determined to assimilate in American Society. This wasn’t a hard decision since weren’t enough Chinese for a community. There were *no* Chinese kids in my elementary school in Yellow Springs, Ohio and two Chinese teenagers at my high schools in Orange, Connecticut and Ithaca, New York.
So I made friends with my peers – white Americans. But no matter what I did, I looked different and was treated differently. Sometimes it was bigotry and prejudice (‘dirty chink’ or ‘slanty eyes’), other times it was curiosity much like they looked at persons in a carnival freak show. I aspired to be like an upper middle class white American: attend an Ivy League college, marry a white woman (there were no Chinese women among my peers and my father’s idea of arranged marriage to a Taiwanese did not appeal), have a career, grow wealth, and be respected member of the community. In short, the American Dream.
Today, I’m an illiterate 65 year old Chinese considering retirement. With effort, I can recall phrases constructed with the vocabulary of a five year old. But I speak in perfect Mandarin tones! I had a once in a lifetime opportunity to visit Beijing when my daughter spent her junior year abroad. I discovered the location of the Fei compound (hutong), now the site of a budget hotel. I bowed at my grandparent’s gravesite (see photo). I met Samuel and Oberlin Fei, Chi Hao’s sons. Sadly, no ancestral spirits were there to welcome me home. Nor did I experience déjà vu. I’ve discovered I really don’t belong in Beijing either.
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