The first time I visited my relatives in China I was eleven. You can imagine the culture shock; I had grown up accustomed to the material comforts of America, and at the time I first visited, China was still quite poor. There was no TV in the house, and we’d have to go over to our next-door neighbors, where, with the luxury of air-conditioning, windows and a big color TV, I would feel that I was in heaven.
I was a big basketball fan then, and basketball was quite popular in China too. In order to watch the games, I would go over to my neighbor’s house. Seated before the television, with the cool air breezing in my face, I would sneak a glance at the pretty daughter. We were both too shy to say anything to each other at the time, but because I would come over every time the games were on, it became natural for her to see me in her home, and before long we became familiar. Every morning, if the games weren’t on, she would come by my window, and ask if I was free. I was living the carefree life of a middle school student on summer break then, so naturally I had plenty of free time, and off we would go, on some adventure.
One day, we found a basketball court near our neighborhood. The NBA championships had just ended; inspired by the athletic feats and heroics I had just witnessed, I was fired up to play. There were some other kids that were playing already, and seeing that I had no ball, I worked up the courage and asked to play with them. You should have seen me; competing against these ordinary Chinese boys, I was magnificent. I made shot after shot, dribbled behind the back, through the legs . . . they were astonished, and amazed, and so was my neighbor, who had been patiently watching, curious at the follies and passions of little boys. She smiled brightly then, and joined in as all the boys clapped me on the back, said how amazing it was that I could play like that, that America must truly be an amazing place if all of its children possessed those kinds of skills. My chest swelling, I felt a true sense of pride, and even more so because my neighbor had been there to witness it. I wished to impress her, I realized perhaps unconsciously that I had a crush on her.
I would go to the courts often. Finally getting my own ball, I would practice my dribbling, and take shots, while my neighbor watched on. I would try to show off to her then, I would exaggerate the difficulties of a move or try to do something flashy. She admired me all the same, maybe even enjoyed my childish antics, and I felt as if I were a superhero.
One day, as I was playing, and showing off to my neighbor, a pair of boys approached. They looked scruffy, and had deep tans. They had no ball, and instead of asking to play with mine, they snatched it instead. I was deeply confused; having been schooled in middle-class manners, I was shocked at the notion that someone could just take my ball. I timidly asked for it back; the ringleader, with furious eyes, pushed me to the ground. The push didn’t hurt, and I was determined to show that I had been unaffected. I got back up, and started chewing on a piece of gum, as nonchalant a gesture as I could muster. This merely infuriated the boy, and he pushed me again, and down I fell, and this time, perhaps too shaken to be able to hide my emotions, I began to cry. At this moment, my neighbor came back with an adult, and the adult chased the kids away. My neighbor patted me on the back again, this time to console me, but this only made me cry harder, knowing that my neighbor had been a witness to my humiliation.
I would be escorted back to my grandparent’s house, where the women all surrounded me, patting me on the back, patching me up, soothing me with comforting words, and saying how naughty that other boy was, and how some kids these days just weren’t raised right, and that boys like that deserved a spanking. She would be there too, having explained the whole thing, and they would all say that she was a nice girl, and how lucky I was that she was there. This only made me cry harder, and I would cry a lot that day.
Afterwards, she would come by my window again, just like she used to, and ask if I was free, and I would tell her, “No.” No, I’m not free, I have to do work now, I have to study. She would leave, without saying a word of protest.
Pretty soon the summer came to an end, and I had to leave back for America. After tearful hugs and embraces and promises of visits in the future, we took our bags to the waiting car. The adults would do most of the heavy lifting, but I wished to appear useful, and I would help with the carrying. Soon we were finished, and all of our relatives surrounded us as we got in the car. Some were crying, and others were waving, saying, “See you soon!” As the car drove off, I saw a small figure appear, darting out from the crowd of familial faces. It was my neighbor’s daughter; she was running after the car desperately, as if she had something to say, as if she were afraid to be left behind. . . . I could have told them to stop the car then, I could have opened the window and waved back towards her, and shouted out to her that I liked her, that I was so happy to have met her, that I hoped to see her again. . . . But instead, I looked forward, and pretended not to have seen her.