Feeling Caught Between Two Worlds

[The following essay was part of an assignment in an Upper School English class where students did a close reading of the novel Nervous Conditions by Zimbabwean author Tsitsi Dangarembga and wrote a personal self-to-text-reflection. – Lee Marcus, US English Faculty]

Being an Exchange Student at Poly

by Eason Yao, Contributing Writer for The Polygon

You might assume that you live in one world and have one life, as at least for now, the multiverse seems a foreign and unlikely hypothesis. However, many of us truly do live in multiple worlds within ourselves. For instance, as teenagers, we often think and act differently with our friends than with our family. On a surface level, this is what it means to live in a mental multiverse. However, what is it like to live in two worlds that are constantly in conflict? This is the situation in which Tambu, the teenage protagonist of Nervous Conditions, and I, a Chinese-American student, find ourselves.

Nervous Conditions novel

In Nervous Conditions, a semi-autobiographical novel written by Tsitsi Dangarembga, that ninth-grade English students read this year, many characters seem stuck between worlds in one way or another. Perhaps this is not surprising since the book was set in colonial Zimbabwe, where British control caused numerous societal problems and imbalances. Unfortunately, many natives sank into poverty, while only a selective few received formal education from the British. Tambu was one of the lucky ones. Yet, she struggled to coexist in her contradicting universes: that of her homestead and that of the wealthier mission school. The contradictions between these “worlds” posed seemingly impossible questions for Tambu: Who am I, and which world do I belong to? Throughout her coming of age, Tambu hunted for an answer while being forced to assimilate to one side or the other. By the end of the novel, with the influence of her cousin, Nyasha, Tambu realizes that education won’t necessarily lead to wealth or happiness and could even brainwash her. Gradually, suspicion and dislike of the new Western world grew, and Tambu became confused and disoriented.

It’s easy to dismiss Tambu’s struggles as specific to her and her fellow African peers. Nervous Conditions is such an impactful novel because Tambu’s story is truly universal and timeless. Millions of people worldwide suffer from the same issues as Tambu, split between distinct sets of cultures and ideologies.

Tambu’s story deeply moved me. Not only because of the tragedies that happened to various women, not only because of Tambu’s thrilling academic journeys, but also because of the internal conflicts we share. As a Chinese student studying in America, I often find myself caught between two worlds: China, my homeland, and the U.S., my education, and my future. In Tambu, I see a clear reflection of myself. I felt empathetic for Tambu’s mental struggles, knowing that I, along with many others, have experienced the same.

Eason Yao / Hongze Yao
Eason Yao on a river in his hometown in China.

There are several moments in the novel that I particularly correlate to. Most notably, Tambu’s initial parting with her family induced me to reflect on my own experience of leaving a place where I have spent my whole life. I was born in Fuzhou, a small city in China. Since my parents were pretty well-off, I received a decent education in an international school and got what I wanted most of the time. However, in China, the common assumption is that better education and life lie abroad, with more opportunities to succeed. In Tambu’s society, Babamukuru had a similar opinion, incessantly promoting that Western education would make people better somehow. Indeed, many people in developing countries see the developed, Western world as superior to theirs. But is this really true? I often pondered this question and found the answer to be a no. Still, I was quite attracted by the idea of going abroad at the time. Anyways, many of the wealthy adults close to my family sent their children to Western countries. Eventually, my parents would put themselves into this category. In 7th grade, I decided — or rather my parents decided for me — to attend school in the US.

To put it simply, it was a bold decision. We left behind a lot: our home, our family, and our culture, among lots of other things. And what was the reward? Honestly, I don’t know. For me, the US represents a glorious future. I wrote down countless hopes and aspirations on my wishlist: friends, tennis, freedom, Ivy League, big salary, big house, big life… however, none were guaranteed. Besides, the decision meant leaving behind my beloved hometown and entering a world I had barely been to before. There was also the question of ideology: I needed to adapt to the Western way of living and thinking, which, as I later realized, has as many problems as any other. It is safe to say that my two worlds commenced a battle in my head the moment we finalized our decision to move here.

The battle never ended. I have been totally stuck between the two worlds. On the one hand, I have enjoyed life, and my goals are mostly on track. Nothing has really gone wrong. However, there are still a lot of moments when I doubt whether I should be here and where I belong, particularly during periods of high tensions.

“On the one hand, my national and cultural pride plunged, and I was content to be in the U.S. On the other hand, I began to think that I did not belong here.”

For instance, the COVID pandemic unnerved me. The fact that my home country and the rest of my family were under such a severe threat reduced me to tears. Besides, I was overwhelmed with a strong feeling of guilt, the feeling that I was betraying my country and escaping danger. My heart was torn between sympathy for China and appreciation for the place I lived in. However, my troubles did not end there. Rumors about the virus spread like wildfire at the start of the pandemic. A major one was that China leaked the virus from a lab. Therefore, the coronavirus was often referred to as the “Wuhan virus” or “Chinese virus.” This rumor dealt me a hammer blow, as it did to countless Chinese people who loved their home country. We were enraged but powerless. Discrimination against Chinese people, even within the Asian community, increased drastically. Although I have never experienced it directly, I heard countless stories of anti-Chinese discrimination, from unintentional accusations to explicit hate crimes. This shook my sense of identity. On the one hand, my national and cultural pride plunged, and I was content to be in the U.S. On the other hand, I began to think that I did not belong here.

Eason Yao / Hongze Yao
Selfie of Eason at the East River in Brooklyn Bridge Park, New York City.

Like Tambu, I took the middle path. It is the least-trodden path, filled with obstacles and challenges. However, Tambu and I decided on this path because of our common indecision. Mentally, we were both unable to pick a side, primarily because of the various contradictions between our respective two worlds. We endured the constant warfare, literally and figuratively, between our two worlds.

Note: This article was originally published in The Polygon’s May/June 2022 issue.