I transform from a city girl to a immigrant with a lost tongue. After eight years, I still think of how they say that America is a culture melting pot and Canada is a culture mosaic. But often I wonder about what it’s called when you’re torn between two identities. Black and white. Dominant and recessive. Oil and water.
When I go back to China, my relatives asks me to speak English. My Chinese elementary school English teacher asks me to participate in a spelling test at the school. But being in Canada for three years doesn’t get rid of the terror of being foreign, the dependency on lukewarm memories that float from objects originating from my motherland, the noticeable awkwardness from the root of the tongue when the words “hi”, “ my name is”, “ how are you” come out.
The route from Canada to ChangSha is fairly simple: a plane flight to Hong Kong, followed a short boat trip to ShenZhen, then an express train to Changsha south station. The whole ride takes about three full days. The moment the plane starts to descend, I see the millions of buildings surrounding the plain airport field. The single space that is clear, the goal of the destination. The airport that appears in vivid dreams and unrealistic imaginations: turning, spinning, closer and closer. Sounds from distance childhood, the particular flavor of grandparent’s words, the scent on my Nanny’s homemade dress, the morning light that shines through my parents’ bedroom.
The Chinese Summer
The first breath of the August Hong Kong international Airport is a cough, a sneeze, a side of clogged nose. The Chinese summer is always full of moisture, hot and sticky. Something is constantly expanding, omnipresent. Always, there will be the umbrellas, women young and old will always carry one to block out the sun. There was the turquoise umbrella that my aunt bought for me for 50 RMB, the black umbrella of the rainy seasons in Canada, and the red dotted umbrella of my grandma–the one that she carries with her when she goes to the market. The one that I looked up to when I was a child, imagining that my grandma’s umbrella propped up the entire sky, held on to my little, unstable world.
Whenever I look down from my uncle’s apartment in the morning, I see the quiet streets slowly fill up with workers, each with a destination in mind, each with something to do, something to worry about. I wonder when I can be like them, certain about what I want to do, determined to get what I want. Instead, I lock myself inside the only room with air conditioning, numbing myself with video games and snacks from my grandma’s pocket.
Nan Gua Ba Ba
My grandpa loves to make pumpkin pancakes: he first cut off all the outside skin of the pumpkin, washes it under cold water, and then steams it until fully cooked. I always hide at the entrance to the kitchen, watching him silently do all the work. Afterwards, he mashes the pumpkin into a mush, and mixes it with rice flour. The dough has to be steaming hot when he mixes the two together. I see him backing his hands away from the dough for a second, before continuing as if he cannot feel the temperature: pressing, stretching, rolling and then all over again. The smell of my grandpa’s pumpkin pancakes has a quiet, sweet aroma that fills up the whole house, the whole city, the whole world.
My Chinese school has hallways full of books: books stacked on the sides of classroom walls, put into the bookshelves of every classroom, inside student’s desks, and in the minds of the teachers. I love the piano room the most: it is the first room to the right, on the first floor. It has a big, black, smooth piano that I never saw before. I played on it once when I sneaked into the room without the teacher noticing, it made sounds that I heard only in my dreams. I recall the electrical piano that my kindergarten teacher play on to gently wake the children during lunch time nap. Where the familiar melody of Mo Li Hua surrounds the room, flows from my memory up into the sky, disappearing in the atmosphere. Hints of Jasmine suspended in the air. I still try to recreate the chilling sound of the piano, and the evaporating phrases of Mo Li Hua after all these years.
The Spice of Hunan
One simply cannot overlook the spice in a Hunan dish, the strong aroma that fills the room. Steam blurs the lenses of my glasses, the welcoming and recognizable taste of home. I often go out with my cousin to eat. By the end of every meal, there will always be some kind of dizziness, sore throat, and a protesting stomach. Sometimes hints of tears are quietly wiped away in the midst of the chaotic flavours. The particular taste of Hunan is hidden into the hot pepper oil in black stinky tofus, in the morning rice noodles that my aunt takes me to eat every day, and the packs of spicy beef jerky that my grandma sends to Canada every year.
The Train Station
The train station in ShenZhen is always full of people. There is always the old lady or the old man, their back curved, their steps soft and light, carrying a red checkered plastic bag while weaving in and out of the crowd. Always the little rip-off island stores that sell Ramen packs for insanely high prices. Always the shady ticket sellers, sweet-talking people to avoid the hour-long ticket line. Always the smell of suspicious sickness in the air, the germs of the thousands of people floating around, giving birth to yet another thousand in the heated wetness of summer. I still recall the moment when my dad finally told me about the reason of this trip. It is always in the back of my head: the scenes of my grandma on the hospital bed during video calls, my mom’s texts to my grandpa. The second afterwards I covered my face in my backpack and screamed. I hate that train station. It rips open all the lies and dreams that I imposed on myself, it reminds me of how much I want to go back and see the concrete hill my grandpa climbs down to go to the market, the smell of my grandpa’s kitchen, the arms that were put around me on the day of my departure to Canada.
My grandpa sits alone in a room that was meant for two people. Two chairs, two pillows, two toothbrush, one person. He didn’t turn on the light. I wander off into deep thought. What makes a person dead? I step into my grandma’s funeral hall with tears running down, knees bent, shaking. I step into my grandma’s funeral hall, with an exhausted soul that had been travelling for three days non-stop. I step into my grandma’s funeral hall, seeing my dad bawling his eyes out for the first time. My grandma’s picture on the wall straight across from the entrance, the softened eyes, slightly frowning lips, hair that is already white as snow. I thought about how she felt when she took that photo. I thought about how I still remember my grandma’s hug: I put my arms around her and I can feel the curve of her backbone, soft and cold.
One Last Look
I see my grandpa lying in the casket. Asleep in the cold, alive in the dreams. I simultaneously see two images: the eyes that inundated with warmth when I eat his pumpkin pancake, and the motionless body in front of my eyes. The hands that use to carry me around, and the hands that enclose my little body when I fall asleep, the hands that wipe away food residue from my mouth. The meaning of actions gone, the muscles without nerves, the body without life. Never coming back. I smile. Something overflows from the heart, onto the ground.
It’s time to say goodbye.
At the Airports
My family used to travel a lot. We had climbed numerous mountains, seen hundreds of temples, been on countless air planes, trains, and subways. I see pictures of the two-year-old me posing in front of the famous Autumn-Admiring Pavilion, and photos of my dad piggy-backing me up a mountain. Nothing remains from the early memories, but I can’t seem to get rid of the excitement whenever I enter either airport. A journey waiting to start and a story coming to an end, a familiar scene that had always been there, that has been stitched into my soul since the beginning of my life.
At both airports, a voice calls from the bottom of the ground, getting louder as I reach the boarding gates, “home, finally home”.