Moving back to a foreign place

Impulsive Coward

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My childhood in suburban Massachusetts was defined by two cherry blossom trees. 

They were so giant that they seemed to assert to the rest of our white neighborhood that the front yard they occupied was proudly owned by Asians. Their branches would reach as high as the second floor of our home, partially concealing a small window through which I would watch the cute boy next door do tricks on his bike. 

I remembered all of this, one unexpected move and eight years later, as we drove through my old neighborhood all the way to the mailbox engraved “386.” Only to find that my cherry blossoms were now decaying stumps in the dirt. 

My childhood home looked naked and defenseless without them. 

Were our cherry blossoms as big and beautiful as I remember, or was I just small in comparison? That very well could be the case, after eight years of living in Shanghai. 

I’m not so sure why I decided to visit. I suppose I wanted to relive the picture-perfect childhood in Massachusetts I idealized long after I left. Or perhaps more accurately, I wanted to revisit who I was when I lived there.

There, I was uninvolved with many of the things I think define me now, including my culture. That’s why it was wonderful — not a lot of growing up happened in Massachusetts. It became my Neverland as I lay awake on a water bed in an empty apartment in Shanghai, staring into the dark. I thought about my cherry blossoms and how I never felt out of place back at home where people knew me and I knew myself. 

In Shanghai, I didn’t think I knew myself at all, or what being Chinese meant. 

As a kid in America, I had never really thought about my culture. I knew I was different, but I wasn’t treated like it. I never had an accent and would always declare that I liked McDonald’s more than “home food” — sorry for that, Mom.

It was strange moving to China because everyone phrased it like I was “moving back” even when I’d never been there before. Adjusting to life in Shanghai meant figuring out what being Chinese really means to me, past having cherry blossoms in my yard and rice in my lunchbox. It’s something I’m still figuring out now. 

Sometimes I wonder, if the cherry blossoms defined my life in Massachusetts, what defines my life in Shanghai?

I think about the steaming 煎饼 (basically a Chinese burrito) I pick up on my way to the metro to People’s Square. I think about the first time I learned how to swear in Chinese and about the two dogs we adopted here. Most of all, I think about my family and everything that’s happened in our current home. 

Eight Chinese New Year celebrations, 30-something birthdays, countless rounds of 三毛球 (which is like table tennis but better) and so many defining moments that we’ve been through together. Before moving to China, I didn’t care to understand where my parents had grown up — I thought of my ethnicity as something that made me seem more interesting to other people because that’s all it ever seemed to be in America. Shanghai is where I truly began to understand and get to know my parents. 

Adjusting to life here is when we truly became a family.

Parked on the gravel outside of my childhood home in Massachusetts, I still wasn’t so sure why I decided to visit — I almost regretted it. For so long, I had idealized this place. As my family and I went through instability and change in Shanghai, my memory of Massachusetts had been my constant. It wasn’t just a place where I’d lived before; I saw it as an unchanging capsule of some of my greatest childhood memories and a place I remember being so purely happy. In many ways, it became my mental happy place, and I never expected it to change, at least not as drastically as I had. 

As the years passed, I always wondered what it would be like to visit. Frankly, it was a scary thought. I wanted to revisit the place I had pined over for most of my life, but I was afraid that Massachusetts was no longer a place I could call home. I wanted to remember what my childhood was like, but I was terrified that every trace of it would be gone — scraped away, painted over and torn down. I wanted to preserve my sanctuary, but I knew I had to visit, even if just once, and now here I was. 

The cherry blossoms were no longer there to blanket the yard in soft pink petals or to conceal my secret boy-watching window. The house looked small and dull, like any other house on the street. 

The image of my childhood sanctuary had been tainted forever, just as I had feared. 

But for the first time, I could see into the house, just a little. 

A warm glow in the kitchen window. Soft music playing upstairs. Polka-dot curtains in the room that used to be mine — small traces of a family that had no idea who I was, simply existing. 

They were home.

Jessie Wu writes the Thursday column on exploring the intersection between risk and self-discovery. Contact her at [email protected]