Remembering China

May 18, 2010
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I could not help but ogle the scenery that my childhood had revolved around from ages two through five. The portraits al fresco were so vivid, I almost had the urge to roll down the window of the Buick I was in with my family and touch them. Alas, the bitter April air in Fuzhou, China was not quite what one might call inviting so instead I perched on the burnished seat and gazed beyond the glass, not daring to blink.
The colossal mountains of multicolored stone, the dilapidated villages of shabby huts, the infinite fields of rice speckled with tan farmers armed with the latest technology they could afford, and the countless sightings of fancy automobiles, bikers, and motorcycles restrained me from nodding off. My eyes were still plastered to the breathtaking view when I suddenly realized that I hazily recognized the street we were rumbling along. Soon, there was no mistaking the narrowness of the food and grime-covered road delineated on both sides with slipshod tables sinking under the weight of food. Dogs and people crossed the street in front of the Buick as if they were the only occupants of the road. Bicycles were propped haphazardly against curbs and storefronts. I was terrified that we would drive into somebody or something, but the driver maneuvered us down the labyrinthine streets as if he had been born with a steering wheel in his hands. Before long, we pulled up to the back of a house at the end of a sandy road.

I was baffled. Why had we stopped? Weren’t we going to my grandmother’s idyllic, four-story mansion with the imposing iron gates and the beautiful courtyard framed with fruit trees?

My dad twisted around in his seat and exclaimed, “We’re here, guys!”

It is scientifically impossible for a person’s stomach to drop, but I think I may have proved science wrong in that moment. I clambered out of the car, unable to seize words. There was no way this minute house could be the same place I lived eight years ago. When had the back door become so minuscule? Eight years ago, I viewed it as an immense portal that held the powers to transport me into the magical land of good smells and loving grandparents. Still in disbelief, I helped unload the luggage from the trunk of the Buick and then hesitantly shuffled behind my mother into the house. I felt as if I was an intruder in my home. Perhaps even in my own country of origin—so much had changed since I last visited.
Inside, I greeted my petite grandmother, who was a familiar sight in her purple vest and matching maroon sandals. Then, I dropped my bags on the ground and took it all in. Silently, I strolled through the house. Fragments of my memories of this building drifted back together as I traced my fingers along the concrete walls and listened to the echoes of my footsteps. The reunited fragments reminded me of the China I had left behind when I moved to Virginia and grew accustomed to American culture.
There was the staircase with the silver railing that I had once fallen down. I caught a peek of the room I had slept in under my mosquito net tent and the ornate table onto which pictures of me and my brother were taped. Surprise filled me when I climbed onto the rooftop, which appeared to be about half the size it had been when I was five—how had my entire family and relatives been able to fit up here? A circular table around which my fourth birthday had been celebrated was still functioning as the kitchen table. The sea of concrete that I previously perceived to be the courtyard now appeared to be no more than a pond. I paced up and down the staircase leading up to the familiar iron gates that welcomed whomever happened to meander by. And finally, as I strode back into the house, I noticed something new. Before me was an old memorial honoring deceased relatives, but there was one addition since the last time I had come—photographs of my grandfather, who passed
away seven years ago. Seven years ago was also the last time I had visited China, for my grandfather’s funeral. I stood in front of his picture in a moment of respectful silence and then proceeded onward to join my family.
I lay awake that night in the same room I had slept in when I lived in the house, breathing in its comforting yet indescribable scent. I contemplated how I had forgotten my grandparents’ house that morning. Perhaps the cause for this was my young age when I last visited – six-year-olds are not known for their stellar ability to retain information. I supposed size may have also been a culprit. At six, I was on the small side for my age, but since then I have grown exponentially. What may have appeared large and intimidating back then is nothing more than another quotidian encounter today. Or maybe the loss of memory was not accidental. When I moved to America, it was almost inevitable for me, a young child eager to learn, to forget some aspects of China. I got so caught up with assimilating American entertainment, the language, the schools, and the vastly different neighborhoods and stores that I misplaced my memories of China.
“Jenny? Are you still awake? If you are, get some rest. We’re visiting our neighbors tomorrow,” my mom murmured sotto voce from the opposite side of the room.
I mumbled some incoherent words back and obediently shut my eyes. My last thought before slumbering was a promise to myself to preserve my experiences in China during this visit with photographs. I was resolute to retain my memories despite the consequences of time.

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