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The warm, Chinese air pressed down on me as I rested my hand reverently on the smooth, dark wood of the chair. It was glossy, almost shiny if not for the thin film of dust. I gently brushed some dust off, and laid my hand once more on the cold surface.
“Your grandfather’s parents once sat on this chair, you know,” my great aunt murmured, wrinkles deepening, “It’s even handmade.”
“Wow,” I replied in wonder, “That’s cool, isn’t it Tina?”
“Yeah,” my sister replied, “It’s so old, and it still looks as good as new. This whole place really hasn’t changed that much. You know, when I was little, I even slept on a bed made from bamboo in this exact same room.”
“Lucky!” I exclaimed, “I wish I could do that.”
A brief flash of envy rushed through me: why did I miss all these kind of things? Beds made from bamboo seemed like an alien concept to me, but my family had all experienced it. My mother always described how cool the bamboo would be in the sweltering Chinese summer, and even my sister, who left China at three years old, had slept on such rarities, but not me. There was no way for me to experience those unique things anymore. Even if I bought one to sleep on in my American home, it just wouldn’t be the same without the Chinese atmosphere.
I turned back to my great aunt and asked, “Can the chair still be sat on?”
She shrugged her old shoulders, saying, “I don’t really know. No one really sits there anyways because it’s so old.”
She gave one last look at it, and shuffled out in the direction of the kitchen. For a moment, my sister and I just stood there, staring at the chair, before Tina spoke up. “I’m going to go to take some pictures before we leave. Do you want to take some with me?”
I shook my head, and said, “Nah, that’s okay. I’m just going to stay here for a little bit longer.”
She nodded, and left the room.
Turning my attention back to the wooden chair, I gripped the armrest. I knew that this chair, along with the house it was in, were significant. It was a relic from the past, a window to my family’s history. It had seen so much, after all. I should—no, maybe I wanted – a connection with something so closely allied with my family. I didn’t know what I expected when I came to this old house, came back to my roots, the home of four past generations. Maybe I expected a deep seated sense of belonging, or a faint glimmer of recognition, of anything.
But no. There was nothing. The sticky, humid air that pressed down upon me uncomfortably only served to remind me not of my history, but that I wasn’t really at home here.
I wanted to feel home here in this house, in China, but little things would always break the illusion of belonging. Sometimes it came in the form of a fancy, politer phrase, which I was incapable of offering a proper response to. Other times were small slips where a saying’s meaning would be mysterious, finer points of modern culture escaped me, or the punch line of a joke or pun would only make me more confused. In an instant, all those moments of asking my parents about this faraway place and my time dedicated to learning more would be reduced to a microscopic speck before the sights, sounds, and voices. It was always then that I would feel my inadequacy: I couldn’t bargain in the market, couldn’t discuss the latest issues or news, couldn’t put in a meaningful two cents in a conversation, and most of all I couldn’t engage in word play the way I could in English.
It frustrated me. It completely and utterly frustrated me. How could I have such trouble? I hated that I didn’t know more about my culture or family. Most of all, I hated the way my mouth would clam up as if it were habit, making relatives question if I could actually speak what was supposed to be my mother language. Maybe once upon a time it had been, but it certainly wasn’t the case now.
Put in a foul mood with these thoughts, I glared at the chair. This utterly unremarkable chair probably had seen and knew more about my family’s past than me just by sitting there. I hated that I didn’t have any connection with the infuriating chair. Its silence seemed to mock me, even though that was impossible. Chairs don’t mock people. They don’t do anything. Still, a silly chair was more Chinese than I was. As immature as it was, I was envious of the regal chair sitting innocently in the room.
Suddenly, I was struck with a thought. Who cared if this chair was decades old? It couldn’t hurt to sit in it for a moment, just to get the feeling. It wouldn’t collapse too easily, would it? I looked resolutely at the chair. I was going to sit in it. No one would mind. After all, I was part of this legacy: this chair was the window into my ancestor’s lives, and I wanted to go through it. I was going to sit in the exact same spot that my great-grandparents had, even if I had no connection or right to.
Glancing around quickly, I made sure the room was empty. I hesitated for a single moment. What if I left this moment with nothing but disappointment? What if things really had changed, what if I was really too different and foreign to be accepted? There was only one way to find out. I sat down gingerly on the solid, yet fragile chair and closed my eyes.
The moment I sat down, it was as if rivulets of memory trickled into my mind, slipping through the cracks of the dam. Stolen glimpses of the past drifted through me: younger trees, a then-new house built by bare hands and sweat, children that looked a little like me swimming in a more pure ocean, a child grandfather in his school in the middle of a lockdown from an escaped tiger, a clanging cowbell ringing for faces I had only seen in faded photographs to eat dinner, the hot summer breeze caressing the fruit and flowers growing behind a familiar house, a boy with strong resemblance to my mother falling from a window, the winds of change and revolution and tearful goodbyes, and long sweeping branches forever hugging the house of days gone by… I dove in more, greedily trying to absorb it all, trying to remember as much as I could…
Then it was gone, vanished like thin wisps of smoke blown by a soft breeze of time’s up.
My eyes immediately snapped open, but I got up slowly. I brushed the wood once more before I lifted my hand clear. I didn’t touch it again.
Regret briefly flickered through me, regret that my physical home was no longer my ancestral home, and regret that I didn’t think to seize the chance to know, to learn, to understand more about what was made me me before I deviated so far from my culture and ancestors that my true home was no longer even familiar.
If only I knew more about their—no—my story.