Home, Away from Home

No. 34

(Postcard by Mengwen Cao)

Dear friends,

My name is Liuyu Ivy Chen, a writer and translator based in Atlanta. In this holiday season, many face the difficult choice of “staying back” or “going home.” For most Americans, it’s a debate about the value of health and family. For many of us Chinese storytellers abroad, the word home hits the sore spot of who we are. 

Where is our home? Is it our birthplace, nationality, current residence or future destination? Is it physical or spiritual, personal or political? Is it our immediate family or an online community (like this one)? Where do we go during holidays that are traditionally not our own? Where are we when our families gather around dinner tables and toast to another year of health and progress? 

Let me share with you holiday memories from my childhood in the mountains of central Zhejiang: a round table piled with animal parts, red apples; candles lit, brilliant carp swimming in a plastic bowl; calligraphy couplets decorating doors and windows, the sulfur smell of fireworks filling alleyways and my nostrils. I remember making wishes to the ephemeral wings in the midnight sky, always a longing for the outside world. 

(Green tea from Songyang, Lishui, Zhejiang, 2015. Photo: Liuyu Ivy Chen)

Years passed. I’m now leaning against an upholstered bed, half a world away, alone with my thoughts, writing in a language alien to my people. Have I found what I was looking for? Was I pre-determined by genes that set myself in motion, or am I required to travel far in order to find my emotional home? 

As a writer and translator grappling with split realities in two languages amidst this politicized pandemic, I take a breath and try to moor the boat of my life to the idea of home, be it literal or metaphysical.

I ask friends near and far: What does home mean to you when you straddle two languages and two worlds? Has the pandemic brought about a deeper sense of displacement? How do you cope with nostalgia as a storyteller far away from your family? I shared my views in a recently-published essay, The Distance of Home. I look forward to hearing your thoughts on the notion of home in this year of confinement and solitude.

Finally, I would like to share with you a poem, Wild Geese, by Mary Oliver. I hope you’ll be in a place of warmth during the upcoming holidays, a home where you can find strength to carry on the important work you do.  

Wild Geese
Mary Oliver

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting -
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

Best wishes,
Liuyu Ivy Chen

Close to Home 四海为家

Yangyang Cheng, a Chicago-based particle physicist and writer from Anhui, China:

If home is the place of one’s roots, China is forever my home, my upbringing and my heritage. If home is where one feels safe and an unconditional sense of belonging, I never felt that during my 19 years in China. In this year of solitude and quarantine, I’ve often wondered how my life would have turned out if the pandemic had taken place two decades earlier, when home was the most dangerous place. I do not think my very young self would have survived months of confinement — at home — without the refuge of school or the protection of others. I come to that realization in gratitude and awe, that I am indeed still alive and how much of that, like many things in life, is an accident of timing. In this world of stubborn borders and shifting climates, literal as well as metaphorical, a physical home is an elusive concept for many. I’ve accepted the prospect of myself among them. I do not want to trivialize the profound loss in such acceptance, but I prefer to view it as a form of liberation, a fulfillment of the self. Home is not born into or found. Home is a state of mind, a way of being. I am a one-woman mobile republic. The only border is my body.

Yam G-Jun, a photographer based in Kyrgyzstan and originally from Penang, Malaysia:

This pandemic has made me realize the meaning of citizenship. When COVID hit Kyrgyzstan in late March, the expat community were scrambling to find a way out of the country, fearing the virus would overwhelm the medical system here. And it did. Embassies and consulates went into overdrive to evacuate their citizens. It was interesting to see how some countries "value" their citizens, and how many people never have the luxury to leave a country. I chose to remain in Kyrgyzstan because the options of leaving were too expensive and the nearest Malasian consulate is in Uzbekistan. I wasn't disappointed that I was left behind; I understood the monumental task my government had to embark to evacuate its citizens. 

After years of living abroad, I have gotten comfortable being away from my family. Still it was difficult to learn that one of my grandparents was sick a few months ago. Cooking has been our way to cope. Ah, I miss home food: curry noodles, stir-fries, butter roasted ice black coffee, and Boba tea. Ahhh, Boba tea! My girlfriend and I try to recreate our favorite home dishes with the limited ingredients we can get our hands on. We can make familiar food ourselves, but food itself doesn’t instill a sense of belonging, and it doesn’t fully cure our homesickness. 

Connie Mei Pickart, a Shanghai-based freelance writer from Henan, China:

I was born in the northern Chinese city of Zhengzhou, but my family is originally from the South. My grandfather was sent north by the Shanghai textile factory he worked for in the 1950s — mandatory relocation was typical in the planned economy era. Since then, my family has instilled in me a sense of displacement since childhood. My mother discouraged me from speaking the local dialect, and I was quickly singled out at school. I realized years later — after I had lived abroad — that I was never grounded as a child, and that urge to escape was the result. I’ve also realized that this sense of loss is universal. Home, or the absence of it, becomes an ambiguous destination of our lifelong pilgrimage. A city, a community, or an apartment I once lived in may approximate home, but nowhere is truly home.

Xiaowen Zhu, a Berlin-based artist and author from Shanghai, China:

The consequence of my decade-long world travel is that my notion of home tends to be abstract. I keep in touch with my family in China mostly via WeChat. I also try to keep in contact with friends in the U.S. and the UK through other apps. People with diasporic experience face two sets of realities. They exist in different time zones and different identities. Most people are caught up by what is in front of them, but we deal with a multifaceted, nonlinear format of narrative that constantly challenges our notion of who we are and where we are from. In the time of COVID-19, we are more isolated than ever, and we are at a loss for words to describe this feeling of hollowness and uncertainty. For a transcultural person, this difficulty is perhaps multiplied.

This is a difficult time. There's a disheartening rise of xenophobia and even anti-immigration movements. But there are relatively good enclaves for people like us, too, such as Berlin. I can pretty much be left alone to do my own things. This freedom and peace is rare. Right now, “home” is my home office. 

Na Zhong, a New York-based writer and translator from Sichuan, China:

This morning I woke up with a craving for Laoma Chaoshou (老麻抄手). It is a Sichuan delicacy, a clear-broth soup sprinkled with chopped scallion and a generous amount of peppercorn powder. Just imagining such a hot, tingling bath for my mouth on a winter morning feels divine. I don’t know how to make this dish. It’s not offered by Chinese restaurants in New York. It is countless thwarted small desires like this that constitute for me “the loss of home.” Home is something that, like air or health, can be felt most acutely through its absence.

While technology makes it possible for me to talk to friends and family in China, I cannot help but feel that, by moving across the ocean, I have uprooted myself from the soil of Chinese culture, history and customs. That said, is there anyone who can claim himself/herself to be forever at home? In a rapidly changing, increasingly fragmented world, home as a (semi-) permanent place offering reliable comfort verges on an illusion. No one is at home for long; for an artist, even less so. Consequently, I do nothing to nurse my loss. The loss of home can be as strengthening as the possession of it.


Best work from our members.

✊🏾 Every Stitch Tells A Story
Christian Science Monitor’s video producer Jingnan Peng profiles a world-renowned quilter who confronts injustice through her art. Her work has taken a new turn as the U.S. wrestles with racism and a pandemic.

(A Dungan bride’s face is covered with a red shawl on her wedding day on October 27, 2019. Photo: Yam G-Jun)

🌏 Tales of Dungan
For Initium Media, photographer Yam G-Jun’s photo essay (paywall) peeks into the history and life of the Dungans, descendants of Hui people who migrated to Central Asia from China as early as the 1880s.

🦠 The Story of a Plague
For her November column at SupChina, Yangyang Cheng writes about Hao Wu's new documentary, 76 Days, set primarily at Wuhan hospitals during the initial COVID-19 lockdowns, and what it means to tell stories about China in the face of a false binary of protest and propaganda.

🎞️ Finding Compassion amid Suffering
For a Nation Q&A, Shen Lu talks to Hao Wu about the process of making “76 Days” and the often overly simplistic mainstream narratives about China in international media.

🔏 Home for Fugitive Writers
For some writers from China, the website Matters is their only sanctuary for writing freely in Chinese. Rest of World’s Zeyi Yang interviews the platform’s founder, Zhang Jieping, about how it learns from Hong Kong’s leaderless pro-democracy movements and facilitates conversations through decentralization technology.

✂️ Inside the Walled Garden
Yi-Ling Liu
writes in her monthly column at Rest of World about the experience of straddling the fault lines of two digital ecosystems — one in China and the other outside of China — and the messy identities in the digitally bifurcated world.

👋 Submit your published work in three ways: 1. DM us on Twitter; 2. Post it on the Slack channel #shamelessplugs; 3. Email hello@chinesestorytellers.com.

Writers: Liuyu Ivy Chen, Yangyang Chen, Yam G-Jun, Connie Mei Pickart, Xiaowen Zhu, Na Zhong; Editor: Shen Lu; Copy Editor: Isabelle Niu.

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