It’s the longest Christmas Day ever as I stand at the immigration counter in San Francisco, en route from Shanghai to New York. A terse immigration officer informs me of a mistake on my form — after a year and a half studying in China, my country of residence is no longer the USA. I apologize as she grunts and waves me through. I feel very welcomed.
Walking through the airport to my connecting flight, I’m bombarded by a large exhibition of ancient Chinese art and sculpture in the corridor, causing a weary me to nervously do a double-take and make sure I’m in the United States… I mean, the plane did take off in Shanghai, right? I didn’t just disembark, right back where I started?
I shake it off, stopping at a store to buy See’s candies for my dad. This is unremarkable until the lady ringing me up sees Chinese renminbi in my wallet. She’s Shanghainese. We chatter, excitedly, about how incredible Shanghai is, and I see her swell with pride as I extoll the city’s many virtues. I chuckle as I walk away, all the while thinking maybe these are signs that I’m supposed to be where I just left.
Finally, I get to New York. The city wastes no time making a case for itself. Seeing my mom and my sister as soon as I exit baggage claim, I’m immediately elated — I’m surprised by how it’s almost overwhelming. Home is home: mom’s cooking, dad’s stories, sister’s jokes. Nothing trumps family.
This isn’t just a visit, I am home for two months as I write my thesis. Within a few weeks I’m walking the sidewalk as aggressively as any seasoned New Yorker does. At home I’m decidedly less mobile and bask in the glory of an Alan-shaped sweet spot on the couch. I’ve assimilated back into daily city life, into daily family life. That life isn’t something I wish to extricate myself from, but soon enough, the time is nigh. In July, I’ll graduate from my Master’s program in Shanghai and I could very well move back — but China has been good to me and I’d been planning on extending my stay. Now what?
I’m leaving New York. During the ride to the airport, we pass Citi Field, home of my beloved New York Mets. It pains me to know I haven’t been to a game since 2009, even if they’re awful. One of these days I’ll be around during baseball season again, I tell myself. It’s a little thing, but it gets me down.
Before I know it, I’m halfway into a 13-hour flight across the Pacific, San Francisco to Shanghai. Sprawled out across three empty seats, I’m ravaging a whole-wheat sandwich stacked with generous slices of my mom’s roast chicken, slathered with chutney. My side dish is a bowl of instant “Chinese noodles” (named so despite being plastered with Japanese characters), courtesy of United Airlines. It’s ready — the noodles and chemicals mixed after marinating deep in boiling water. I eat it — not because it’s particularly tasty, but because it’s food and I am ravenous. I alternate bites between the comforting sandwich from home and the soulless, mass-produced noodles, my expression changing from happy to sad with each bite, like a boy picking petals off a flower. With each turn, “She loves me! She loves me not. She loves me! She loves me not.”
I make sure my last bite of the evening is the last little bit of my sandwich (“She loves me!”). It is undoubtedly the best sandwich ever, and as the vestiges of it disappear, my taste buds despair with the knowledge that I’ll be without my mom’s sandwich for at least the next year. They say there are fates worse than death; surely, this is one of them.
I pick up my bags in Shanghai and go to the airport bus station — a much cheaper alternative favored by locals and educated expats. I set my luggage on the ground and look down the street for a bus that isn’t here yet. As I do, my eyes settle on the track jacket donned by a Chinese woman in front of me.
Plastered across the back of it, in loud lettering, are the words, “NEW YORK.”
I’ll be back soon enough.