columns, experiences
Comment 1

Return to Sender

Courtesy of kevinpoh, Flickr.

I’m sitting at my hotel desk, overlooking Hong Kong’s Botanical Gardens from the 17th floor. All the plants below — palms, bougainvillea, jasmine — remind me of Singapore, and awaken a languorous nostalgia. Same with the elderly making diligent rounds through the park, ant-size from my perch. I was there yesterday morning myself, jet-lag bleary, watching the elderly slap trees, jiggle their calves, and perform tai chi, one bossy wife correcting her husband when he moved too fast. They recall the movements of disciplined ranks of retirees who used to practice in the People’s Square across from our apartment building Shanghai, competing with ballroom dancers for space.

It feels like a mirage, particularly at this distance, reminiscent of what appears in my mind’s eye in Berlin, in drifting reveries where I return to my former locations. I’m so used to missing old homes, and being separated from them, that I’m startled when they’re actually in front of me again. Admittedly, I only lived in Hong Kong for three months in 2005, but I’ve been traveling here since I was 12, and the smell of the plants, the slow drift of stiff limbs at morning tai chi, even the persistent sound of construction work and the bamboo scaffolding surrounding the sites are a relief in their familiarity, and I let myself sink into each lost sensation like bathwater.

I am also delighted to discover that Mandarin, which I have all but forgotten in Berlin (when a Chinese friend came to visit this fall I found myself responding in German) returns to me here. A lot of me comes back to me. Considering my eight years growing up in Asia were characterized by a feeling of foreignness, it is ironic that returns to the region are characterized by a deep feeling of homecoming. It seems like something akin to Stockholm Syndrome – you adore the very presence that hurt you so much at the time.

But I think it’s also craving the place that deeply changed me, stretched me beyond my American-ness, and opened me to the pleasures of pi dan dofu – cold tofu with diced 100-year-old-eggs – sliding down my throat, and the feeling of comfort from subtropical trees whose wide canopies seem to turn the sky green.

There are still moments of alienation, particularly since the people I knew before have vanished from this place – my parents are in the States, my basketball teammates (we used to play in a tournament in Hong Kong each winter) are scattered throughout the world. So my walks through the city alternate between euphoric strolls, sipping on fresh mango juice; and haunted forays, where each crowded intersection brings a swell of unfamiliar faces, and reminds me that Asia is no longer my home, and never was my true “from.”

Still, a part of me yearns to stay, to linger longer than Monday, when my flight departs. A few nights ago, I met an American friend from my post-college Shanghai days for dinner at a Sichuanese restaurant. We sweated through the same spicy dishes we had eaten together five years earlier, when we were students at Fudan University. “So you’re in Germany now?” he asked incredulously. “How did that happen?”

For a second, I couldn’t remember, either. Berlin seemed like a dream, or like the lingering memory of a movie I’d just watched, rather than my current home, the same way that, when I’m in Berlin, despite the battered Mandarin dictionary on my bookshelf, China slips away. You can Skype with old friends, but not with your former selves.

I simply shrugged and took another piece of gong bao ji ding, relieved that my friend was looking away when a peanut inexpertly flew from my chopsticks.

1 Comment

  1. Lynn Voelbel says

    To Brit Sonnenberg: Thanks for that very poignant look into the life of a TCK. The smells and the colors are powerful. I’m sending your article to my nieces. You are a brilliant writer!


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