When I called my grandmother’s house on Friday night, the falling snow connected us from thousands of miles apart. As the howling winds slammed against my windows, my father pointed the webcam towards a snow-draped osmanthus bush beyond the balcony. Everything was covered in white.
In my hometown in southern China, such heavy snowfall around Chinese New Year’s time is rare, and a cause for celebration. As in past years, my grandmother was busy making last-minute preparations for the festivities that were to come. Seeing her scurry about in her apron brought back memories of years past — I could almost smell the saliva-inducing aroma of steaming dishes on the table, the subtle fragrance of incense yet to be lit, the pungent smoke of firecrackers that filled the night air.
The memories are clearer than ever, but it’s been a long time since I last celebrated Chinese New Year with my family. For the past three years, this holiday has meant little more than a phone call back home, and perhaps a meal with friends at Great Wall. Strangely, nothing seems amiss. Life goes on as normal, this year’s blizzard notwithstanding.
My family would spend New Year’s Eve at my great uncle’s, my father told me. He did not fail to mention that my great uncle was a master chef, hinting at what was sure to be an extraordinary feast. He took the webcam to the kitchen, and gave me a preview of what was to come — steamed fish, braised pork shoulder, soy sauce duck and my personal favorite, chicken preserved in prawn sauce. I nodded at each dish that came upon on my screen, recognizing them not as food, but as pixelated pictures that might have come up with any Google search.
“Do you miss home?” my grandmother asked. For a second, I hesitated. I was sitting on my bed in my pajama pants, fresh out of the shower. My jacket, jeans and shoes lay scattered on the ground, still wet from the snow. Next door, my suitemates were waiting for me to join them in a game of beer pong. It was Friday night.
I wanted to say that I missed home, that I wanted to fly back and devour everything in my grandmother’s kitchen, but right now, my life is here in Davenport, here at Yale. Of course I wanted to spend time with my family, but the commotion, the feasts and the firecrackers seemed to exist in another place, at another time.
From an early age I had gotten used to moving, first to one place and then to another. I’ve lived in three different Chinese cities, and I took my first intercontinental flight at the age of seven. I’ve spent the majority of my life holding a U.S. visa, coming to America first for high school and then college. I had always prided myself on my ability to adapt, to quickly blend into my surroundings — like a chameleon ready to change color.
Yet as I came to know more and more places as “home,” home itself became an increasingly blurry concept, as if caught in a thickening fog. According to my passport, home is Pudong, Shanghai. According to tradition, home is in my grandmother’s kitchen; it is by the graves of my ancestors. According to my heart, however, home is often nowhere to be found. On Chinese New Year’s Eve, the day of homecoming, I was most struck by how distant I felt from my roots, not in terms of miles, but in terms of how little I seemed to need it.
When I told my grandmother that I didn’t miss home, she, for the most part, seemed unbothered. She chuckled at my response, apparently happy that I was enjoying my life here at Yale. What would she say if I told her that I was totally fine with not celebrating Chinese New Year, that I liked being at school more than being at home?
I have no idea. But as I reached towards the glass of fresh tea sitting on my bedpost, something suddenly dawned on me. It was Longjing tea, a hometown specialty and my father’s favorite brew. As I took the warm glass into my hands, the emerald green leaves rose and sank. The rising steam carried a familiar aroma to my nostrils.
A piece of home was here with me all along.
Xiuyi Zheng is a junior in Davenport College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .