An “open” sign, ripped at its corners, clung to the fogged glass panes. As I pulled open the door, the blast of air conditioning — carrying the cocktail of unmistakably Chinese scents — wrapped around my parents like a long-awaited hug.
We wandered the aisles brimming with gaudy plastic packaging, through the rows of lobster chips, fruit cups and century eggs. I picked up a box of Pocky sticks, torn between sugar cravings and health-conscious guilt. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw my parents stopping and starting every so often, as if reacquainting themselves with an old friend. They smiled.
I’ve heard my parents’ stories about this place, passed down like bits of sacred lore, more times than I can even count. How 23 years ago, they’d drive to the Hong Kong Grocery Store in New Haven all the way from their rented apartment in Waterbury. How one September afternoon, they bought the biggest bag of blue crabs they ever ate. How they stuffed bags of bok choy and Chinese broccoli into their shopping carts and drooled over the liquid gold of soy sauce. How they’d always linger just a little longer to take in the smell of the aisles.
That afternoon before my move-in day, my parents returned to the same narrow storefront for the first time since 1997, proud, graying, teary-eyed, middle-aged. But I could still imagine them: two Asian immigrants making their hour-long weekly pilgrimage, weaving their way through mixing bowls and freeways in their clunker of a Toyota Corolla to the only Chinese supermarket within a 30-mile radius. Arriving at a little red-brick store with sun-bleached electric signage and fogged windows: a place of comfort, 7,000 miles away from their native country, that offered them the nostalgia of a culture they’d left behind.
At the Hong Kong Grocery Store, my parents slowly collected new English phrases along with instant ramen and mooncakes. They dug into ice-stuffed cardboard boxes for yellow croakers, searching for the taste of a distant past. In those dim-lit aisles, my parents cobbled together the flavors of a new life.
As I sit in a dorm room just 0.3 miles away from 71 Whitney Ave., I can’t help but think of their tale of immigration. I’ve realized that their stories are not just about culture shock, resilience and assimilation. They’re about the small pockets of solace, the acts of unexpected kindness that can change lives. They’re about the many hands that hammer together the foundations of a community: the warmth of an open door, the power of a home.
We need to make homes more than ever. The pandemic of the century has upended our lives and stolen away the intimacy of a simple hug. Our country teeters on the festering pile of civil unrest, lost voices and ideological balkanization. Apocalyptic disasters pummel our coasts.
Yet even in the storm, we choose how to confront our challenges. We’re architects, faced with the unlucky constraints of 6-foot distancing and online classes, but still given the opportunity to lay forth a blueprint of the Yale we wish for. And as I have begun to make my home in New Haven, I want to use the lessons my parents taught me.
It’s in the little acts where we can create a home for each other. It’s in the courtyard lawn chairs and flickering webcam screens, in the post-midnight chats, the afternoon study sessions and quirky lunchtime conversations that span everything from psychology to geopolitics. We should not be afraid of both offering our shelter and seeking out help, for the truest homes might await us in the unlikeliest of places.
Through these little actions, we can begin to practice the ideals we want for our Yale. We can fill the campus quads with the sound of our voices and the steadying breath of our convictions. We can put our preconceptions and prejudices against the test of truth, open our minds to embrace new beliefs and our arms to different backgrounds.
Let us make a home where we accept each other for all our flaws, strange talents and everything we have to offer. Let us make room for missteps, memories and second chances — even enough space for the quiet, wide-eyed couple that has driven over 20 miles to arrive here and stepped onto the scratched wooden floors.
Because sometimes all it takes to create home is just a makeshift “open” sign.
HANWEN ZHANG is a first year in Benjamin Franklin College. Contact him at email@example.com.