A Second Home

By: Arielle Li

My most vivid recollections of China are filled with fond memories and blissful experiences. The smell of smoke and frying foods wafts through the air, and at night the streets are a disorienting mess of flashing billboards and street lights. Beggars rattle their cups on nearly every corner, hoping for a spare quarter or two, and cartoony murals cover the walls that line the streets.

I remember eating at the most delicious noodle place late at night; my small body would manage to consume the entire serving. The noodles and meat slices were generously piled in the bowl, and the hot beef broth would be so savory that I would somehow manage to eat more.

I remember having dinner with my mom’s side of the family in front of the TV, watching 大头儿子和小头爸爸 (a cartoon show). We would laugh together over a shared understanding of animated characters performing simple tasks. I would eat straight from the bowl of 番茄炒鸡蛋 – my favorite dish – although it was intended for my family to share.

I remember my aunts buying me gold earrings and my grandfather joyfully gifting his grandchildren red packets of money. I would stare in awe at the sparkling clover earrings, and my mother would quickly confiscate the hongbao to “safekeep.” Years later, when we asked for the money back, it was long gone.

I remember looking into the faces of my relatives and seeing the smile in their eyes despite our lack of a relationship. Although we were essentially foreigners, we had a blood bond, and that was all that mattered. I loved feeling my culture encase me; it felt like my life in an alternate dimension. Being with my relatives was all I cared about, rather than sightseeing at magnificent sites.

I would play Candy Crush on my aunt’s phone and frolic with my cousins. We would buy trinkets from malls and play games at the arcade. We would go tubing and explore the city together. Despite being unable to communicate about more profound matters (my Chinese is not fluent), we loved each other.

Even though I spent only a month in China biennially, it felt like a second home. Near the end of our visit, our giant family tree would gather to eat at a fancy Chinese restaurant. The adults would order course after course, and waiters would set aromatic dishes on the Lazy Susan turntable. Those gatherings were the peak of my vacations, and my parents would be the happiest they would be for the rest of the year. I would be stuffed by the time the third dish arrived, and chopsticks would stretch out and refill my plate before I could blink. A red glow would light up on the adults’ faces that appeared after one too many drinks of alcohol. The joyful chatter in Shanghainese was endless, filling my ears with dopamine and a heavy sense of nostalgia when I went home.

On the flight back, the image of my cousins’ smiling faces would fade to a blur. The taste of our last meal together would be a wisp of air on my tongue. The sound of honking cars were replaced by the whir of the plane’s air conditioner. If I imagined it, I could almost taste the ashy scent of cigarettes.

Certain things would teleport me back to China for a split second – a whiff of smoke, my parents discussing in Shanghainese, hongbao gifted during Chinese New Year. These occurrences would happen less and less frequently, and eventually, the thought of China would gather dust in the back of my mind. But every two years, when I return to China, I experience the joy of China once more. And every two years, I hold these emotions dear until memories fade and the cycle repeats.