‘The Mirror’: The traveler’s malady

Nov. 13, 2022, 10:14 p.m.

“How’s your mother doing?” asks my mom.

“She is doing alright,” says my uncle, who surprises me with his confident air as he enters the room. Wearing a navy blazer and a glistening white shirt underneath, my uncle, his hairline creeping upward, has become a CFO of a finance company in Shanghai. I still remember him as a just-graduated college student playing hide and seek with me at a New Year’s family gathering a decade ago. He seemed taller back then. 

That was the last time I had seen him. I was a kid then, visiting my mother’s hometown, An ’Kang, during the Lunar New Year. Soon after my great-grandmother’s funeral that same year, my mom moved my grandmother to the city we lived in, Xi’an, to help her “change the scenery.” After that, we rarely visited An ‘Kang. 

I was never familiar with the town. The people spoke in dialect, most dishes were pickled and salty and the winter was cold. Thus the extended family, though really nice to me (I was the youngest child of the fourth generation), only crossed my mind once a year — at the New Year’s Eve gathering. 

“She has been taking care of Wu Min,” my uncle adds. “Broke her legs last year, and my mom has been visiting her quite often.” 

I’ve heard of the “Wu Min” name before, but can’t quite remember where. 

“Who is Wu Min?” I try to inject myself into the conversation, “Is she the mother of Wu —” 

“No, you’ve never met her.” my mom says and turns to my uncle. “Do her kids know?” 

“No, Wu Min didn’t tell them.” 

“She always keeps to herself, so her kids don’t carry any responsibility,” my mom says. “That’s why her kids are so incompetent. So now what happened to Wu Wei?” 

Another familiar name without a face. I pick up a piece of gyoza and listen. 

“He now works in an international company abroad. Came back last winter for New Year.”

It dawns on me that I haven’t celebrated the Lunar New Year at home for six years. This is my first time coming back to China in a long time. Since COVID-19 began three years ago, the worldwide lockdowns had cut through the annual migration routes of many people, including mine. In the pre-COVID era, I would visit China during my winter break or during the summer. I could reconnect with China’s recent developments and newly evolved mannerisms. The catching up was manageable then. However, after six years of hiatus, a peculiar Anglophone pitch had started to bleed through my Mandarin accent. 

That bothers me a lot. 

“Don’t lose your root,” my middle-school Chinese teacher advised me after learning that I was studying abroad. “Keep it in your heart.” She pointed to the left of my chest. I did what she told me, but the root-keeping became increasingly difficult the longer I stayed in the US. The rich soil of my Chinese culture had been gradually washed away by the rain of Western education. 

Quite shamefully, my failure to fully retain my base culture seems obvious to others, too. Earlier tonight, my uncle had explained that he invited my mom and me to a Japanese restaurant because it was more “洋气,” or “international”. “I want Eric to feel at home here,” my uncle had smiled at me. “China is also my home,” I wanted to refute. It eventually came out as no more than a fake-polite smile. 

This is not new. Since getting out of quarantine, I have received many reminders of my identity as an “alien.” “Your child speaks like a foreigner,” commented one of my mom’s friends last night. “He an American boy now, huh?” Then they laughed away. Something was taken from me at that moment. Strangely enough, I couldn’t tell what it was. Many months later, as I recall now, it drew a circle excluding me from existing as a part of “us” — a natively grown Chinese. Regardless, I laughed with them, as one from the younger generation should react in a family meeting. You never disrespect the quirks of the elderly, especially the guests. 

“His sister’s license got confiscated by driving intoxicated,” says my uncle, stuffing a piece of salmon sushi in his mouth. “So she can’t take rides anymore, currently unemployed. Still in An ‘Kang.” 

Decades ago, my mom left An ‘Kang for college and met my dad in Xi’an. Eventually, they got married and gave birth to me. On New Year’s Eve, my family would drive back to An’ Kang and sit around the dinner table with the extended family. 

One always comes home during the Lunar New Year, no matter how far one has drifted. “I had to book the tickets months in advance,” my dad told me about traveling during New Year decades ago. He was working in Nan-Jing and was traveling back to Xi’an. “The train was so stuffed that one can’t even go to the bathroom.”

I lift the gyoza near my nose and sniff. The aroma of chives, scallion, and pork lure my thoughts to the dumplings I used to have during the Lunar New Year. 

The dumplings have always been my favorite. They are a perfect mix of meat, flour, and vegetables, full of flavors while keeping the original taste of the ingredients. 

“Things have changed now,” my mom once told me as I was devouring dumplings. “We rarely ate meat where I grew up. It was only served during the New Year. Food like dumplings were seen once a year. So, we would get so excited when the New Year came.”

By the time I grew up, dumplings were as commonplace as any other food. China’s economy had grown tremendously over the years, and meat had become extremely accessible. Nowadays, you can buy different kinds of dumplings in the frozen section of any local supermarket, whether it be shrimp-flavored wontons or the lamb-stuffed North-East strain. Sometimes, I would stand near the fridge for a long time, trying to decide on the flavor. 

Maybe the material world has become too accessible. “You are lucky,” my grandmother said as I left some leftovers in the bowl once. “You get to eat anything you want at any time, even have it delivered to you. This would have been unimaginable even during the New Year.” 

“But I don’t want to eat anymore,” I said. 

“Then don’t take that much the next time. They are grown by hardworking farmers; it doesn’t just fall from the sky.” 

Perhaps that’s why the New Year hasn’t been particularly exciting for me, or my friends. It’s been bleached and cheapened by the one-click material access provided by Doordash and Amazon in my day-to-day life. 

However, this is not the only reason. I used to love the New Year meals, sitting together with the extended family. I liked that I was the youngest child and got lots of red pockets from the elderly. I savored the special New Year sweets. I enjoyed sitting with my cousins and watching TV together. But now, everything has changed. I often find myself in class during the Lunar New Year, unable to celebrate the holiday while burdened with assignments and commitments. Flying back to China and celebrating with family was even more unrealistic — I couldn’t afford the time to travel half the globe. 

Even before I studied in the US, the family no longer came together after my great-grandmother’s funeral — some left the town, some left the country and some left this world. I no longer return to my mother’s hometown– because it has never been my hometown. One day, my mother showed three unfamiliar faces flashing on her phone, one of which was a baby. “Say hi to your nephew,” my mom told me. I was no longer the youngest generation. All that remained was the warmly lit space and distant laughter echoing in my memories, like sand flowing along with the wind of the present. 

The change seems to go beyond just that in my mother’s family. The national Lunar New Year Gala, which the whole nation watched when I was young, has now been long obsolete. Instead, various internet platforms compete for people’s already-short attention with signed celebrities. Gone with the Gala were the fireworks, banned by new eco-friendly policies. The food, too, seems less significant: one can get them anytime during the year in an explosion of restaurants. 

In fact, the extinction of the New Year spirit has been exacerbated in recent years by nationwide COVID restrictions on traveling. According to Xinhua.net, a Chinese news source, the transportation head count had dropped from 2.99 billion in 2019 to 1.15 billion in 2021 — in other words, nearly two-thirds of the traveling population didn’t return home for the New Year. It seems like the New Year has lost its luster beneath the rust of progress and modernization. 

In Chinese, one uses the word 物是人非 to describe the scene. It literally means “things still are, but people are not.” It is infused with the sorrowful nostalgia of travelers from the past who have retained, held on to, and are haunted by what things used to be. 

Perhaps a subtle irony is tucked in the word; that is, things change with people. The dumplings eaten in my parents’ age were nothing like the ones frozen in abundance in the groceries, or what I am holding between my chopsticks in the Japanese restaurant. And each New Year’s, though bearing the same name since the dawn of civilization, fail to resemble each other across time. 

Even at this very moment, the reunion manifests itself differently for us. I watch my uncle and my mom talk about strangers; my mom talks to my uncle about their family and watches me eat the gyoza; my uncle speaks to my mom. Though we occupied the same space at the same time, we capture three distinct memories. Each of them respectively differs from one another. How, then, can I be sure that anything changed? Certainly, many don’t sense change — after all, they changed with their environment. In some ways, certain things never change. Dumplings are still dumplings as they always had been, and the Lunar New Year is the Lunar New Year as it always will be.  

I bite into the gyoza. It tastes like the dumplings we had on New Year’s Eve. I look around. In front of me, my uncle and my mother are chatting about the story of their family; of our family; as disconnected from me as always has been.  

One day, I think, I will build my family, perhaps in another country. By then, I will have revisited this moment in yet another light. I hope that dumplings will still be served on New Year’s Eve. 

And I wonder if, to me, the dumplings will still taste the same in the future.

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