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Nowehere to Call Home

In Dispatches from the Wild Wild East on January 24, 2011 at 1:57 pm

<This guest post was contributed by Alisa Gilbert, who writes on the topics of bachelors degree.  She welcomes your comments at her email ID: alisagilbert599 at gmail dot com.>

Shanghai developmentI grew up next door to some of the most inviting and charming neighbors any young child could ask for. They were a couple – Henry and Mei – who had immigrated to the United States in the 1980s from the bustling city of Shanghai in China. Having become fast friends with their daughter, I was often over in their home and learned much about the culture and history of the country they had left behind decades before. 

As the years rolled on, the formerly jovial couple became more and more restless. After a trip to China to revisit where they had spent their formative years, the couple returned to America feeling rootless. Numerous expatriates are like Henry and Mei, who feel as if they have nowhere to call home. 

At a time when money was tight and the chances of finding great financial success in Shanghai were slim, Henry and Mei grew restless.They had heard rumors about the positive prospects available overseas in America, the Land of Opportunity, so they jumped to take advantage of them. Over the next decade, Henry and Mei scrounged and saved all that they could before they finally had enough to pick up their things and move to the United States with their respective parents, siblings, and cousins. A new beginning was waiting for them there, and Henry and Mei were determined to start a new, prosperous life in a new, prosperous nation.  Only Mei’s older sister remained behind in Shanghai. 

The couple settled in Texas, and despite initial language and cultural barriers, they quickly became a beloved part of the community. They easily assimilated into the American culture of their new home, with Henry buying a big Texas truck as his first vehicle and Mei learning to give up her Chinese garb for Western dresses and high heels. When their first child was born on American soil, they even gave her Barbies and Hot Wheels toys because these were the trinkets that every other American child in the neighborhood possessed. But despite adopting this American lifestyle, the couple still largely regarded their true home and heritage to be in China. 

Every time I went over to Henry and Mei’s home for play dates with their daughter, they would regale us with tales of China. We flipped through yellowed photographs, and Henry and Mei pointed out all of the things that they missed about the country, such as the sight of local storefronts where they used to go on dates, the smell of cooking oil and chicken stock in the air from the street-side food vendors, and the comfort of going over to a neighbor’s home at any time of day for a friendly chat and cup of tea. As much as they loved America, they also longed to return to Shanghai because – as Mei said once “China is still our first home.” 

In 2005, Henry and Mei finally had the chance to visit Shanghai. I was lucky enough to go with them, but when we arrived, I instantly knew that something was wrong. Instead of joyfully embracing the city like one would when returning home after a long time away,the couple was quiet. There were no excited recollections of fond memories, just a few disappointed whispers of how certain things had changed over the past two decades. The expanse of open sky that once hung over the city was now marred by towering skyscrapers. Henry used to wake up extra early to watch the sun rise when he was a child – now, the buildings blocked out some of the best views for sunrise-watching. The local storefronts where Henry and Mei regularly went to look at clothing and browse music selections were gone as well, having been replaced by gleaming, anonymous megastore chains. Even the intoxicating smell of street-side food that the couple remembered so well from their youth was missing. Now, all they smelled was vehicle exhaust from the car-choked streets that hadn’t existed before. 

Simply put, there was no longer the emotional attachment to the place that there once had been, and even when visiting her sister in the old house where she had grown up, Mei did not feel like she was home. The neighbors she used to visit for tea had all moved out. Now, there were people living next door that Henry and Mei did not know, and their eyes were unfriendly towards the strange visitors. Everything was foreign again, just like everything had been foreign to Henry and Mei when they had first arrived in America so many years before. 

Henry and Mei returned to America feeling rootless and lost, no longer knowing exactly where they belonged. Though they were loved by the community in Texas, they still felt like outsiders amongst the burger restaurants and English-language karaoke bars. For years, Henry and Mei had been fine with this, because they had always felt that even though they did not “belong” in America, they did have a home in China. But now they were torn between two countries without feeling like either was a real home.  Henry and Mei had suffered a huge identity loss. 

“My parents are too Chinese to belong in America, but they are also too American now to belong in China,” their daughter told me. “They feel like they don’t belong anywhere now, which is hard on them.” Henry and Mei had given up many parts of their Chinese culture as they assimilated into their new American lifestyle. 

Today they still hold on to many parts of their Chinese past, but those places and memories of Shanghai have since evolved into something they no longer recognize. Due to this curious mixture of two cultures by which they live their lives and the fact that the place they once called their “first home” has undergone such a dramatic change, they cannot completely identify with either one. 

Luckily, most days Henry and Mei are perfectly happy to be where they are. For example, they continue to take great pleasure in watching their American-born daughter grow up from a rambunctious toddler to a young woman now planning her wedding. Yet, once in a while, Henry and Mei long for home, though home is no longer an actual place and only a memory.

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