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Where you were born and where you die

| Thursday, September 24, 2015

For all my international student friends who cannot be with their families during Mid-Autumn Moon Festival this Sunday.

For all my friends who are experiencing cultural shock.

For all those who are struggling to blend in and to find a home and to those who are still trying to find, accept and appreciate who they are and who they are becoming.

故乡 (pronounced ku-hsiang)

NOUN

The place where you were born and where you die (translated by Jenny Ng).

“I have been away from 故乡 for two years now, and I don’t think I will ever be back again.” I explained to a freshman girl from Vietnam, who was sobbing and telling me how much she missed home and how hard it had been to blend in Notre Dame.

“April, what is 故乡? Is it Chinese? Does it mean China?”

“Not really.”

“Does it mean hometown? Family?”

“No, not exactly.”

“What is it, then?”

Oddly enough, I did not know how to put the word in English. Yet, this feeling of “I cannot translate it” is another form of 故乡.

I left China and came to America two years ago. Little did I know then that I was embarking on a great journey, a journey of finding what 故乡 meant to me. After 13 hours up in the air in the world of bliss, I landed in reality. Two hours later, I was on an airport shuttle in the middle of an endless cornfield. I was surrounded by a group of people of all colors speaking different languages (most of them I could not understand). I was very much lost, but of one thing I was sure — this place was definitely not home.

During my first year at ND, though I was busily embracing exciting new challenges, China — the place where I was born and raised — always came back to me in my sweetest dreams: I was standing in the Yellow River, with my feet deeply buried in the mud of my home country. I was riding a bike along the central line of Beijing, from Tiananmen Square to the Bird Nest, surrendering to the pulse of the city. I was eating the fish my grandma made for me, letting the taste of home cooked meals sink into my body.

Most frequently however, my dream was not about the beautiful images mentioned above. It was filled by one motion: I was walking on a path, a path to home, to my 故乡.

Then, there I was, at Beijing International Airport, back in China for Christmas break. I saw my parents waving to me from a distance. I ran toward them and gave each of them a big hug. Quite unexpectedly, my mom put her nose close to my face, sniffed hard and said, “Wow, Feng Dan (Feng Dan is my Chinese name), you smell like America!” I laughed. “Come on Mom, does it matter?” She looked at me for a while and whispered, “No.” Nevertheless, I could see from her eyes and I knew right away. It did matter. In the smell of America, something about me had already irreversibly changed, without me even knowing it. I was no longer considered full Chinese. I heard a crispy broken sound. The string between China and 故乡snapped.

I left China after two weeks, confused and afraid. Up in the air again, I experienced, for the first time in my life, the feeling of rootlessness. There I was, a tiny person, floating in the sky surrounded only by clouds, flying from one place to another, neither of them my 故乡. Suddenly, I was terrified by the journey, by the changes already taken place and yet to come, by the person I was becoming. I had a long conversation with my best friend the first night I was on campus. “You have to first find yourself to find 故乡,” she said, “and the best way to do so is to travel.”

The following Christmas break, I spent much time walking around Beijing. It was the first time that I truly closely and carefully looked at the city, a place where I had lived for 18 years. I climbed to the top of Jing Mountain and admired the Forbidden City at sunset, drawing the last ounce of heat from its long day. I tried to discover the old me in the warmth radiating from the jade and golden roof of the splendid royal palace. I sat by the foot of the thick cardinal wall surrounding the Tiananmen Square and leaned my entire body on it, thinking I would once again feel secured in its embrace, as I had many times as a child. I admired the asymmetry of the cornices of the Temple of Heaven and climbed the sacred staircases in front of it, barefoot, dreaming that I could obtain a feeling of balance as I did before. I walked around the hutongs (narrow streets in traditional neighborhoods in Beijing) and said hello to local people, trying to feel at home again. However, the buildings, the people, the colors, the smells — all of them became so strange, so distant to me. Though I still appreciated their astonishing beauty, I could only admire them from the perspective of April Feng, to whom they were simply Beijing, not 故乡. I did find myself, but only part of it.

I was up in the air again. In the dimly lighted cabin, I could not stop thinking about my experiences in Beijing, again and again, until it occurred to me that neither China nor America would ever be 故乡 for me. It is never a real concept until you leave it — the moment when you do, it changes from a place to live to a place to miss. My life had already taken me — through numerous transformations and conversions — to a place I had never been to, and when I turned back, the origin of my journey had already receded into darkness. Forward had become the only choice. I just hoped, secretly but ardently, that I could take a piece of 故乡 with me.

Chinese New Year arrived several days after I returned to campus. Some of my Chinese friends ordered some dishes from Golden Dragon and we celebrated the New Year in the basement of Farley Hall. We talked about those ingredients that one could never get in an American supermarket: Sichuan green peppercorns that can make your entire mouth numb, the magical Chinese anise that makes vegetable taste like meat, baby Ginseng that can “increase your blood and nourish your vitality.” Without these magical spices, Sweet and Sour Pork tastes like ketchup-fried pork. General Tso Chicken tastes like Chicken McNuggets soaked in ginger and vinegar water. We joked about the food and laughed very hard. Then, one of my friends said, “It is funny. These things will never taste like China, but they taste like 故乡.” That was the first time I heard the word since I came to America. I stopped laughing, cleared up all the complaints in my mind, and carefully tasted the food in my mouth. It was true. Under the thick cover of basil, chipotle peppers and allspice, and mixed with all those American flavors, there it was, 故乡. It was not a taste of China. It was not a taste of America. It was a mixture of both, like myself, and it was actually quite good. For some mysterious reasons, I felt like meeting an old friend in a new world. I will never forget that taste. It represents something to me.

Two days after the New Year dinner, I stood in front of a window in O’Shaughnessy Hall and looked at the golden campus at sunset. I accidentally caught the reflection of my eyes on the window frame and suddenly, I saw it, 故乡, more clearly than ever. I found it, finally, in my own eyes, and I understood at last. It is when you stare at yourself, long and hard, when you are no longer afraid of your changes, when you finally forgive, accept and appreciate who you are becoming, that you find 故乡. It has never left, and it never will. It is always with you, every day and everywhere.

Author’s Note: Thanks to Jenny Ng for giving me the best translation of 故乡 I have ever heard.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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  • Jenny Ng

    Beautifully written, April!
    “My life had already taken me — through numerous transformations and conversions — to a place I had never been to, and when I turned back, the origin of my journey had already receded into darkness. Forward had become the only choice.” — I love this part especially.

  • Nathan

    Reading the way you use 故乡 reminded me of a phrase sometimes used in English: home is where the heart is. It’s the idea that home isn’t necessarily the place that you live, or where you were born, but rather it’s the place that you feel most content and at peace. Not sure if it’s a perfect parallel with 故乡, but seemed at least related

    Great article 😀

  • Notre Dame 2014 grad

    This is amazing.