Collected Writing

a world of familiar strangers

When I was five years old, I left home with a stranger. I had been living with my grandparents in Luoyang, China, since I was born, with only faint memories of my parents, who had immigrated to the United States when I was a toddler. In old photos my home is a haze of gray quadrangles, but I remember it as the yellow of ducks and the viridian corduroy of my winter coat, flashes of color gleaned from disparate photographs and transmitted memories.

As a child, I would meticulously thumb through yellowing photo albums, using visual debris as the bricks with which to construct alternative histories and futures for myself: one in which I had siblings, another in which I had never left China, others in which the setting was distinctly American, but we all spoke Chinese, and people didn’t pull their eyes upward when they looked at me.

Salman Rushdie writes that “redescribing a world is the necessary first step towards changing it. … Writers and politicians are natural rivals. Both groups try to make the world in their own images; they fight for the same territory.” (Salman Rushdie, Imaginary Homelands, p.14)

For a long time after I left, I saw China as a second home, sometimes more of a home than our wooded split-level in suburban New England, where people working at CVS would often ask me if I spoke English. Like most first-generation immigrants, my parents aspired to upward mobility for our family and situated us in mostly white neighborhoods with good public school systems, where they were socially and culturally isolated from their neighbors. My first set of toys and clothes in the United States were donated to us by a nice white family that liked to support the Chinese graduate students in their town. Yet my parents cheered for the Chinese national team during the Olympics and once took me to a Women’s World Cup match at Gillette Stadium, where I joined them in humming along to the Chinese national anthem, which I didn’t know. I had learned from the news media that shaped my protean knowledge of a politically polarized world that it was shameful and potentially anti-patriotic (therefore anti-American, therefore ungrateful) for me to claim China as a home, but the sounds, smells, sights and tastes that furnished and animated my parents’ house suggested otherwise.

The most memorable summers were the ones spent in China. I used to love the sharp mountains wrapped in mist and the willow trees sweeping the rivers, but the horrifically mundane left the strongest bodily imprint: supermalls the size of a college campus, umbrellas splashed with acid rain, villages of trash, rivers white with waste. Statistics and figures and graphs are only the flat faces of a two-degree increase in temperature, increased desertification, decreased crop yields. There are also family members dying early of lung cancer, my burning sinuses in winter, the black ash on my tissues after I sneeze. As Timothy Morton writes in The Ecological Thought, “even the time of living and dying takes a stretch of the imagination.” Cognition only grazes the surface of time, which moves between the “mesh” of people, place and beings “animal, vegetable, or mineral” like an electric current. (Timothy Morton, The Ecological Thought, p.7)

The following text is an attempt to wrangle together these strands of thinking around home, place-making and migration, and how these notions are mutating alongside our changing environmental conditions — but also how mutable notions of home might be helpful as we consider our changing world.

Familiar Strangers, Strange Familiars (for SFMOMA’s Open Space)

in kinship,