This afternoon, as I struggled out of a damp shirt in the yoga studio changing room, a woman turned to me and enthusiastically asked, “Where are you from?”
“Where are you from?” I countered, recognizing her as new to a studio, where I’ve been practicing for four years.
“Here,” she gestured generally behind her, “What about you?”
“Here, too,” I replied mirroring her gesture.
“I don’t believe you,” she challenged.
“That happens,” I admitted, “a lot.”
17 years into my Shenzhen sojourn, I am still trying to come to terms with my decision to live outside the United States because (a) I reside in a community that treats me as a just arrived guest and (b) my snail mail address notwithstanding, at times I’m not actually sure I left my homeland, and not always because the US and China function as each other’s neoliberal doppelganger. Instead, I abruptly realize the US is all in my head.
As a misplaced second grader in rural Wisconsin, I explored the library through weekly visits, where I maxed out my card (five books at a time) and convinced the librarian that yes, I could finish Bambi in a week and still get through another Nancy Drew or three. No, I would not be playing after school with “little friends”, I would be reading, but only if I had enough books. She laughed at my determination, but permitted me to borrow my limit and even sneak another mystery into my father’s check outs.
I fidgeted through high school classes, and when not lurking in the library, I stayed in the art room, painting and building “The Tommys,” a series of convoluted trees and meandering vines molded in clay and glazed in over-saturated complementary colors that repelled sustained appraisal. I remember arranging vivid magenta petals on a neon green trunk, and writing unreadable letters in yellow ink on purple paper — catch me if you can. When I launched from the Jersey suburbs into a Vermont college, I believed that a new place and a new people, a new life would satisfy my yearning; I studied Chinese language and literature convinced that once settled elsewhere, it would be HEA 24-7.
My early life wasn’t all teenage angst because my craving for distraction had an upside; I read deeply, broadly, and well. I cried each time Charlotte died, and then Old Yeller, was seriously confused by Fiver’s visions, and imagined myself taking on IT with Meg and, yes, I still read YA literature, most recently Hunger Games. I crushed on Oscar Wilde and his baroque fables, fell in love with Adrienne Rich and TS Eliot, H.D. and WH Auden. Emily Dickinson, Jane Austin, Willa Cather, Edith Warton, Louis de Bernieres, Salman Rushdie, Graham Greene, Dashiell Hammett, E. Annie Proulx. And although I started college bored by Robert Frost’s plain simple, I have since realized that the moral conundrums which grip my heart also root me in his New England soil — Something there is that doesn’t love a wall…
And that’s point du jour. The literary sojourns that once enabled me to ignore shag carpeting and sod, encouraged me to have adventures, now remind me coming full circle doesn’t mean anything so pedestrian as showing up on a childhood front porch, not that I wouldn’t enjoy walking the lake to see how the neighborhood has changed. Instead, that brutal question shocked me into what I might have seen earlier if I interpreted my life with the same close attention I give to reading; perhaps my childhood dramas of displacement have compelled me into literal — rather than literary — exile, where I can confidently say, yes, yes, the stories are true.