People

GROW ROOTS LIKE TREES DO

Written by May Chen

   Over the two weeks of spring break, I took the plane thirteen times. In my twenty years of life, I moved thirteen times. I’ve also renewed my passport three times. It wouldn’t be unreasonable for one to assume that I either have something like a plane-ride-overdose or I’m just terrific at moving forward; i.e. extremely bad at not thinking what’s next as soon as shoes are off my feet.

           Both apply, but I think I can do better.

        Before returning to Shanghai this past June, I stood in line at the Immigration Office in New York, waiting to a get a stamp that would reflect my U.S. permanent residence status on my Chinese passport (See footnote 1). The line was unsurprisingly long, with a young girl in white stockings, her father in black bow tie, and women before me in heels. All were dressed surprisingly well for an appointment at the Immigration Office. Only minutes later did I see a board with beautiful large fonts: Oath Ceremony, and realized that I was in the wrong place.

           I turned away immediately. An Asian lady took care of my documents. She yelled at me because people who work in bureaucracy hate their jobs and I knew better than to take it personally, but couldn’t help but to do so. I left the building feeling sad and horrified, mostly lost and homeless.

          

           I fucking cried by the New York City Hall at nine in the morning. And I let myself. I wanted to call mom in China, and I let myself. I thought of the questions that people ask me all the time. Where are you from? Oh! Okay. So where do you live? Well then, where’s home? Home is where the heart is. Homeiswheretheheartis. Home is where the luggage is. I told myself before telling them. I remembered how I answered harmless questions as though I was making a statement like I had my own Declaration of Independence. I went to boarding school at five. I have lots of best friends, but this girl I meet up with once a year. It’s been like this for nine. No. I don’t miss home. That’s a waste of energy. Glad to have met you. I’ll see you sometime, somewhere. I’m sure.

           I understood that it was time to stop being on the road like it was my full time job. At least for a month. An ambitious goal.

      The lifestyle of frequent movement often appears to be adventurous, spontaneous, and sometimes glamorous. In such high frequency, many of those who grew up this way learned about the virtue of giving up on things and letting go of people at a young age. This could be a sign of maturity, independence, some may even say wisdom, but I think there’s something that hides beneath the expertise in efficient traveling, ability to quickly immerse in new environments and naturally connect with people regardless of differences. There’s a fear of vulnerability that’s deeply rooted, and I’m finally willing to confront it because I realized it’s my main source of limitation in growing and fully experiencing life.

       Years ago, a friend complained to me that I was the worst hugger in the world because I was like an unmoving stick, but recently, someone called my hug aggressive. That’s good. It means that I no longer detest affection nor think it generates impractical feelings that make the act of leaving more difficult than it needs to be.

          Zelda Fitzgerald couldn’t stand a room without an open suitcase because she disliked the feeling of permanence in any room. I don’t know what permanence is, but I’ve been closing my suitcase and putting it away.

      

        Another friend grew very sober when he said: “May, I see your unwillingness to depend on someone even just for a moment seriously, negatively affecting your romantic life in the future. You have to just put everything on the table and be emotionally open and get hurt. Don’t worry about moving on! You already know how to do that. I want to see you fucking fall in love, fall out of it, and call me and cry and curse the shit out of that person and do it again.” Yeah, okay, I’m not there yet, but I tell people I love them now, I let friends know when I need help now, I don’t wait for boys to talk to me first now. But keep pushing me. Much appreciated.

     In a meditation retreat I attended last summer, a half-Nigerian, half-Vietnamese Dharma shared that his embodiment of two cultures wasn’t the origin of his confusion like he thought it was for most of his life. He pointed to his feet and called them roots ripping above soil: Stronger the roots, taller the tree. If roots aren’t a source of insecurity to the tree, why should a person’s roots be? How could it? Once I knew that, I became present. I belonged to everywhere I stand.

          Many multinationals and cross-cultural kids bond over the fact that parents live across oceans, friends scatter across time zones, we can’t touch when we need to, won’t call unless we need to. Being present and feeling a sense of belonging isn’t as challenging as forgetting about the time of our next departure or remembering what living in the familiar means. Being home has been an available option that I refused to take for the sake of “moving forward.” I thought that after knowing that everything new would become old and familiar, I’m set.

          I was wrong. So I decided to return—to take care of my main root. Ask me what I’ve been doing?

          Surprising everyone by speaking fluent Shanghainese. Reading our classics. Being called old fashioned for carrying cash. Learning to order food, taxi, rent bikes all with one app—WeChat. Going to hidden speakeasy-style bars (See Footnote 2) on Fuxingzhong Road and biking home without a map and getting lost. Walking alone by the Bund when all the lights are off. Washing dishes at home and finally, living in a bedroom that has been empty for years.

          My feet. Flat on the wood floor of my mother’s apartment. An intimate act.

          For the first time in a while, I am home.

          Right here, right now.

A blessing.

Footnote:

  1. It takes on average 1-2 years before a successful applicant receives the physical permanent green card. For some immigrants, their final goal is to become U.S. citizens. That process can be longer. For some others like me, the goal is to stay a permanent resident. Most countries allow dual citizenships, not China. If I choose to become a U.S. citizen, I would have to give up my Chinese citizenship. (Click to return)
  2. Drinking age in China is 18 (not legally enforced). Generally, kids learn to drink with parents at a young age. Don’t call this cool. It’s culture.

 

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