I woke up on an airplane, disoriented from the cabin pressure. My stomach rumbled, and my throat felt like it was being squeezed. I held my breath for a few seconds, hoping not to throw up the salted egg and congee I had earlier that day. I focused my attention on the white paper bag tucked inside the seat pocket in front of me. I didn’t recognize the long string of words written on it. The English vocabulary I learned in China was limited to only a few basic words. But I knew what its purpose was, my grandpa showed it to me when we first took off, the first time I thought I was going to vomit.
Everyone sitting around me looked the same, save for a handful of Americans sprinkled around the cabin. What were they doing in China? I had never seen them walking around my town. The passengers took turns going up and down the aisles, gliding in their paper slippers like zombies. Others were sleeping in their cramped seats, heads tilted to one side. I wondered how big this airplane was and how many of us it was able to hold. While I kept myself busy counting the number of rows on the flight, everyone else seemed to be calculating the number of hours until we arrived at our shared destination: New York. My grandparents told me, America is beautiful. America has more toys than any kid could ever want. America is where my mom lives.
My mother was just as foreign to me as everybody else on the plane. The last time I saw her was probably over a year ago. She became a figure who seemed to have always shown up unexpectedly at my door while I was living in China, and after a few days of taking photos together, she would leave just as quickly. The pictures were proof that she had a daughter, somewhere far away. But I didn’t feel like I had a mother. I knew that mothers were supposed to be home with their children to take care of them. Instead, the only things I remembered about her were the toys she would bring from America and her short, dark hair, usually greasy from the long plane ride. When my grandparents tried to explain that the woman who visited me once or twice a year was my mother, I didn’t understand what that meant.
This wasn’t my first time going to New York. I was born in the city before being brought back to China under my grandparent’s care. I was too young to remember my first time coming back. The second time I visited my mom, she introduced me to someone she was dating. He lived in Queens and had a funny accent. I was only four or five years old and decided there were many things to hate about him. I didn’t like that he reeked of cologne. I didn’t like that he put way too much hair gel on the few clumpy strands of hair that were left on his head. I didn’t like the mole that sat next to his nose as if waiting for the right moment to jump out at me. So I resorted to scare tactics.
“Get out of my house!” I suddenly yelled, after not speaking to him for the whole day. It was his house, not mine. He was trying to show me around, but I didn’t want to take part in any of it. Apparently, my outburst was enough reason for my mom to pack her bags and never return to his house again.
“And this is why I didn’t end up marrying him,” my mom later recalled. She’d laugh every time she told the story, but I was never sure if it was to cover up the embarrassment or if she actually chose me over him.
The visit felt different this time. Maybe because my grandparents made me choose a handful of toys to bring. The clothing they packed was abundant, enough for all seasons, not just a summer or spring. It made me believe it wasn’t just a vacation, but preparation for a longer stay. America was fine to visit, but I couldn’t imagine myself living there. It was worlds apart from Guangzhou, the place where I had spent almost six years of my childhood.
When we finally arrived at the driveway, I noticed a large beige structure with a brown shingled roof and windows facing all different directions. The other houses on the street looked identical. How do people tell them apart? I wondered. Would they sometimes accidentally go into someone else’s home, thinking it was theirs? I hoped this never happens to me.
There were a lot of trees and green fields surrounding the area. It looked like a scene from a painting. Too surreal to exist. The water stretched beyond my field of vision, and I wasn’t sure where it began or ended. I had never seen a body of water that big before. It was the Atlantic Ocean, I later found out. I caught a glimpse of it on the flight when landing, but I had never seen it so close to me. Its power drew me in, hypnotizing with the push and pull of the waves and its unpredictable crashes. The seagulls were flying around, not afraid of its vastness. They knew every inch of the water, taking only what they needed and in return, bringing balance to the ecosystem. Rows of boats were parked at a wooden dock nearby, rocking with the tide. My grandparents told me that my mom owned one too, but we couldn’t see it from where we stood. I hoped I didn’t have to go on it anytime soon because the nausea from the flight was still lingering in my body.
Years later in art class, when I am asked to recreate a memory from childhood, this landscape always comes to mind. I’d fill up the canvas with greens and blues until they all blended together and became a big blur.
With the beach only a few steps ahead, I was curious about the sand. I wanted to take a closer look and stick my toes in it for the first time. Instead, my mom rushed me inside to see my new home and meet someone whom she referred to as “your new father.”
He looked completely different from me, my mother, my whole family. I always thought family members should look the same. That’s how you’d normally figure out if they are related. He had thinning, light brown hair, not thick black hair, and hazel eyes, not dark brown ones. I clutched onto my grandfather’s hand, hoping he won’t let it go. But as if he could read your thoughts, my “new father” greeted me with a glowing smile, the kind that caused half of his face to wrinkle. His teeth were whiter and straighter than most people’s I’ve seen. I wasn’t sure why, but at that moment, I felt slightly less tense.
I noticed something different about my mom. Was it her hair? It used to be much darker and longer. Now it was barely recognizable—perfectly angled against her chin, with highlights that matched the glass of red wine sitting on the table. No, that wasn’t it. It was her demeanor that was changed. Was my mother always so American? She’s only been here for a few years, but this seemed to be the place she was meant to be all her life.
I imagined her younger self yearning for a place she’s only visited in her thoughts. The tall buildings, yellow cabs, and people walking down the street like they were larger than life. She saw a city where there are no boundaries or strict rules, only endless possibilities. My mother had a mind always on the run, searching for the next best place. Now, with her arms stretched proudly across the couch, she had found her home.
One of my earliest memories was riding my tricycle inside the apartment we had lived in, in China. The streets might have been too crowded, or it was too hot outside, so my grandparents allowed me to ride inside. We had three bedrooms in that place, two of which were connected to one another. Most of the apartments there had tiled floors, making it easy to glide around indoors. On hot summer days, I would blast music on the radio in the living room and ride for what felt like hours, looping into one bedroom and out another. My grandparents would sit on the couch, laughing as they watched me go around in circles. In those moments, nothing else in the world mattered. Each time, I pretended I was on a different journey, creating adventures in my mind. And I remember thinking, there’s no place like home.
“Keep your slippers on,” my grandmother would yell out from another room, somehow knowing I had taken them off. Even though she had lost most of her eyesight from glaucoma by then, she’d still be the first one to notice when I was doing something wrong. My slippers would always end up being hidden in the corner of the room or beneath the bed, in hopes that they wouldn’t be discovered. I never understood why everyone said it was unhealthy to walk around barefoot on the tiles. My body welcomed the cold, like dipping my toes in the pool on a hot summer day.
When my mom showed me to my new room, I noticed the floors were carpeted, but it felt just as cold, sending chills through my whole body. This trip must have been a mistake. What about the neighbor’s kid, with whom I often shared my toys? My favorite ice cream shop, where the owner sometimes gave me an extra piece of candy for free? Or the park where my grandpa took me for the Lunar Festival each year? How would I live without them?
Looking out from the balcony, I saw how close to the beach we were; I could almost see the seashells shimmering in the sun. The tour continued to a separate dining room, a pool room, down into the basement, and finally, back up to a loft area with a fish tank that covered the whole wall. There were two goldfish, some other types of fish, and coral reefs inside the tank. These must be the little ones that brought this man all the luck in his life. I could see myself spending a lot of time up there, keeping them company. Did everyone in America live like this? I thought. No wonder they look so happy on TV.
I learned from my grandmother that my new father is a dentist. “That means he makes a lot of money,” she said. I was not sure what that meant yet, so I just nodded in reply.
I felt like Dorothy desperately looking for my yellow brick road to lead me back home. I imagined the Wizard appearing in front of me, with answers to all the questions I had swirling in my head. But I looked around, only to find other yellow things—cars, signs, and a blanket—the same one they wrapped around me when I first went to live with my grandparents in China. I pressed it against my cheek. I guess this was the closest I could get to being back home.