Memory is fragile, as anyone who’s experienced Alzheimer’s will tell you. But memory is also enduring. When you’re dying, life might not flash before your eyes, but you could end up recalling every goddamn ingredient in your grandmother’s secret chicken pot pie recipe. Memory is powerful. A simple taste, smell, sound can take you back to bliss or to tragedy. A long time ago, my friend claimed that there were two kinds of people in the world: those who remembered good things and those who remembered bad things. He said that he was a “positive memory” person. In his earliest memory, he was only a year old. His parents were pushing him through the law quad here at Michigan, and he remembered the sunshine against his face. The only other person I know who recalls such an early memory is a friend who was electrocuted into a coma.
I’ve had a strange relationship to memory, as do many others who’ve suffered. It’s easy to look back and think that life was always terrible. It’s easy to blame the adults in my life for wreaking havoc on my childhood. It’s easy to point the fingers at all the religious fanatics who took so much time I’ll never get back. But the truth is that this isn’t the whole picture. In the midst of it all, I had moments of happiness. Not the happiness I experienced the Sunday of my first Welcome Week, as I threw my hands in the air and sang, “The club can’t even handle me right now!” But a happiness that is whole, nurturing, lasting.
Although my father only lived in Allentown, Pennsylvania for a year, I will never forget the time I spent there. When I’m scared and I’m searching for a feeling of home, Allentown is what I’m homesick for. I miss walking out the backyard and trekking through acres of cornfields. I miss playing basketball with my dad in the driveway. I miss running outside at dusk, catching fireflies in my palms. I miss mountains that you can hike and rocky cliffs that you can look down, reminded of how small and human you are. I miss riding into the sunset and having your adrenaline spike when your guide’s mare catches the scent of a bear and nearly falls into a gorge. Then there was the drive-through movie theater where I watched Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man and Lilo & Stitch and ate Milk Duds while my baby brother slept in the trunk of our SUV. If one day I have to settle down and commit to the American suburbia lifestyle, I think I’d be okay with somewhere like Allentown.
The only other place I get homesick for is China. For Lijiang, the ancient city you can only enter by foot. For Guiling, one of the most breathtaking places in the world. For Wuhan, the city in the heart of the country that my dad has called home for a decade. For supermarkets that have multiple floors and moving ramps you can take your cart down. For department stores that are stories high and contain fashion that horrifies me. For breakfast food courts that sell noodles, dumplings, wontons, pork buns, you name it. Where you can eat for less than one US dollar, which is the daily allowance for an average Chinese. For KFCs that sell egg tarts and soy milk and porridge. For the squash court, the only in the city, that my dad’s best friend built and to which we have lifetime passes. For Huangshi, my father’s hometown, where my grandparents were born.
Of course, I must not forget Taiwan. My cousin Jacky’s flat in Kaohsiung that is both expensive and modest at the same time. Hualien, my mother’s birthplace, that is full of mountains and water. Where the same vendor has been selling shaved ice with sweet peanuts since my mom was a little girl. The hotel surrounded in fog, near the highest point of altitude on the entire island. Our room was two stories high and its decor was more Italian Renaissance than traditional Taiwanese. The most famous street in the country, packed with tourists, noodle shops, smoothie vendors, and one notorious sex store. The winding mountain roads that my former-taxi-driver uncles navigate like Nascar racers. The Greek palace that I hesitate to call a hotel, where we played poker and drank Smirnoff into the wee hours of the night. All the restaurants we visited, where every morsel of taro would end up on my plate, as my relatives knew it was my favorite.
Here’s to happy memories! What are some of your happiest memories?