“But where are you really from?” is a question so common that by now it must be the subject of a million think pieces by people of colour in any predominantly white nation. Yet whenever it is brought up as a source of frustration, fervent nods of familiarity from myself and others who have heard it one too many times fill the room. To have our place of origin questioned seems inevitable for those of us who aren’t white or white passing. “I was born here,” has never been a satisfactory answer for those who have already embarked on the project of locating me as an immigrant, as an exotic other, and for those who use my face as an experiment in order to test their skills at distinguishing between different “kinds of Asian.”
It’s ironic that these questioners feel as if they belong here any more than I do on indigenous land that has been colonized, but questions of my origin do call attention to where I differ in my lived experience. I am not an immigrant, but mine is an immigrant family, and this has inevitably complicated my own idea of “home.” Clinging to my identity as a born and raised Torontonian has always felt hollow. I don’t entirely know what it means to be from this place, because my ideas of home have been so heavily swayed by the stories of another.
On the rare occasions when rain falls steadily overnight in Toronto, I mentally transport myself to the rainy evenings of Chengdu and awaken to its cloudy mornings. I remember the smell of breakfast on the table: youtiao and warmed, unsweetened soymilk, fresh-bought baozi, and the huge, juicy peaches I’ve never been able to find anywhere else. There are lush plants threatening to grow in through the window, and chatter fills the air from playing children and their watchful grandparents. These are memories from the last time I visited Chengdu, my mother’s home city, just after graduating high school. I consumed a stack of incomprehensible English novels as days of rain flooded the courtyard and washed out bridges in the city. These real-life experiences in Chengdu have been few and far in between for me, since I’ve only visited the city three or four times in my life, and never for longer than two months at a time.
But it’s a testament to my mother’s storytelling ability that a different memory comes to mind with the rain, one where those children are squelching on their own through the bordering farmer’s fields, stealing crops and daring each other to eat mud. They made the simple breakfast of rice porridge on the table themselves—sometimes for the whole family—and on their way out of the courtyard, they passed a neighbour’s big, mean guard rabbit. Their books were filled with classic, centuries-old Chinese poetry recited from childhood, and the bridges hadn’t been built.
This memory isn’t mine, and it never will be. But somehow I miss this city in my dreams, an image obtained through years of listening to my mother’s dinner-table performances for our immigrated family from her unusually detailed memory. She tells the same stories repeatedly, recounting the city that she left over 20 years ago for a colder place. It’s as if I’ve inherited my mother’s nostalgia for her hometown, where her parents and younger sister still live, and where the streets are lined with busy teashops and little restaurants selling cheap and delicious dan dan noodles. Sichuan cuisine is growing more and more popular here, and when I see restaurants in Toronto advertising their “authentic” food, I’m reminded of my own efforts at recreating my mother’s recipes. The same meals that garner pointed commentary from onlookers who can’t stomach the spice, or those who voice their wonderment and disgust at unfamiliar ingredients, were the comfort foods of my mother’s youth.
The first time my aunt tried this signature spicy food was during the 1976 earthquakes. As most of the building’s residents sheltered in tents to avoid the worst-case scenario, she acquired her first taste of spice while my mother watched. As a toddler, my aunt cried as she ate the hot peppers, eliciting roaring laughter from the adults as she wiped her eyes and scratched her bum like any other young child. It was unfortunate for her that the chili still lingered on her little hands, but that occurrence brought the stressed adults some much-needed relief in the face of political and natural upheaval. To the children, living in the tents offered great potential for adventure. The way my mother told it, earthquakes weren’t scary for her and her two sisters—they were new and interesting. Their worst fears consisted of the warning tone in my grandfather’s voice as he yelled each daughter’s name before landing on the troublemaker’s, and my grandmother’s steely gaze. For them, eating spicy food in mingled pain and pleasure was a rite of passage that opened the gate to enjoying the culinary offerings of the province. Years later, and half a world away from her little sister, my mother laughs when she recalls this memory.
Half a world away, she giggled as I refused the spicy dishes she placed in front of me. It’s taken nearly two decades for me to appreciate the spices that have made Chengdu cuisine world-famous. This personal inability to stomach their daily fare meant that at every return, our family and friends would tease me over the lengthy dinner parties that comprised the majority of social gatherings and family reunions. With unreserved glee, they would offer the red dishes to me and ask my mother in lilting dialect why she didn’t teach her daughter to tolerate the taste. They’d clarify the region-specific slang that rolled seamlessly off their tongues, allowing me access to a language I can’t speak and can barely understand. Here, my mother seemed right at home, offering me a tenuous connection to the people close to her heart. I couldn’t eat their food or understand their jokes. Yet their teasing was light, meant to include rather than exclude me from the culture I had inherited, yet didn’t quite belong to.
Whenever I hear the Sichuan dialect spoken in the streets of Toronto, I recall those moments of community and belonging in a place I’ve known through my mother’s memories. A melancholic reminder accompanies the familiarity: much of the culture will remain out of reach. I can only recognize that they’re speaking in dialect without the capacity to follow the meaning in their words. Like the fragmented phone conversations with my grandparents, one of whom does not speak any Mandarin, I’m always reduced to having the most basic conversations that are often muddled in miscommunication. Similarly skewed are my own impressions of my mother’s Chengdu, communicated as they are to me in a mother tongue I abandoned for so long. The rose-tinted lens through which I view her hometown functions as a filter comprised of years in distances travelled and years of language lost, generating an imaginary home I manage to miss without ever having lived in it.
I’m not the only one missing an imaginary home. Though my sense of loss is only a distorted echo of my mother’s feelings, she too has been cut off from the Chengdu she knew. You’d think that all it would take to restore her memories would be catching the 13-hour flight through as many time zones. However, for my mother, rekindling the nostalgic memories of childhood is not as simple as going home. It’s not just that the trees have grown taller and that the people have grown older—it isn’t even because my grandparents have moved house; in fact, they’ve stayed in the same apartment for decades now.
Rather, my mother’s Chengdu has been transformed into a different beast altogether. The farmer’s fields are long gone, replaced by a supermarket that has already fallen into disuse, now slated for destruction. The street in front of their apartment courtyard is being gutted to become a subway. Life, will become much easier for my aging grandparents. But as the cab took us down a newly built ring road and I listened to my mother query the driver in dialect about the construction, I wondered if homecoming could ever be within her reach again.
Change is a fact of life and, seemingly, of essence to modern China and its newly forming identity. For those of us who have inherited fragmented stories about a place long lost, I fear the ways memory and language can fail us in our recollections of what we hold most dear. The landmarks of my mother’s childhood are already lost to the burgeoning city growth. She should grieve it. That I, too, mourn the loss is unexpected—it was never my place to lose. But when those of us with diasporic identities are constantly reminded through familial stories of where our roots are, is it so odd that we yearn for a home that was never ours?
My mother flew back to Chengdu this month, and I’m certain she’s already witnessed even more changes to the place she once called home. The truth is we can never return to the settings of our memories, but it’s still unexpected to find a city with a new face after only a few years’ absence. As the sun sets in Toronto and rises in Chengdu, and as she makes breakfast for my grandparents—who still cycle through her sister’s names before reaching hers—I wonder if she can still recover that sense of belonging that eludes her here in Canada.
I continue to dream of a home I’ve never belonged to, of sights and sounds conjured up by my mother’s limited accounts, filtered through my fumbling grasp of her native tongue. Where am I from, really? I’m not sure the question can ever have a straightforward answer. In one sense, I’m from Toronto, Canada. It’s true; I have memories I could reflect on from my upbringing, and they’re irreplaceable and crucial to my self-identity. But I can’t deny that a part of my wistful heart is drawn elsewhere, to a childhood that isn’t mine, located within a rainy city with food I can barely eat and a language I can barely speak. When it rains here, I’ll still remember the lush vegetation and the smell of spicy peppers wafting out the windows and across the farmer’s fields. As a Chinese proverb states, “Falling leaves return to their roots.”
Perhaps my return is long overdue.