Photo by Hong Xu. [ID: A young Chinese father wears a long-sleeved collared shirt and tie, holding his baby daughter half-wrapped in a towel. He’s in the middle of exclaiming something. A white sand beach with condos and sailboats are in the background. The photo has the muted tones of an aged memory.]
Home is sunshine, warm humid air that feels like a hug, and salt water.
Home is sunshine, and the skin that gets to feel it – the face, midriff, naval, shoulders, elbow pits, arm pits, the forearms that want it a little bit more, tops of the feet, ankles, calves, knee pits, and as much of your legs as your shorts will allow.
I’ve always been shocked at the prospect that there are people who will go their entire lives with areas of their skin never feeling the hot touch of sun (with the exception of those who are photoallergic). I think about the handful of minutes, or sometimes seconds, of a person’s entire life that the skin of their chest, their nipples, or the skin between where their legs meet might have seen the sun. Or maybe never? And why is it these patches of skin? The depravity and denial of the sun on this skin feel like another outcome of the oppressive forces of prudence, sex, and gender.
I take every moment I can to nourish this skin, so it, too, can feel the bright heat of firelight. I’ve collected and curated the pockets of places and strategies where I know I can bare that skin, and that is largely due to the place that is northern California and its micro-cultures.
The right summertime swimming holes if you walk a hundred steps around the bend.
The clothing-optional enclaves.
If a trail is empty enough, I can squeeze my bra down to my waist like a belt. The skin of my breasts and nipples become energized and awakened. I like to think that the sun is also happy to absorb into this rare skin. I lament and apologize to this skin that this doesn’t happen more often. I hike like this until I hear voices around the corner. I can easily shimmy the bra back up in a second and we’re back to sad, depraved skin.
Home is all of the skin, in the sun.
Coming home is stepping off the plane and being enveloped in warm, humid air that feels like a hug. Air so warm and full of water that a cold shower is your only relief. And when you step out and towel off, you just start sweating again.
I never understood the aisles of lotion designated in grocery stores until I moved a few states north and finally understood what “dry skin” meant and felt like. I was 18, it was winter, and it wasn’t until the moisture was sucked out of the cold air that I ever realized what humidity even was. You mean you don’t need to scrape away at your sugar and spices because they’ve been moistened and crystallized by the air?
Coming home is stepping off the plane and being enveloped in warm arms. The soft firm embrace of her hug that lets you know you’ve landed.
Home is salt water scenting the air, seasoning the food, and stinging the eyes.
I think about there being people who will go their entire lives without seeing the ocean, or maybe even a body of water at all. (They’re by no means at fault because access to travel is its own currency of privilege.) With our bodies so full of water, what does that disconnect do to the spirit? Water holds our grief, our life. It cleanses, soothes, and nourishes. It is powerful and relentless.
I can barely hold the idea that the waves keep crashing against the shores, that the waterfall continues to cascade, and the creek continues to babble before, during, and after me. Unlike the water I pretend I can control from a faucet, this water, once set into motion, never stops. This water is a teacher with the lessons it holds. At times, I feel like a piece of debris in the ocean. There is no fighting those waves. There is no room for your desire or plan. There is a relinquishing and surrender that happens and an acceptance of wherever the waves take you. To know this feeling and to be held in this way, what is it like to not have that reference point if you never see or touch the ocean?
What will I go my whole life without experiencing?
Home is the journey from southern China to south Florida, never straying too far from that 20°N latitude. Even if the people, culture, and language are all unfamiliar and at times hostile, we could still find home in this cross section of earth. Here, the land grows mangos, lychees, longyan, and starfruit; the tropical seas provide fish, crab, and shrimp. The two seasons are wet and dry. There’s enough of the familiar to make a new home here.
My dad dreamt my name would be and so it is.
Snow, like Snow White? Like ? (Sprite’s brand name in Chinese.) Like the weather anomaly that happened here in 1977, and before that, 1899?
Each Florida Christmas would materialize snowmen made of sand adorned with sunglasses and tropical shirts, Santa would be riding a sleigh of alligators led by one with a red nose, palm trees would be strung with lights, and it’d be a disappointing 70 degrees outside. I’d long for the traditional white Christmases I saw on TV and romanticized the snow.
The year I finally understood humidity and lotion’s purpose, was also my first snowfall. I was giddy to finally experience this anticipated magic and exuberant to finally be realizing and fulfilling my namesake and birthright. Standing outside on a North Carolina lawn, I was curious about the speckles of snowflakes – their size, mass, density, frequency, the physics of snow and what it meant for snow to “stick.” For all the snowflakes I drew and cut out of paper growing up, I never imagined those crystalline structures would be so delightfully tiny. I also didn’t realize how fleeting they were. Snowballs sometimes hurt? You could also only pack a few before your hands were too numb and wet. That was fun while it lasted. The monotonous gray in the skies told me that it would never be sunny and snowing. The sooty piles of week-old snow coupled with the salty slush that had no chance of evaporating was never part of the White Winter propaganda. By my fourth snowfall, I was over it. Snow’s alright, but take me back to where it can rain while the sun is out, where the puddles would dry out by tomorrow, and lotion is irrelevant because your skin is moisturized by the air itself.
I grew up on a diet of suburbia in an immigrant household, learning how to be American.
For breakfast, I’d start with fish eyes as the cherished delicacy, the romantic crooning of Teresa Teng, the pride of Chinese propaganda music, and the endless saga of Dragonball Z.
Don’t forget to greet aunties and uncles with “Ayi hao. Shu shu hao,”
sort out everyone’s ages to determine if they’re a “jie jie/ge ge” or “mei mei/di di”
or better yet, flatter a guest by undercutting their age by having the kids
greet them as “jie jie/ge ge.” Ha ha ha ha ha…
For lunch, I’d scarf down Lunchables, the power ballads of Celine Dion, every memorized lyric and who sang it of the Spice Girls, same for Backstreet Boys, Lisa Frank stickers, the subversive queerness in Sabrina the Teenage Witch, and so much MTV.
Parsing out the embodied etiquette of each culture was switching back and forth between the sweet-saltiness of brunch or dim sum.
Elbows on the table were fine at breakfast, rude at lunch.
Speaking with your mouth full is a no-no? But my family does that at home all the time.
Why would I ask for someone to “pass the mashed potatoes” if I could just reach over and get it myself? Got it. I’ll just reach over when it’s Chinese people.
For dinner, I’d answer my parents in English when they spoke to me in Chinese, forge their signatures on my permission slips in lieu of trying to translate and explain to them what was going on at school, then I’d log onto AIM to learn the dialect of suburban Floridian tween. ROFLMAO…lol
Asian Fusion cuisine at its finest.
There is the unwanted home, the home you never elected, or the home that you don’t feel connected to, but it is home nonetheless because it’s familiar and what you were born into. Or perhaps it isn’t the whole home that’s off, but just a neglected room or corner. It’s still home, though.
Going to any Chinatown, I know the smells, the etiquette, the mannerisms, the pace – like factory settings built into me. I can navigate the storefronts as fluently as the aisles of an American grocery store – understanding this store sells the dried things, the booth next to it has the produce, followed by the butcher, then the bakery. Each one has its own scent profile, not all of them pleasant, but it smells real and unadulterated. It doesn’t appear as clean as a Safeway, but at least I know they don’t track the filth of the world into their homes by their shoes. Being able to parse out the different affects in yelling, I know that Chinese people aren’t just mad all the time.
There’s the warm greeting and friendly banter yelling,
the “I don’t understand, can you clarify” yell,
the bargaining yell,
the generous fighting for the check yelling,
the “I’m just making myself heard so you don’t have to yell back for clarification” yell.
I can’t say I embrace all of these cultural norms. I’m not nearly pushy enough to claim my spot in the bakery line, but it’s okay, I’m in no hurry. And I won’t be yelling. But it’s all familiar, so this is a home I can always visit.
I may not understand the language fully, but it doesn’t sound foreign. I’ve never been able to explain it. It’s some in-between literacy that maybe only the children of immigrants can understand. It’s certainly not comfortable – to not know what’s going on and to not have the tools to decode and start making meaning of anything. But it’s also not jarring like going to a foreign place where you don’t know the language and alarms are going off in your head that you really don’t understand anything you hear. Like everything else that is part of this Asian-American experience, it’s something in between.
not-quite-fully-being-able to communicate is familiar.
And sometimes, what isn’t home can inform what is home.
The day after the 2016 election, I sought home, somewhere to land and be held. The scrolling of Twitter feeds didn’t make me feel connected to anyone. The blank pages of my journal couldn’t help me sort out my incoherent thoughts. Music couldn’t drown out the dismay in my spirit. What could I possibly draw or paint that wasn’t just a smear of feces? My appetite didn’t crave anything for me to focus on and cook up. Waking up, I didn’t know what to do with myself.
But my body knew. As if on auto-pilot, my body took me to a dance class – the first, closest one I could find. (Thank goodness it was Nina Haft’s.) Emotions and thoughts that could only be processed body first, before they could be turned into words, conversation, analysis, and action, were released – kneading the knot from my gut, sending through my spine, squeezing through the tubes of my limbs, out through my fingertips and toes, roof of my mouth, evaporating through the crown of my head, absorbed by the floor. We all released. We found home in community and together, we exorcized our turmoil to create a slimeball of grief that became our new dance partner. Few words were exchanged, but the sharing and collective processing was tangibly potent. When dance is practiced collectively, we unlock a synergy. It was being in this embodied community that made it the balm and homecoming needed for that day.
To be cut off from this synergistic exchange of energy made the loss of dance class during the pandemic feel so much more tangible. I missed being close and bumping into sweaty bodies, seeing the nuanced choices of other dancers to inform my own, feeling inspired and driven – all of this information that could only be gleaned from sharing a space and practice with others, information communicated through the skin, eyes, muscles, and hair. I’ve taken four online dance classes during the pandemic, and cried during two of them. For this time and circumstance, it was not the home I sought. But if this wasn’t home, where else could I find it?
You can sometimes outgrow home.
Like a favorite garment you could never imagine outgrowing, it gradually makes its way out of rotation, until one day it ends up in the donate pile. How did that happen? When? What replaced it? How many of those will we go through? I hope the next person finds joy, comfort, and solace in it like I did.
What narratives, expectations, norms, structures, constraints, and styles have I outgrown? Which did I outgrow for a moment, but later return to? Which have I redefined for myself? What’s next?
That means home can also grow with you. A notion, a resting place, that gets renovated a couple times. Or maybe you move to a new spot. Then you make home again. And like the water in our bodies and bodies of water, we’re perpetually in process, for the duration of our lives, of finding, making, re-making, resting, and finding again, home.
If a lifetime is a home, they are the land upon which it is built. The cycles of growth and decay that create the soil, fertile with hopeful dreams ready to nourish any seeds planted, held together by the deep root systems of labor, love, and sacrifice.
If a lifetime is a home, he is the groundbreaking that determines where this house will go. It takes a lot of digging and it’s not pretty. The vision is hard to see. You sure this is a good idea?
If a lifetime is a home, he is the poured foundation, the floor plan, the bones, and forever part of this home.
If a lifetime is a home, they are the plumbing and electrical that will make this house livable.
If a lifetime is a home, he is the drywall. You think those walls are set, permanent fixtures of the house, but they can be removed, edited. Maybe you want more of an open floor plan.
If a lifetime is a home, they are the things that don’t quite work or belong in this house as you figure out your aesthetic and lifestyle – not quite the right paint color, the cheap piece of furniture, the hand-me-down things you never would have chosen for yourself, the kitchen appliance you’ve only used a couple of times despite swearing you would use it “all the time if you had it.”
If a lifetime is a home, she is everything that goes inside that makes it warm and memorable. She is the collection of memories that are made and fill a home, that turn into family heirlooms and legends to pass down. She is the plans, projects, and dreams of what you want to do next in the house. She is the promise of finding, making, and sharing home, forever.
If a lifetime is a home, I wonder what will become of mine.
This article appeared in the Spring 2022 issue of In Dance.